Don Aronow, the world champion ocean powerboat racer, has two nicknames: The Animal and The Czar. The first was conferred on him by his fellow racers for the lionlike way in which he drives small boats over big seas. The second reflects his eminence as a builder of racing boats. The American offshore champion for the third straight year and holder of the world title for the second time in three years—all in hulls of his own design—Aronow cracks other people's records and his own bones with equal élan. "There is something about myself and the ocean," he says. "I respect it, but I'm not afraid of it. When I get out there, I want to dominate it."
Aronow performed his animal act for the final time this year in last week's Miami-Key West race and, with a typical win-or-bust flourish, surged into a widening lead before a blown water pump forced him out. It was a heady, if anticlimactic, finish to a season in which Aronow campaigned tirelessly in both Europe and the U.S., won an unprecedented eight out of 12 races, and in Italy's Viareggio-Bastia race last July roared over the 214-mile course in a world-record average of 74.3 mph.
Until this year just about the only offshore prize to elude Aronow was the Bahamas 500, a 542-mile gut check out among the cays and cuts of the Bahama Islands. He had finished runner-up in the first 500, held in 1967, as trying conditions forced all but 16 of the 63 starters to drop out along the way. Last year he became ill on the eve of the race and had to be flown to Miami, where he was hospitalized for a stomach injury suffered in a boating accident a month earlier.
No sooner did Aronow arrive in the Bahamas for this year's 500 than he fell ill again. On race morning he had a fever of 101°—a trifle to Aronow but a matter of possible concern to his wife Shirley. Leaving her asleep in their motel room, he sneaked out to the starting line and grabbed the controls of his remarkable boat The Cigarette. When Aronow found himself falling behind the leaders, he veered from the prescribed course and boldly—feverishly, one might say—took a shortcut through a treacherous, rock-strewn cay. He went on to win by a scant six feet over Mel Riggs at the astonishing average speed of 64.523 miles an hour.
November 17, 1969
By such exploits Aronow not only has emerged as the king—czar, if you like—of powerboat racing but also has found a powerful antidote to boredom in these, his retirement years. A former chief lifeguard at Coney Island who made a pile as a New Jersey homebuilder, Aronow decided at age 34 to stop building and start playing in the Florida sun. That is when he began playing with boats. Today, at 42, he is a big (6'3", 210 pounds), duskily handsome, thick-browed man who enjoys the good life but chooses to spice it with a bit of speed and danger.
"I'm a charger," he says with a shrug. "I go all out in whatever I do. I like to compete, but I also like to do well in what I'm competing in. At my age there are few other sports I could do as well in. But in ocean racing you can let the engines do the work that your legs and arms used to do, and you can compete successfully against men who are much younger. Experience and desire, those are the equalizers."
Experience, desire—and an attention to details that drives his more happy-go-lucky competitors up the wall. "In getting ready for a race," he says, "you have to check the boat over, recheck it and then check it again, and then when you're all through you have to check it one more time. So many little things can go wrong. I want everything to be perfect when the race begins. I like to get into the boat and go."
Sometimes Aronow checks the little details right out into the Gulf Stream, which can be treacherous in any season. He and Crewman Knocky House went out one spring day last year for a test run in a 27-foot Magnum. Wearing neither racing helmets nor life jackets, they were churning along at 60 mph when the boat suddenly submarined into heavy seas. The impact sent Aronow crashing against House, knocking them both out. Knocky suffered a concussion. Aronow, who, among other things, had slammed into the wheel, wound up with gashes on his legs, abdominal injuries and chest pains that turned out to be a cracked sternum.
When Aronow came to, the boat was creeping along at 10 mph. Aronow lay flat on his back watching the clouds drift by as he slowly regained his wits.
"Want to try again?" he asked Knocky, who by then had regained consciousness also.
"Let's go," said House.
Since offshore racing rules prevent Aronow from risking his neck solitarily (each boat must contain at least two men), it is not surprising that there is occasionally some resistance when Don goes looking for crewmen. "Going out in a boat with Aronow isn't the healthiest thing you can do," confirms Mark (Big Dirty) Raymond, a Hollywood, Fla. fireman, ocean driver and sometime motorcycle racer who owes his nickname either to his knack for getting covered with oil during races (his version) or to his disdain for racing etiquette (a rival's version). "You go down inside the hull to fix a fuel line or something during a race, and Aronow isn't able to see you or hear you. You're bouncing around down there, but he never slows down. The guy is all go. He wants to win, and you can't blame him for that. It's just not very healthy, that's all."
