The wind was in full cry and the seas were stacked overhead, angry waves with white claws curling down from their tops. Her Scarab had been thrashing along for some 95 miles when suddenly, after leaping off the top of one wave, the boat drilled the next one. Inside the wave there was a flash impression of a perfectly quiet green world. But the impact had slammed the driver's head back against the hatch and now, upon coming out the other side, her head was whipped forward into the wheel. A few moments later the inside of the face mask of her crash helmet was being coated with a strange red fog—she was exhaling blood from several cuts inside her mouth. She tried to hold her head still, but it started nodding uncontrollably from exhaustion, as if she were greeting each wave. Despair was closing in; winning the race would be nice, she figured, but getting the hell out of all this would be better. And it was at that moment, from high atop another crest, that the last check boat and the harbor came into view.
That kind of adventure is called offshore powerboat racing, and this episode occurred off Key West on a particularly lousy November day in 1977. The racing nuts who were standing on the dock that day, waiting for the boats to come home, swear that there were whitecaps inside their glasses of gin and tonic and that the beer was sloshing back and forth in the big paper cups. They say this with great glee. The nastier the weather and sea, the more offshore fans love it. And so, as the 38-foot Kaama came bubbling up to the dock, they toasted a woman who was still too wobbly to climb out of the cockpit. They watched her tug off her crash helmet and nodded approvingly at her swollen mouth.
"Where is everybody?" Betty Cook asked.
Good question. Race officials yelled to Cook that she was the first one in; the other boats were still out there in the murk. They also noted that she was now the new open-class world champion, having averaged a surprising 54.9 mph going over, under and through that wild sea. In fact, the next boat didn't finish for another 21 minutes, and after that only three more of the nine starters in the top class came in, seven of 19 in the entire fleet. This was considered a near-perfect climax to a miserably perfect day. At the cocktail party that evening, the racers turned out in bandage and sling—the formal wear of this sport—hugging each other and hollering and whooping while their bruises deepened into rich purples. Betty Cook included.
August 3, 1980
Looking back on it now, a little over two and a half years later, one can see that it was the being included that was important. Not that Betty Cook had suddenly become just one of the guys—she is far too crafty and feminine for that—but winning that 1977 race was a graduation day of sorts. It established her as a force in the sport; none of this sweet-little-old-me-against-great-big-you stuff, but someone to be reckoned with as an equal on a hull-to-hull basis. Offshore powerboat racing hasn't been the same since.
After all, here was a sport that relished its pure-guts, masculine image, an activity populated by boats carrying gritty names like Thunderball and Villain and Intimidator and Bounty Hunter. And what was this? Kaama? A boat named after an African antelope? As if that wasn't bad enough, apparently a lady African antelope. The boat's fore-deck featured a stylized creature with long, graceful neck, nicely curled horns and, well, eyelashes. And beneath that a red heart, you guys. The racers could only nod mutely when Cook explained that she had picked the name from The New York Times crossword puzzle and that she had picked the logo simply because she liked it. Any more questions, fellas?
A necklace encrusted with diamonds in the shape of an anchor now commemorates that 1977 victory; Cook wears it constantly, along with a small gold pendant spelling out Kaama and another gold chain punctuated here and there with more diamonds. An oval diamond ring on one finger could be used as a sea anchor in an emergency. With every little move Cook sends sharp beams of light into the dark corners of rooms. All of this is combined in the best possible throwaway manner with over-the-counter blouses and faded blue jeans and beat-up boat shoes.
Yet nothing is overdone. In fact. Cook's attire is conservative. Offshore racing is an exotic sport full of folks who are restlessly brave and wealthy and like to prove it to each other. The men tend to talk in capital letters and bold italics, and most of them wear more jewelry than Cook. If dropped over the side without a life jacket, many racers would sink without a bubble.
"Well, it is an exuberant sport," Cook says. "Ocean powerboat racers seem to vibrate with life. They operate in a dangerous element, and they come back full of a special verve. You can't merely shake hands with a boat racer; they're touchers. They grab and hug. It's strange; we've found that we can't stage a typical sit-down awards banquet with these people. They won't sit down, and they can't sit still. They're constantly up, pounding on each other and shouting. A speaker has a hard time being heard over the din."
