Danger a Part of Hydro Racing [1997]

Bill Doner paced the dock with a tight grip on an unlit cigar and nervously counted the days until November when he can stop being commissioner of the Unlimited Hydroplane Racing Association.

In four years running what has been called the world's most dangerous sport, Doner thankfully has not witnessed a death on the race course.

But he has seen plenty of drivers tempt that fate, like Dave Villwock's blowover with the Miss Budweiser in the Columbia Cup on Sunday.

"I've been really lucky these last four years. Really lucky. And I say my prayers now as I continue on," Doner said moments after Villwock was taken to the hospital with a nearly severed hand, broken forearm and concussion.

The speed of boats that run between 150 and 200 miles per hour, coupled with the unstable conditions of some courses, puts drivers in peril at all times, Doner said. The boats are aerodynamically designed to fly atop the water with sleek hull designs and engines powered by Chinook helicopter turbines.

"They're going so fast into these corners, there's just not any room for error," he said.

Doner leaves the sport amid much bickering about new restrictions designed to control speeds, fuel and wear on engines as well as drivers. But even with the regulations, the boats still push the limits of safety every time they race.

"I'm always worried about something happening out here," Doner said.

Ironically, the last driver to lose his life in an unlimited hydroplane was Dean Chenoweth, in 1982, on the same race course where Villwock flipped.

But the list of deaths includes some of the greatest drivers of all time: Bill Muncey, Ron Musson, Bill Brow, Rex Manchester, Warner Gardner. All told, 14 drivers have died racing unlimited hydros since 1951, three of them in Seattle (Jerry Bangs, in 1977, being the latest).

On June 19,1966, three drivers were killed in one race on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. Two of them, Musson and Manchester, were from Seattle.

The sport also has its share of more recent mishaps, though not fatal, such as the 1988 accident that severely damaged Jim Kropfeld's neck in Miami, and the 1987 crash that left Steve Reynolds with brain damage.

In 1982 at Seafair, Pay 'n Pak driver John Walters was hospitalized for three months and had 11 operations after a three-boat, chain-reaction collision on Lake Washington.

Because of so many incidents, enclosed canopies were required in 1989 to protect the driver from the impact of slamming into the water upside down. A canopy is supposed to be impenetrable to a gunshot from point-blank range and withstand the pounding of a sledgehammer. But they have come off in several recent accidents.

Villwock's accident proves that a canopy is not total protection, said former Budweiser driver Chip Hanauer, who quit driving last year after his second blowover in the Budweiser left him with a concussion and questions about the safety of the hull.

Hanauer believes the long list of deaths in the sport finally "brought us to the point where we can have accidents and walk away from them."

But Hanauer notes that Villwock's helmet and oxygen were knocked off by the impact when the canopy broke loose.

"That was never supposed to happen," he said.

Human error often is a cause of accidents. Hanauer said he broke his back when the Budweiser escape hatch came off in a race. It was the second time the hatch malfunctioned.

"My feeling as a driver is that I accept the fact that things break," Hanauer said. "But I can't accept it when it happens again."

The seven-time driving champion contends that the Budweiser team has yet to figure out the same problem he had with the boat. When he quit last year, Hanauer questioned the design of the hull, which he said lifts off without warning under certain racing conditions and does not come back down like other boats.

"Boats coming out of that team keep going upside down at a higher rate" than any other boats on the circuit, Hanauer said. "We thought it was a fluke. The team tried some things to make it better, but they don't work."

In an interview prior to the Columbia Cup race, Villwock addressed the safety concerns in his sport and with the Budweiser's two boats.

"The level of safety is as good as it's going to be," Villwock said. "We work real hard on our safety canopy . . . We took the safety capsule and tried to take it up another notch. It has a composite roll cage on top of a stainless steel roll cage. And it has another rear-entry compartment."

That rear-entry compartment might have saved Villwock's life, as rescue crews had to bring him unconscious out of the bottom of the boat.

"Our guys really did a great job of getting him out," Doner said.

For drivers, Villwock's accident is nothing new, and no one voiced any new concerns about safety after the race on Sunday. Drivers who fear for their safety should not be on the race course, says Mark Tate, driver of the Close Call, who had the best view of the Budweiser lifting off and flying backwards.

"I don't think (a driver who fears for his safety) should be on the race course because he's a menace to himself and his fellow racers," Tate said.

Tate had a similar flip at Seafair in 1993 when the Winston Eagle went airborne on Lake Washington and crashed upside down, obliterating his canopy. The canopy, however, absorbed most of the impact and Tate suffered only two bruised shoulders and a broken finger.

Tate believes that because Villwock was driving the newest Budweiser, the T-5, and had driven it in only one other race this year, he might not have been familiar enough with how the boat would react in race conditions on the Columbia.

"I don't think Dave had as much seat time in its as the other boat, and the water conditions were extremely rough," Tate said. "I'm not saying it was Dave's fault, or the boat's fault, or the water's fault. It's a racing incident.

"The same thing nearly happened to me, but I expected my boat to be a little out of the corners."

Hanauer believes Villwock might have made a critical mistake by driving the T-5 for the Columbia Cup, rather than the T-3, which is seen as a boat that hanldes better in rough water.

"This boat was basically Dave's boat," Hanauer said, noting he had never driven it himself. "This was what he was bringing with him" when Villwock left the PICO American Dream to become the Budweiser team manager and driver this year.

Villwock had no trouble in qualifying the boat, because the Columbia River course is usually not very rough during the two days of qualifying before the event, Hanauer said. But on racing day, it becomes a treacherous, rough-water course because there are more hydroplanes on the course at one time.

"I thought that would be the one race where he would want his rough-water boat," he said.

Hanauer remains convinced enough of the safety troubles to stay retired and turn down an offer from Budweiser owner Bernie Little to drive again while Villwock heals from his injuries. He says he won't come back until the entire sport is revamped.

"I think the sport needs to be stripped down to a bare chassis and start completely over again," Hanauer said. "To me, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

(Reprinted from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Wednesday, July 30, 1997)