"The other guy in the boat is completely reliant on you," Aronow concedes. "You've got your hands on the wheel and the throttle, and you can anticipate the waves, but the other guy is at your mercy. The question is how far will you push the boat and whether you'll take a chance of hurting somebody. That can be a tough decision to make.
"I guess I've hurt a lot of people in boats. I've broken Skitch Carroll's ribs, and I've broken Dave Stirrat's nose, and there was the time I hit a wake while Stu Jackson was lying on the engine, and he hurt his back pretty badly. I wouldn't take my son out in a race with me, because I wouldn't want to take the same chance with him that I would take with myself. You have to find somebody who feels the same way about racing as you do."
Aronow's favorite partner in recent years, and one who meets his exacting demands, has been House, a short, sturdy fireplug of a man who wastes few words and puts the energy thus conserved to good use, having in the course of a variegated career been a wrestler, a lacrosse player, a 12-year Navy man and a motorcycle racer. "Knocky's a charger like I am," Aronow says. "Whether during a race or in a strange bar or a strange country, I know I can count on him."
As Aronow's shotgun-riding mechanic, navigator and general troubleshooter, House enjoys a certain job security, since most others in his line feel that one or two rides with Aronow will suffice a lifetime.
Another man who has ridden with Aronow—once—is Allan Brown, president of Miami's Nova Marine Company. Brown blithely accompanied him on the 1966 Houston Channel Derby, which has the reputation of being a calm-weather race. What Brown failed to take into account were the huge wakes that oil tankers and oceangoing tugs churn up in Galveston Bay's ship channel.
"Going over those wakes was just awful," Brown recalls. "We were jumping so fantastically high in the air that it seemed we could have flown over the tankers themselves. We were running second when we hit some really incredible waves, and that crazy Aronow never let go of the throttle. Within the space of three or four miles we went from a mile behind to a mile ahead. And that was going out in the channel. Coming back, jumping those wakes from the other direction was even worse. We were flying 100 feet out of the water."
"We won a real good trophy," Aronow says.
Such escapades are a test of equipment as well as men, and Aronow has met the need for fast, durable boats with his usual directness—by building them himself. Over the past six years he has founded three different boatbuilding firms—Formula, Donzi and Magnum—and used them to develop some of the hottest hulls afloat. When it suited his mood, he calmly sold each of the companies at a nice profit. Building boats for his own needs has helped Aronow win races. The rigors of racing, in turn, have suggested ways of building better boats. Working basically with standard deep-V racing hulls, Aronow and the designers he has teamed with—notably Jim Wynne, Walt Walters and Peter Guerke—have been responsible for many small but important refinements that have made boats lighter and faster, yet still rugged enough for offshore racing.
In the nautical version of natural selection, a boat that can endure an ocean race is presumed to be capable of withstanding anything that a weekend sailor might do to it. Until he sold off Magnum last year, Aronow thus enjoyed much the same kind of far-ranging influence on the evolution of powerboat hulls that Mercury motors' Carl Kiekhaefer, whose formidable MerCruisers are used by most top ocean drivers (including Aronow), has long exercised on the development of marine engines.
Although production-model Formulas, Donzis and Magnums continue to sell briskly among the pleasure-boat crowd, only Magnums still appear with any regularity in major offshore races. The most popular racing hulls nowadays are the 32-foot, deep-V speedsters built by Miami's Bertram Yacht company, whose president, Peter Rittmaster, is a hot ocean racer. Aronow, one of the few racers who does not drive a Bertram ("I want to give Peter a goal in life," he explains), utilizes a pair of identical 32-footers built to his specifications by Miami's Cary Marine, Inc. Both are called The Cigarette after a celebrated Prohibition-era hijacking boat of that name, and Aronow runs one in Europe, the other in the U.S.