These conversations, carried on at full voice across crowded rooms, contain also a biting camaraderie:
"Hey, Don. I saw you racin' today, and I think I've spotted yer problem."
"Oh, yeah? What's that?"
"You don't understand that the pointy end goes in front!" Har, har, har.
Through all of this, Cook is the quiet one. When she is suited up in her emotional armor, which is most of the time, there is no telling what's going on behind those ash-blonde bangs and ingenuous smile. In the bluish, smoky haze of cocktail parties, glimpsed in a roomful of men in racing jackets, she looks remarkably like June Allyson. No, not the June Allyson of 1948, of Words and Music, but June Allyson now. They are both in their late 50s—Cook is 58, Allyson 56. They are also of a size. Cook is 5'4" and weighs 115 pounds. She glows with a tan that might be called California burnish. Men find her irresistible. They sweep her off her feet in giant hugs, holding her up perhaps longer than is necessary. She gets a great deal of big-brotherly smooches which she deflects with just the slightest move of her head so that the incoming kiss usually lands on an eyebrow. In a group she nods animatedly, vodka-orange in one hand and cigarette in the other, and talks Offshore Racing, which is a foreign language, like Urdu. But she is always in control.
Cook has won four titles: world champion in 1977 and 1979, U.S. champion in 1978 and '79. After six races so far this season, she is third in the U.S. standings, having been a close second until the Benihana Grand Prix, in which her boat started coming apart off New Jersey. She also runs three interlocking businesses devoted to going fast over water, and she campaigns two boats—no waiting. Both are open-class monsters under the rather loose definitions of the American Powerboat Association. They are powered by engines that were born into this world as stock MerCruisers but come out of Cook's engineering shop near Newport Beach, Calif. so full of added muscle that they are fearful to behold. Each engine resembles the Wurlitzer pipe organ at Radio City Music Hall and is said to be worth about $25,000—but exact costs are hidden under Research and Development. One boat is a 38-foot Scarab with a deep-V hull and the other is a 38-foot Cougar catamaran whose twin 482-cu.-in. engines spit out more than 700 hp each.
The catamaran is capable of 100-plus mph in just the right water—thrashing upwind in a moderate chop, its tunnel hull riding on a cushion of air—but the precise top speed is a trade secret, and Cook goes glassy-eyed whenever the subject is mentioned. "Well," she says, "once you get over 80 miles an hour on water, it's all fast. In fact, it's awesome." But for the record, in the first race of this season, on Louisiana's Lake Pontchartrain, Cook's catamaran whooped away from the fleet at 90 mph and won over a 206.8-mile course at an average speed of 86.8 mph, a U.S. record.
Cook's crew consists of fellow-Californians John Connor, 35, who handles the throttles, and navigator Bill Vogel Jr., 24, a Mammoth Mountain ski patrolman in winter. They race in tense, perfect harmony, giving hand signals and barking brief alerts over their helmet intercoms. "There's no extra chatter," Cook says. "It would be too confusing at that speed. To correct our course, Bill might say, 'Port, port, good.' That's all. If there's something in the water ahead, he'll simply say, 'Junk.' And whoever spots the next checkpoint will yell, 'I got it!' and point it out. That's it."
Well, that's more or less it. All three jobs call for a delicate touch under impossible conditions, but handling the boat may be the toughest of all. Veteran ocean racers are agreed that there is a ton of difference between steering a boat and driving it; one false move at the wheel will turn the world upside down. "Ideally, when you take off from the top of a wave you want to land keel first," Cook says dryly. "No corrections in midair, please. You have to dig the boat out of certain swells and guide it back up on plane. Let's put it this way: the idea is to keep the boat from hurting itself."
