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Hydroplane Racing: Juggling Dynamite

July 13, 1987

DETROIT — In less than 12 months in 1981 and 1982, Bill Muncey and Dean Chenoweth, the two most victorious drivers in unlimited hydroplane history, died in racing accidents.

The sport, often cited as the most dangerous of all, has never really recovered.

Auto racers die, boxers die, football players die, hockey players die and sailors--19 in a single race--die in competition.

But rarely has any sport suffered the blow that unlimited racing took when Muncey and Chenoweth died. It would be like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier expiring in the ring.

Unlimited racing has not had a fatal accident since Chenoweth`s death in Seattle in 1982. But the pace of accidents has not necessarily slowed. Last Sunday in Madison, Ind., driver Steve Reynolds was seriously injured in a wreck. Reynolds had a testing accident with the same boat last fall, and driver Jim Kropfeld flipped the Miss Budweiser hydroplane in its first test run earlier this year.

Though other boat racing has more fatalities--one class has had five already this year--the unlimiteds and death have become linked in the public`s mind.

Drivers, here for Sunday`s Spirit of Detroit race, have pat replies to questions about the danger.

"It`s always the other guy."

"I wouldn`t be racing if I thought it would happen to me. I`m not crazy."

Miller American driver Chip Hanauer said he has talked about little except death and destruction in recent interviews.

"I understand the need to talk about it," he said. "A normal person spends his life trying to be more secure, and here we are out their making our lives less secure."

Hanauer compares the danger of unlimited racing to that of the space shuttle. "The general public was mortified when the shuttle blew up, but you talked to anybody who knew anything about it, and they expected something to happen eventually. Eventually they were going to have a disaster."

Hanauer admits that unlimited racing is "juggling with dynamite."

"I`m in this with my eyes wide open," he said. "I`ve seen accidents since I was nine years old," when he began racing boats.

Hanauer was involved in an accident in 1980. His boat suffered a blow-over, in which the wind catches a boat underneath and flips it, though he was not seriously injured.

"I was resigned in my mind when I started going over that I wasn`t going to make it, because you just don`t survive that kind of accident," Hanauer said.

The unlimiteds actually are not the most dangerous form of boat racing, said Dr. Matt Houghton of Empire, Mich., a medical consultant to several boat- racing classes. Houghton has been present at 17 boat-racing deaths.

An outboard class has had five deaths this year, Houghton said. Unlimiteds also would trail offshore power-boats in terms of danger, he said. Houghton said boating deaths among the high-speed classes are invariably caused by skull injuries that occur when the driver hits the water. "I`ve never seen a drowning in a high-speed boat," he said.

Houghton said safety is lagging a year or two behind racing technology, though the trend toward jet fighter-style canopies should be encouraged, he said.

Canopies obviously work. "Steve Reynolds proved that twice," Houghton said, because Reynolds twice survived accidents that would have been fatal without the canopy on his boat.

The answer is not necessarily limiting speeds, Houghton said. "Speed alone does not kill. It changes the mechanics of injuries."

Houghton said the prime cause of accidents is "overdriving for the conditions--period."

In fact, many in the sport were not surprised by Reynolds` accident. Reynolds often talked about his Rambo driving style and last year said the driver with the most "testosterone" would win the Detroit race.

Outwardly, Hanauer and the other drivers display little concern about the danger. But the risk of injury or death is one reason Hanauer has not married. "I wouldn`t want my family to live in fear 10 weeks a year," he said. But the feeling remains that if Muncey and Chenoweth, it could happen to anybody.

Last winter, Hanauer described how a driver like Chenoweth can be pressed into mistakes. Chenoweth died in an essentially meaningless qualifying run in Seattle.

"Race drivers have as big as egos as anybody else," Hanauer said.

"Chenoweth had told Budweiser he was going to quit after the season. Then the crew started talking about this Kropfeld guy and how he looks pretty good. "I think Dean started feeling, like, `Hey, they`ve forgotten about me already.`

"We had embarrassed them in Detroit and we kept moving on them. In the wreck, the blow-over that killed him, he was leaning on it all the way.

"He had it all the way down. And that wasn`t Dean. He was a very conservative driver."

Earlier in the season of his death, the newly married Chenoweth had told Hanauer how happy he was.

"He said, 'For the first time, I don`t need racing.' I said, 'If you don`t need it, get the hell out. Now.' "

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