Aronow's sales agreement with Magnum (an accord currently entangled in litigation) constrains him from going back into boatbuilding until next spring. In the meantime, his influence may be seen everywhere. Rittmaster, for example, got into racing at the helm of a Donzi borrowed from Aronow three years ago. Italy's Vincenzo Balestrieri took the world championship away from Aronow last year in a 28-foot Magnum Don sold him. (This year Balestrieri is racing a Bertram.)
And then there is Bill Wishnick, another of the top drivers, but one who had never raced at all when he approached Aronow at the New York Boat Show in 1963. "Mr. Aronow," Wishnick said, "I'm interested in buying a boat." Aronow accommodated him first with a 23-foot Formula and later with a 28-foot Donzi. "I was a married, out-of-shape, middle-aged businessman," recalls Wishnick, board chairman of New York's Witco Chemical Company. "Now I'm divorced, an ocean racer and a swinger. Seeing Don was the best thing that ever happened to me."
Aronow's reputation for exuberant behavior ashore and afloat is well grounded in fact. ("I wonder," says his 16-year-old daughter Claudia, "what Daddy will be when he grows up.") Who but Aronow would have barged into a formal banquet in a Jamaica hotel on horseback? Who else would have starred in the following true-life vignette of marine life: Aronow was a guest on the yacht of a European sportsman whose wife, suspecting the man of keeping a mistress, unexpectedly arrived on board. The European went ashore in a hurry, leaving Aronow to placate her. This involved relieving her of a .38 pistol. When Aronow flung it into the water, the woman jumped overboard, whereupon a crewman went over the side to rescue her.
Says Aronow: "I'm thinking, 'How did I get involved in this?' It's like an Italian movie. Suddenly I realize this crewman can't swim. He's floundering. So I dive in and get the woman aboard. I look back and the crewman is still struggling. Nobody makes any move to save him, so I jump back in and bring him out, too."
The experience amounted to something of a refresher course for Aronow, who, in his Coney Island days, gained a reputation for saving people from drowning almost before they had a chance to get wet. The son of a New York businessman who had lost everything in the Depression, Aronow attended the Merchant Marine Academy during World War II, afterward became a seaman and sailed to Europe, Africa and South America in Liberty ships.
At Brooklyn College, which he attended both before and after his voyages as a seaman, Aronow won seven varsity letters as a football end, a trackman (hammer and shotput) and a heavyweight wrestler who knew only two holds but, as he recalls, "made up for it by being aggressive." It was during his second Brooklyn College hitch that Aronow married Shirley Goldin, who had caught his eye on the beach at Coney Island.
To support her, Aronow began trading in war surplus goods. In 1950 he became a field superintendent for Shirley's brothers, who were in the construction business in Northern New Jersey. Striking out on his own 18 months later, Aronow reportedly made his first million by the time he was 28.
A New Jersey community magazine said Aronow "moves too fast for the public to evaluate his incredible career." By the time the article appeared, Aronow recalls, he had become bored with building "one house after another" and had "retired" to Florida.
Today Aronow lives at Coral Gables in a spacious, Spanish-style dwelling overlooking Biscayne Bay. His 2½ acres are adorned with palm trees, orange trees, lemon trees, lime trees. Parked in the driveway are the family's Rolls-Royce, Mercedes 280 and Cadillac Eldorado. Out behind the house, Higgins, a bullterrier, stands guard over the swimming pool. He is a powerful but gentle animal whose only known act of ferocity was to bite the ear of a neighbor's Irish Setter that encroached too far onto his territory. When the neighbor called to complain that the ear was mangled, Aronow offered, in the interest of symmetry, to send Higgins over to bite the other ear.
After a particularly grueling race, Aronow nurses his wounds in front of a television set, reduced to the kind of utter helplessness that seems to afflict men of action. "Hey, Shirley," he calls. "Bring me a heating pad, will you?"
"I'm busy," his wife answers. "Can you get it yourself?"
Silence. "Well, where is it?" Don finally asks.
"In the linen closet."
Longer silence. "Where's the linen closet?"
A few years ago a hurricane roared along the Florida coast, sending water seeping into the Aronow home. Don and Shirley mopped it up with bath towels. Don's idea of wringing out a towel, it developed, was to press it against the sink as hard as he could. The next day a relative called to ask if the family had suffered any hurricane damage. "Only a broken sink," said Shirley.