I flunked PTA," Betty Cook was saying. "My cupcakes were very bad." That is understandable, because life's ordinary pursuits have never charmed her; her view of the universe often has been slightly askew of the norm. All of which is not to put down those who make cupcakes and fret about the edges getting too brown or whether the little boys at school will eat the cakes with the pink paper around them. "The point is," says Cook, "it is no fun to do what everybody else has done."
That explains what a nice lady like this—indeed, what a 54-year-old grandmother like this—is doing at the wheel of something as potentially nasty as a very macho powerboat, racing in oceans for hundreds of miles at speeds into the 90s. And, as happened last weekend off Newport Beach, Calif., winning. Just before her triumph, however. Cook confessed, "I'm probably supercautious. To win, you usually have to hang it on the ragged edge, right out there on the verge of being foolish. I can't do that. So it's more important to me to finish than to win." Somewhere Vince Lombardi is holding his head.
By winning the Bushmills Grand Prix, the third of 10 events for the North American offshore championship, Cook became the leading driver. She dealt with all manner of problems in the chaotic 193.49-mile journey, including a male competitor (they all are) who was thought to be the winner—until some evidence emerged that he had unknowingly cut through a few vacant lots and jumped several fences en route to the finish. While the sport can be wilder than mountain scenery, it wasn't Saturday as the Pacific straightened up and, for the most part, looked like a bathtub with no more ripples than those caused by a rubber duck. Still, ocean racing is never a piece of cake.
"One thing that helps," says Cook, "is that I don't have a male ego to feed." It's that lack that enables Betty to confess she knows nothing of engines ("There could be five rabbits in there for all I know"), that her throttleman, John Connor, and navigator, Don Holloway, are the keys ("I am the steerer. I do what they say") and that being in this sport was no life's dream ("All this comes as quite a surprise to me").
March 14, 1977
But it is her money, and offshore powerboating is outrageously expensive. Boats cost about $100,000 each and that's only an opener. For example, Rocky Aoki, winner at Newport Beach last year, says he spends about $400,000 annually on the sport. Others place their costs at perhaps half that. Whatever, Betty Cook spends a bunch to race; about $15,000 to run in the Bushmills alone. Her first-place prize money was $2,975. Oh, yes, and near the finish, one of the boat's two engines blew. A replacement costs $6,000.
For Cook, dollars are hardly a concern. Her husband Paul had the good sense to get involved with plastic years ago when everyone was laughing at the synthetic. The Cooks now have a charter fishing fleet, a small airline and a farm in Mexico that grows mostly soybeans, which come in handy for feeding their cattle on a ranch in Baja. Not long ago, miffed because bad weather often kept them off their tennis court during the winter, they built an indoor tennis club.
So, O.K., ocean powerboat racing is a toy and often a tax write-off for the rich. It is also an exacting endeavor in which the idea is to keep as much of the boat as possible out of the water and bitter frustration is the norm. Little did Betty Cook know where she was heading back in May 1974, when she was urged to enter a minor 60-mile event and won her class.
Going into Saturday's race, she was given little chance of finishing in front. Not because she can't compete (she had been as high as second in a big race and finished sixth overall last year in her first season) but because she had a new boat. The craft is a 38-foot, 1,250-horsepower Scarab named Kaama, after an African antelope. Cook's old boat, a tunnel hull, was Kudu, another sort of antelope. Betty does a lot of crossword puzzles. Further, a new boat generally has more bugs than a June night in Chattanooga.
The day before the race, the weather was windy and the water choppy, perfect conditions for a heavy hull, like that driven by the current U.S. champ, Joel Halpern of Bronxville, N.Y. But smooth waters have their special wonders, too. Most particularly, they encourage crews to push the throttles to the wall and run there all day. The engines don't like that much. The early leader was Sandy Satullo in Copper Kettle. Down the coast toward San Diego, Cook and crew were second. Already slapped down by fate was Preston Henn of Pompano, Fla., a drive-in movie entrepreneur who at 46 also is a grandparent but insists, "If I felt like a grandfather, I wouldn't race." He ran about five minutes before a stern drive went out.