And all of this is happening to a slight woman whose mother wouldn't let her have a bicycle until she was 16 years old because it was too dangerous. As a child in Glens Falls, N.Y., Betty, then Betty Young, started ballet lessons at five, which delighted Mom, and lived a secret childhood as a shortstop on the sandlot baseball team—which really delighted dad. This double existence involved going to great lengths to hide her cuts and scrapes, "which would have made my mother frantic with worry; she was like that." But the combination of activities produced a special resilience that Cook still has today, deceptively so, because she looks so dainty. Early on racing mornings nowadays, at a gray hour when some drivers are still wondering if perhaps the Seagram Building had fallen on them the night before, Cook is up and exercising. She combines lithe, catlike ballet movements with the more familiar stuff, push-ups and sit-ups, with the intensity of someone who is about to go out and fight Roberto Duran for the title. Yet when she appears at dockside, tiny and shapely inside a bright orange jumpsuit and trailing the faint and elusive smell of an excellent perfume, there is no hint of iron in her manner. No wonder her competitors can't figure her out.
Tough Bernie Little, a racing commissioner, owner of the two Michelob Light boats and one of Cook's fiercest opponents, is full of admiration. "Listen," he says. "I've flown over Kaama in rough water you wouldn't take a battleship out in. And I've seen her boat bounced so hard that she hit the floor. No, I don't mean the deck; I mean driven right down into the floor, like some giant pile driver had whopped her atop of the head. And she pops right back up and goes on driving. I mean, you gotta hand it to that little lady."
Still, there was a time when none of this had seemed remotely possible for that little lady. After her childhood in upstate New York, life was routine for years before it became dangerously glamorous. It was a pretty typical success story; as a screenplay, Hollywood would have turned it down for lack of thrills. Betty Young earned a bachelor's degree in political science at Boston U., then moved on to further studies at M.I.T., where she met and married fellow-student Paul Cook. "I got the usual PHT degree," she says. "That is, Putting Hubby Through college by taking a job at M.I.T.'s nuclear science lab." After that, in rough sequence, the Cooks adopted two sons, Eugene, now 36, and Gavin, now 25, and somewhere in the routine of PTA and mowing lawns and baking brownies and moving to California (where Paul got into chemicals, as they say), the Cooks became wealthy. More correctly, hugely, enormously wealthy. And then came the day that was to change Betty Cook's life.
When she talks about it now, speaking fast in her husky, slightly smoky voice, she draws pictures in the air with her hands. "It was on a May morning in 1974," she says. "Paul had been racing boats as a hobby. We used our yacht as a check boat; my role was to act as hostess and serve drinks and sandwiches.
"But then Don Pruitt, an ex-racer and manager of the Kudu team, convinced me that I should try racing. We used one of our raceboats, a 30-foot Bertram named Mongoose. And Pruitt kept telling me how very easy it was: 'Here are the ignition keys. Got that?'
'Keys. Right. Got it.'
'And here are the throttles.'
'Right. Throttles. What are these other switches?'
'Never mind the other switches.' "
She eased the Mongoose out of a 50-foot-wide slip (Cook says, "Like this"), and somehow managed to bounce the boat off both sides. And then Pruitt gave her the three most important secrets of all powerboat racing: "One: never turn on the top of a wave. Two: never let go of the throttles. Three: always run in green water; that is, stay the hell away from the wakes of other boats."
Three days later, with husband Paul riding shotgun, Cook won her rookie race, a dash from Long Beach to the Newport Beach buoy and back, total distance 60 miles. She averaged 40 mph "in a boat that was capable of 80," she says. She also won four trophies: first in class, second rookie, first woman, plus one for having the cleanest socks among the drivers—boat racers like zany categories.
Cook's life has indeed changed. Everything is more intense now. The speeds, the rewards—and the risks—have all gone up. For better or worse, she is now playing a high-stakes game with the big people. Figure more than a quarter-million dollars to buy and campaign an offshore boat for one season. Figure on blowing up a lot of equipment en route to the title. As one mechanic says, "Seems every time you turn around you've got to open a new can of engines." No wonder the laughter of offshore racers sometimes seems tinged with hysteria. Racing is a matter of seize the moment and shake it with all your might. What comes out of it, as in auto racing, is a gradual improvement of the breed.
