1997 Molson Dry Thunderfest

Three Days of Thunder Coming

By Steve Ewen

John Watkins can make a boat float over the water at what seems a million miles an hour. He can also make a conversation come to a complete stop.

The 44-year-old unlimited hydroplane driver from Seattle, who will be piloting the Miss Molson Dry this weekend at the Molson Dry Thunderfest in Kelowna, politely tried to put things to a halt when the subject of his crashes came up.

It's that way for any type of racer, as the hurts hit close to home, again and again and again.

"Was it a bad crash? Yah. Did I break stuff? Yah, that's why it was a bad crash," said Watkins, with a look that pleaded to change the subject. "How bad was it? Well, I'm still here."

That's all he would say. That's all he had to.

Crashes are a part of the sport, and unfortunately for unlimited hydroplane racing, the only part that often makes the nightly news. Few in B.C. can recall who won last weekend's event in Kennewick, Wash., but many probably remember getting a glimpse on the TV of the famed Miss Budweiser coming apart in an accident that sent Dave Villwock to hospital.

Villwock is said to be recovering, but last year's first-place finisher in Kelowna obviously won't get a chance to defend his crown this time around.

"I don't use those terms, because they don't work," Watkins said when asked if things get scary when bolting across the water at as much as 330 kilometres per hour.

"Scared I think of as panicky, and that's about the furthest from reality. I'll use the word spooky. Boats getting light, it gets a little spooky out there, but it's more of a concern than it is a fear or a panic or being scared.

"(Crashing) is always there in the back of your mind. You have to be aware of it. If you don't have a caution, a concern, that's when you become unsafe. It's what keeps you safe, it's good to have. If you lose that, then you're in trouble and that's when something is going to happen.

"Accidents are always more spectacular, so that's what gets the (news) footage . . . it's true of any motorsport. It kind of disappoints me because it gets so much of the attention. It would be like showing football highlights and doing nothing but bloopers."

He is used to it by now, with more than two decades in the sport. Watkins was racing on water before he had his driver's license for the road, since he built his first hydroplane at age 14.

He is credited with building the Squire Shop and Circus Circus boats in 1978 and then spent '80-'81 building Merlin engines for arguably the sport's best-ever driver, the late Bill Muncey.

The next few years he worked in various capacities for several different teams, before finally qualifying for the unlimited class last year.

He turned in the fastest rookie qualifying time ever last weekend in Kennewick, when he darted around the course at an average speed of 157.183 mph.

"Dealing with the media is new for me," Watkins said of the changes to his career this year with the jump to being an unlimited driver.

"Seeing my name up on the board with childhood heroes' names . . . or looking at the speed I've done. Looking at the speed and thinking that that's 30 miles an hour faster than what my heroes had done."

(Reprinted from the Vancouver Province, Friday, August 1, 1997)