For the leg out to Catalina, Bob Nordskog, 63, another grandfather who three days before the race had been thrown out of his boat on a demonstration run, challenged in a new 39-foot Cigarette. But there was a look of death about his craft as it was obviously unable to get up to its accustomed power. Cook was first to make it the 26 miles across the sea, and was immediately troubled by being unable to find the checkpoint boat. So she circled every boat in view to be sure before heading back. By this time, Copper Kettle was choking and Halpern's Beep Beep had smoke swirling up through the front. Neither is considered a healthy sign. Cook kept zipping along. Dead in the water was Aoki, sitting despondently and staring at his $11,000 watch and fingering his $12,000 sapphire ring.
Almost unnoticed, the front-runners were being challenged by Billy Martin, a furniture dealer from New Jersey, in Bounty Hunter, a boat notorious for engine problems. So notorious that Martin had elected to drop 200 horsepower before the race to ease mechanical pressures. Martin plunged and leaped along, throttling the boat and leaving the driving to a crew member. Nearing the shore, Martin got lost, roared in among some spectator boats but got back on course. He had not missed any checkpoints, not hit anything, and soon was waving and looking backward at the rest of the field. Thumbs were up on Bounty Hunter.
Cook was a minute behind. Earlier she had momentarily lost control of her boat, coming upon two whales and swerving at the last minute. Whales had been a concern because it was migration time. Later, a pleasure boat got within a few feet of Cook. "It wasn't really close," said navigator Holloway. "We missed them by five feet." Meanwhile, Martin kept on waving and looking unbeatable.
But at the 12th of the 14 checkpoints, officials on the watching boat never saw Martin; they did see Cook. Then, four miles from the finish, an engine on the Cook boat blew. Holloway frantically jumped down among the engines but throttleman Connor signaled him forward. Connor's thinking was that since the boat was still going, albeit at 60 mph instead of 80 or so, Holloway's weight on the bow would be enough to keep the boat on plane and avoid the time-consuming standard remedy—switching propeller blades so the boat could run effectively on one engine. Sprawled on the nose of Kaama, Holloway hung on as the proud boat limped and stumbled along, at times at 10 mph.
Elsewhere, Billy Martin had pulled over the finish line (24 minutes ahead of Cook) with "five drops of fuel left," was given the checkered flag, posed for winning pictures with the sponsors and drank champagne. Then the race committee met and heard Martin insist he not only had circled the proper checkpoint, he had nearly hit the boat. It was Martin's own testimony that hurt, for he described two oil rigs and the rigs were at the wrong buoy. Further, officials calculated that for Martin to have taken the proper route, as he claimed he did, he would have had to average, in that stretch, better than 120 mph. Not likely, since nobody ever has hit more than. 95 mph, much less averaged that speed.
Some three hours after the race had concluded, Martin walked down to the water and congratulated Cook, turning over the checkered flag. Then he yanked his boat away from the dock and swore his forever goodbys to ocean racing. Sadly, this was the third time Martin thought he had won a race within the last year, only to have it taken away from him for an infraction.
Halpern ended up second, after babying his left engine for 160 miles, and Joe Ippolito from Point Pleasant, N.J. was third in his Cigarette.
Somebody also objected to Cook's win (time: 2 hours 46 minutes; average speed: 69.9 mph) because of Holloway's unusual riding position at the end, but what he did was legal. Holloway is accustomed to adversity. Once in a race in Florida, he had to swim to shore for parts.
Meanwhile, on her yacht in the harbor, the drinks were flowing, the phone was ringing and Betty Cook was looking at the splendor of the night. "You know, it's not really what other people think of you," she said, "but what you know about yourself." And what Cook knows is that she's awful at cupcakes, wonderful at racing and one tough grandmother.