In his workaday world 43-year-old Dean Chenoweth of Tallahassee is a near-perfect person. He doesn't smoke. He doesn't drink. He eats what he needs, takes diet supplements and runs eight miles a day. Although a model of abstinence in his ordinary life, in his specialized avocation, unlimited hydroplane racing, Chenoweth has been the worst kind of backslider. He has given up the brawling game several times, but like a sot passing a frontier saloon, somehow each time he has been sucked back through the swinging doors for one more round.
In the 35 years since unlimited hydroplane racing became a sensibly formalized sport, more than 130 drivers have taken, part in it. Only Chenoweth and six others have won more than a dozen races. Only 51 drivers have won so much as a single race, and eight of those died trying to win one more. Today, a worthwhile unlimited hydro (or "thunderboat") complete with a half-dozen backup motors and assorted support vehicles, costs about $300,000. To campaign it for a season costs again as much. Although it is now a micrometric game, the only certainty is still uncertainty. Rods pop through engine walls, welds fail, superchargers choke up, fuel lines clog, hulls delaminate, holes appear in the rock-hard water. However fat his bankroll, no backer should get into the game unless he is willing to be unlucky, and no driver should until he is ready to accept a gravestone as a permanent trophy.
The sport has always been in a state of giddy flux. Drivers jump from boat to boat, owners change boats, and boats change their sponsorship and names with abandon. A handsome craft that starts a season as McTookey's Blue-Plate Special may well end it, for better or worse, as Miss Cocoa Butter Hair Oil.
Since 1946, there has truly been only one monument of constancy, a driver named Bill Muncey, who took up boat racing, legends say, shortly after Noah ran his ark aground on Mount Ararat. Muncey won his first thunderboat race 25 years ago, when some of his present rivals were still toddling. He has won 61 since, a supremacy that had rarely been threatened until two years ago, when Chenoweth made another of his returns from retirement. Two weeks ago, on Seattle's Lake Washington, Chenoweth won the Gold Cup race, the 22nd victory of his on-again, off-again career (which, if totted up, amounts to about eight seasons). Taking into account the performances of the two drivers, if Chenoweth really sticks with it this time, it looks as if he will pass Muncey on the alltime winner's list in about the year 2005.
In thunderboating, the outcome of each race is decided by a final heat, but in determining the national champion each year, the points scored in all preliminary heats count equally with those of final heats. Since he first stepped into an unlimited hydroplane in 1968, Chenoweth has run in 197 preliminary and final heats and won more than half of them—a percentage that no rival has approached. Last year, in the process of winning the national title aboard Miss Budweiser (the 13th hull so-named), Chenoweth had a record-setting string of 20 victories in heats before losing the final of the sixth race to Muncey. In the first three races this year, while Muncey and his boat, Atlas Van Lines, suffered routine misfortunes, Chenoweth won all his preliminary heats and all three finals. Granted, he lost the next two races on the circuit—Thunder On the Ohio at Evansville, Ind. and the Columbia Cup at Tri-Cities, Wash.—but his victory in the Gold Cup was enough to clinch the 1981 title with one race to go in the season.
Every driver worth the name knows that before his playing days are done, he and his thunderboat will probably have at least one mad fling together. It may happen in front of the grandstand or in the distant fury of a turn, but wherever, it will be impromptu, the boat suddenly roaring out of the water, swapping ends or looping or barrel-rolling, throwing geysers of spray one way and her driver the other. The crowd will gasp, the caution flags will wave. The paramedics will descend. Sometimes the boat is demolished and the driver survives. Sometimes it is goodby to both.
Whatever his luck, whatever his special genius, when it comes to making dramatic exits and remarkable comebacks, Chenoweth is in a class by himself. His boyish face may not be familiar, but his figure certainly is. Photographs of him flying through the air silhouetted against the spume of one disaster or another have appeared in papers and periodicals the world around. In 1969, his second year of thunderboating, at the wheel of MYR's Special (formerly Miss Smirnoff) Chenoweth scored 6,175 championship points, only 200 fewer than the winner, Bill Sterett Sr., driver of Miss Budweiser (the sixth so named). The following year, when Sterett retired, Chenoweth was offered the ride in Miss Budweiser by her owner, Bernie Little, a vibrant Anheuser-Busch distributor and celebrity hound who has been photographed hobnobbing with just about every notable of the last decade except Santa Claus and the Pope. In his first season in a Miss Bud, Chenoweth started well, giving and taking with Muncey, who had moved into the cockpit of MYR's Special (renamed MYR Sheet Metal), the boat Chenoweth had forsaken. Then, in the sixth race on the Columbia River at Pasco, Wash., on the first turn of the second lap of his first heat, the nose of Miss Bud dug in and came apart. Bits and pieces of the hull flew every which way. As the boat swung, she lobbed Chenoweth into the air. Still swinging, she hit him again, batting him about 50 feet across the water.
