Risky Business

Risky Business [1997]

By Tom Fuller and Elliott Almond

It sits under Ron Brown's desk, gathering dust not far from a full-length drawing of the latest Miss Budweiser hydroplane. Such a simple device.

A gyroscope.

Had Brown been allowed to use it, the boat in the drawing might not have blown over and nearly been destroyed a week ago on the Columbia River at the Tri-Cities.

If Brown's system had been in place, driver Dave Villwock might not be in Seattle's Harborview Medical Center wondering whether he can race next season with only three fingers on his right hand.

Twenty-four blowovers have occurred since the death of Dean Chenoweth in 1982, the last hydroplane-related fatality. Most drivers escape today's accidents with minor scrapes and bruises. Only a few such as Villwock have suffered significant injury.

But hydroplane racing could be safer, according to some involved in the sport.

"You could build a boat that never flipped," said Brown, the hydroplane crew chief with the second-most victories.

Buried somewhere in Budweiser's Tukwila boat shop are plans for a computerized system that could eliminate the most dangerous accident in hydroplane racing: the blowover.

The principle is simple: Gyroscopes would sense increasing lift forces on the front of boats that result in blowovers. They would relay the information to on-board computers, which would activiate counter-measures -- move the canard and rear wing, and possibly spoilers, or flaps, on the sponsons -- necessary to keep the boat upright.

Brown introduced such a system on a Miss Budweiser hull in 1990. But it was rejected by the Unlimited Hydroplane Racing Association's board of directors at the request of crew chiefs who complained it was too expensive, estimated between $15,000 and $50,000. [ED. NOTE--Current UHRA director of competition, safety and technology Ed Nelson, in addition to a good many other differences he had with portions of this article, notes that the above figures are missing an extra zero.]

Brown's system has not generated much interest since. Because no one has died in 15 years, hydroplane officials are trying to reduce blowover injuries instead of eliminating them.

Villwock's crash has prompted discussion about the stability of the rear portion of cockpits. Little is said about stopping the flips altogether.

At a time when attracting sponsors is difficult for a niche sport, officials are trying to reduce costs. Some say the UHRA's effort to keep the sport affordable by banning possibly beneficial technology has increased the risks.

"I think it's possible that it can work, but . . . it would give the 'have' teams that much more of an advantage over the 'have-nots,'" said Jim Lucero, former Winston Eagle and Smokin' Joe's crew chief whose current team is Close Call. "There are only two, maybe three, that could afford it."

Jim Harvey is one of many owners who don't have major year-round sponsors. Budweiser's annual budget of about $2.5 million is 10 times Harvey's $250,000, which is barely enough to pay for the minimum requirements -- two $50,000 turbine engines, six $10,000 propellers and two $30,000 gearboxes.

Some owners operate with even less. As a result, they're not eager to spend thousands more on a system that might not eliminate blowovers.

"If you could guarantee that you can stop the flip, then I would say what are we waiting for?" Harvey said. "But I don't think there is any system that could react to something that hit as hard as Villwock did."

Brown does. He built it. And he isn't the only one who has tried selling it to the sport. Ron Jones Sr., one of the leading builders of hydroplanes since 1950, suggested in the mid-1980s that computer controls were necessary to keep the boats stable. He watched Bill Muncey, the sport's career victory leader (62), die in a 1981 crash. He then watched Chenoweth, who holds the record for most consecutive heat victories (20), die in 1982.

"If the best driver in the world is unable to maintain control of the boat, what chance do other drivers have if they're still in the learning stages?" asked Jones, builder of more than 25 unlimited hydroplanes.

"What that told us is . . . we need active (automated) controls."

Jones, however, isn't sure the system would work. It hasn't been tested in a race. It takes some control away from drivers and entrusts it to computers, which aren't foolproof. Also, some believe that sudden flips, the result of running over large waves, couldn't be stopped regardless of how fast computers react.

But active controls are a staple of F-16 fighter jets, which Brown used as the model when adapting the technology for hydroplanes.

Every time a hydroplane hits a wave its nose is pushed up, allowing more wind to push against its bottom. If the nose reaches a certain angle above the water, the wind will blow the boat over. Active controls are designed to push the nose of the hydroplane down before it reaches the angle where a blowover is inevitable.

The same principles are used in stock-car racing to help prevent lift when the cars skid sideways.

"We knew we had to develop something that would not hinder speed and would work only when needed," said Kevin Triplett, NASCAR director of operations.

In Winston Cup and Grand National Series race cards, spoilers (pieces of metal that meet the contour of the trunk) are activated by wind pressure. The higher the flap, the more the air pushes the trunk of the car toward the ground.

Auto racing also introduced a roof flap to help prevent cards from going airborne during a spin. The roof flap disrupts the airflow over the car enough to keep it grounded.

The $1,500 flaps have made the sport safer, NASCAR officials said.

"But with hydroplane racing, you're dealing with a different animal," Triplett said. "I sympathize with any group that has to try to come up with a solution."

Tom Watson, vice president of special programs for American Specialty Insurance Services of Roanoke, Ind., one of the major carriers for motor racing, including unlimited hydroplanes, doubts one easily can be found.

"A device could be designed to eliminate those boats from flying, but by nature, that's what they design them to do," he said. "Hydroplanes are running on a piece of water that moves, has holes in it, has waves."

Watson said unlimited hydroplane racing is no more risky to insure than other motor sports. Considering the last hydroplane fatality was 15 years ago, the sport's record is better than most when it comes to accidental deaths.

The same weekend Villwock hurtled out of control on the Columbia River, drag racer Carrie Neal of Poway, Calif., died when her hot rod crashed during a qualifying run in Sonoma, Calif. A few hours later on the same strip, veteran dragster Eddie Hill walked away from a fiery crash, and he is competing this weekend at Seattle International Raceway.

Even as rules to reduce speeds have been introduced, hydroplane incidents have increased. There have been eight blowovers since the start of the 1994 season, the first time fuel restrictions were placed on hydroplane engines. There were five the previous four seasons.

As officials placed restrictions on allowable RPMs and fuel consumption, crews have searched for other ways to generate horsepower. They have entered wind tunnels to make their boats more aerodynamic. They have tried using lighter materials and have made parts of their boats thinner to reduce drag.

Also, drivers by nature always want to go a little faster even as officials consider tougher restrictions for next season.

Villwock was fond of saying, "We try to find 1 percent in every area."

That pursuit, according to Brown, has pushed boats closer to "the ragged edge."

"As you put more and more restrictions, we have to turn to another area to get more horsepower and get the boat out of the water more," Brown said. "One way you have to do that is to make it run a little bit looser. Consequently, you get closer to that risk factor."

The Budweiser team has experienced more blowovers -- seven -- than any other team since 1987. But it also has won the most championships -- eight since 1987. Speed and safety problems typically are linked.

Villwock's accident focused attention on the canopy that protects drivers. The bulletproof F-16 capsules, used since 1987, have been credited with saving lives in horrifying blowovers.

But some say the canopy attachment needs to be modified so it is as strong in the back as in the front. That became clear after Villwock's crash, said David Williams of the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum of Seattle.

"There's talk already that we really need to streamline the canopy's backside, too," he said. "We need to take a close look at what the next evolution of the canopy design is. It's not that they were poorly designed. They were designed for a certain speed and impact, and we seem to be reaching the limits."

And, in some cases, going beyond.

(Reprinted from the Seattle Times, Sunday, August 3, 1997)

[Originally reprinted in the UHRA ThunderLetter Vol. 3 no. 280, August 8, 1997]