1985 Miller High Life Trophy

Hydroplane Racer May Be More Pilot Than Driver

Scott Pierce, according to the fact sheet, is a driver. Not a cab driver or a truck driver or a race car driver or even a cattle driver.

Instead, what he drives is something numbered U-8 and called Miss Executone Telephones. It sounds like it should be a cross between a submarine and a beauty contest, whatever that kind of mixture would produce.

Pierce’s craft may not be a submarine, but it is a boat. However, it is a boat like a penguin is a bird. The penguin, of course, is a bird that can swim but not fly. Pierce drives an unlimited hydroplane, a boat which flies an awful lot more comfortably than it swims.

Thus, Pierce might actually be more pilot than driver.

Indeed, to hear Pierce tell it, an unlimited hydroplane's attitude toward water is about the same as a 6-year-old boy’s attitude toward a bath. Don’t get in too often or too deep,

“About six square inches of the boat are in the water,” he explained, “and maybe half the propeller, The less friction, the faster you go. The more you hit the water, the more it slows you down."

It would appear, therefore, that unlimited hydroplanes are much more concerned with aerodynamics than hydrodynamics, They might more accurately be called aeroplanes, except the Wright Brothers have the copyright on that name.

And the fact of the matter is that the hydroplane driver has to tiptoe along the narrowest of edges between the hydrodynamic and the aerodynamic.

“It’s like you’re in a power take-off,” Pierce said, “except you don’t want to take off.”

The unlimited hydroplane driver doesn’t want to come down and he doesn’t want to take off. He wants to roar along at 150 miles per hour, veritably skimming the tips of the waves.

For a parallel, imagine taking an airplane to the Indianapolis Speedway and running 150 m.p.h. laps with only the rear wheels on the ground.

Imagine that, but understand that it is different.

After all, the surface remains constant at Indianapolis and the turns are banked to accommodate the high speeds.

Contrast that with Mission Bay, where Pierce and his cohorts will be competing in the Miller High Life Thunderboat Regatta this weekend. Even if the surface is reasonably smooth at the start, it won’t stay that way. These boats would turn Golden Pond into a whirlpool,

Standing on the shores of Mission Bay one morning this week, Pierce noted that a stiff wind was blowing but the water itself was still rather calm.

“These race tracks all have their peculiarities,” he said, “but this one has the potential to be very, very fast. The turns are wide and the waves should hit these beaches and dissipate.”

Not that unlimited hydroplane racing can ever be considered a “safe” sport. It can be, and has, been made “safer” — but safe is beyond the realm of human inventiveness.

In truth, the unlimited hydroplane driver undoubtedly has the most dangerous task in the sporting world. Frankly, I would rather hunt tigers barefooted in a snake-infested jungle than drive one of these boats at 150 m.p.h. (or faster).

“Driving one of these boats is more mental than physical,” Pierce was saying. "I'd say it’s 90% mental and 10% physical.”

One of Miss Executone’s crew members, Pete Carey, overheard and could not resist a jibe.

“Yeah, Scott,” Carey said. “The 10% physical is us forcing you to get into the boat.”

Pierce laughed. He does not really have to be forced to drive, because boats have been a part of his life for most of his 30 years. His father, the late Laird Pierce, was a two-time national five-liter champion and later the owner of unlimiteds.

“I’ve been around these boats since I was a kid,” Pierce said. “I started out washing the boats or handing tools to the crew and basically just getting in the way.”

Ultimately, Pierce worked his way through boat class after boat class in much the same way baseball players work their way through the lower minors upward to the majors. When he made boat racing’s major leagues in 1981, he was the rookie of the year.

Of course, no one is ever really a rookie in this sport, A driver has to be a veteran before he can become a rookie.

“Experience is our only common denominator,” he said. “You can get Into trouble so fast that you’ve got to almost drive in a subconscious mode. You don’t have time to think anything out. You've got to just do it.”

Understand that these boats travel the length of a football field in one second. The driver has to do it and do it right or hope the next second finds him in condition to swim, because he will be in the water.

A look at the point standings would seem to indicate that he and his crew have been doing things right. Miss Executone is second to Chip Hanauer and the Miller American going into this weekend’s racing.

“This is the last hurrah of the year,” Pierce said, “and we’ve got a shot at winning. We’ve brought everything we own.”

Six engines were lined up next to Miss Executone, and at least three of them will be used over the weekend. It takes the crew all of 18 minutes to change from one engine to another, or about the same length of time it takes most folks to shave, shower and dress for work.

Obviously, everything about racing unlimited hydroplanes is done at accelerated speeds.

However, Scott Pierce is far from insane about speed.

“My philosophy,” he said, “is to win as slow as possible.”

Which is also to say, as fast as necessary. In this sport, that is fast.

(Reprinted from the Los Angeles Times, September 14, 1985)