Cook's three interlocked companies are converting the lessons of racing into improved hull designs, engines and drive systems for non-millionaire boaters. In Florida, Wellcraft is producing what amounts to Betty Cook signature-model Scarabs, complete with MerCruiser-Cook engines, including the antelope emblem, eyelashes and all, if the customer wants. Inside the shop at Newport Beach is a secret test boat with a single diesel engine and an even more secret two-speed transmission that promises mysterious, unnamed advantages over conventional transmissions. A couple of governments, ours included, are interested in the boat for coast-patrol use. "The first one to come up with a really high-performance diesel boat wins this game," Cook says, "and we have the finest, most inventive minds in nautical technology working at Kaama Engineering. Offshore racing is the ultimate shake-table test."
And so Cook races on. She has made the transition from housewife and check-boat hostess gracefully, as befits a former ballet student. Behind her animated exterior and beneath the ash-blonde bangs she even manages to mask her irritation at being constantly referred to as a racing grandma. It is indeed true that her son Eugene has three children—it happens in the best of families—but well-meaning or otherwise, it seems that nobody in the press can bear to pass up this bit of biological trivia that has absolutely nothing to do with her racing. It strikes even on historic moments: on Aug. 29, 1978, Cook and crew raced the Scarab Kaama over the 230 miles from Cowes to Torquay and back, off the coast of England, slamming along at a course-record 77.42-mph average, and the London Daily Express headlined its story: U.S. GRANNIE POWERS WAY TO WIN RACE.
"One cannot help but notice the irony in this," she says wryly. "Many of the men I race against are grandfathers, in fact. But when have you ever heard about 'Racing Grandpa Wins Race'? Ah, well."
Besides, at full blast there is no hint of any grandmotherliness in Cook; she has been shaken loopy-legged in several races and once was knocked unconscious for three minutes; Connor eased up slightly on the throttles and Vogel kept an eye on the course until she finally shook her head groggily and gave them the thumbs up. Another time, Kaama executed a memorable entrechat, and the landing jammed Cook's elbow into her ribs. Snap, snap. "I tried gesturing and shouting to John to tell him my ribs were broken," she says, "but in those heavy seas, he didn't catch it. So we went slamming on. Then we blew an engine and stopped. The pain was terrible. I kept sinking out of sight, sort of slithering down through the bolsters that wedge me into the cockpit. Finally a Coast Guard cutter picked me up off the Kaama, and someone propped me half upright on a pile of life jackets. I kept wafting gently in and out of consciousness." (Cook paints all of this in the air with both hands; if offshore racing ever fails, she could become a heck of a mime.)
Cook figured that an ice pack might ease the agony—but there wasn't any such thing on the cutter. "So someone pulled a big slab of frozen bacon out of the ship's freezer," she says. "I took it and hugged it tightly against me like a teddy bear." Not long after that she was whisked away to a hospital by helicopter—regretfully leaving the bacon behind—and that same evening, walking gingerly and fending off all huggers, she showed up at the awards banquet in an off-the-shoulder evening gown to congratulate the winners.
That sort of steely dedication, plus the technical advances she has brought to the sport, have accorded Cook full acceptance and affection in what was once a man's preserve. Before that 1977 Key West race in which she won the world title, a throttleman named Jack Stuteville had looked out at the surging ocean and growled, "It'll get down to who has the most hair on his chest." And Joey Ippolito, 29, of Michelob Light, once told Motorboat magazine, "What am I supposed to do? Beat up on her because she won?" But a few weeks ago Ippolito said, "She's all precision; she's smart enough to keep her equipment living. You've got to figure on her finishing what she starts."
Cook takes it all in what might be called dainty stride ("After all, I don't have a male ego to feed"), never accepting full credit and always thoughtfully stressing the teamwork involved in winning. She and her husband have lived apart for the past five years, though it is a benign separation, with each one proud of the other's accomplishments. Cook lives alone in an expensive house on an expensive private island in Newport Harbor, concentrating fully on the jobs at hand: running the three businesses, supervising the technology that may one day change boating—and racing. "It's still a world of wonders for me," she says in her marvelous, throaty voice. She grows more animated, sketching in the air again. "Whenever we win a race I still jump up and down in the cockpit. I say, 'Gee! Did I do that?' "
Listening, watching the pictures take shape in the air, one realizes that there is no Pollyanna or Little Orphan Annie in Betty Cook—there is nothing artificial about her sense of wonder. She sure enough did do all that.