It looked like a final fling for both driver and boat, but it was the end of neither. Chenoweth got out of it with many bruises, minor contusions and a severed nerve in his left arm. The boat was raised from the river bottom. Twelve days after the crash, Chenoweth was back aboard. He won the last two races on the circuit and the national championship. The press, which early on had nicknamed him "Dapper Dean" and the "Xenia Zip" (in deference to his Ohio hometown), began calling him "The Comeback Kid."
In 1971, when Chenoweth was on his way to his second national title, the press asked why he didn't have a go at the world straightaway speed record of 200.419. Chenoweth firmly shut the door on that prospect with two quick sentences. "Owners and drivers are now thinking of winning races," he said, "not setting straightaway records. You realize very little publicity out of a record."
Eight years later—Oct. 23, 1979, to be exact—on Lake Washington in Seattle, Chenoweth sat in a big, wide, new, superpowered Miss Budweiser, prepared to run for the straightaway record. He failed, but crashed so spectacularly in the attempt that he got far more publicity than if he had succeeded.
When he had shut the door so firmly on a record attempt back in 1971, Chenoweth had not reckoned with the unbounded promotional zeal of the owner of Miss Budweiser, Little, who would probably be willing to sponsor the next ice age if it would help sell a six-pack of Bud. Little admits he talked Chenoweth into nearly killing himself in the 1979 record attempt but, in fairness, it should be pointed out that it wasn't an improbable persuasion. Since Chenoweth's first exposure to a 1.5-horsepower outboard during boyhood summers on a small Ohio lake, he has had the racer's itch.
As best Chenoweth recalls, at the age of 12 he first raced in an unsanctioned "wildcat" event at Troy, Ohio, taking fourth out of 16 in a skiff powered by a 10-horse Mercury Hurricane. In junior high in Xenia he was a runty basketball guard and a quarter-miler who could turn 59 seconds, but he had to give up such puritanical pursuits because he had accepted cash for boat racing and thus was relegated to professional hell forever.
In the summer that he turned 15, Chenoweth won the national championships in stock outboard Class A and Class B hydroplanes and Class A stock runabouts and was selected for Yachting magazine's All-America Racing team.
After graduating from the University of Miami in 1959, he joined his father in a Buick-Pontiac dealership in Xenia and stayed out of boat racing until 1963, when one of the many Mephistophelians in his life, an old outboard crony, Dave Thomas of Dayton, gave him a call. "Hey, don't you miss racing?" Thomas asked. "A little bit," Chenoweth replied. Thomas had a friend, Elroy Spicker, who needed a driver for a little hydroplane. So, what had happened to Chenoweth in out-boards happened again in inboards. One horsepower led to another. He moved from the 145-to the 280-cubic-inch class and finally into seven-liter competition, which is equivalent to Triple A baseball, and won national, divisional and local titles in various classes.
But there was something in Chenoweth's style that exceeded his stats. Lee Schoenith, the former national champion, who first signed him to drive an unlimited, Miss Smirnoff, in 1968, says, "A lot of drivers might have the same desire, guts, whatever you want to call it, but they can't put it all together for a day. Muncey and Chenoweth are probably the only guys I have known who can—and maybe the late Ronnie Musson. They not only know where they are on the course, but also where everybody else is."
Miss Smirnoff was a revolutionary boat: She had a V-tail and was the first hull explicitly designed with a fore-end "picklefork" configuration, in which the sponson tips extend beyond the bow proper. "The design was good, the engines were good, the propellers were good," Chenoweth recalls, "but the whole boat was about 2,000 pounds too heavy. Miss Smirnoff was a revolutionary ton of bricks." He got no better than a third place in the 1968 season in the overweight boat, but the next year, when she was renamed MYR's Special and more than 1,000 pounds were scalped out of her hull, he took two firsts on the way to losing the national title by 200 points.
On the death of his father in 1967, Chenoweth took over the management of the Xenia dealership. Although in the next six years he was also involved in the brain-rattling furor of thunder-boating, Chenoweth seemingly had not lost the business acumen he had acquired in his early years of abstinence. In 1973, when the first big fuel crunch began, it seemed to him that selling big, uneconomical American cars was a shaky enterprise. But if gas-guzzling cars were on the way out, beer guzzling would probably go on forever. He sold out his car interest and bid for an Anheuser-Busch distributorship in Tallahassee.
The next four years of Chenoweth's life were largely taken up with beer, fish and physical fitness. Because he had enjoyed hunting and angling with his father in Ohio, he bought a 21-foot walk-around fishing skiff and trailered it to various Gulf Coast towns in quest of mackerel, snapper, grouper, blues and speckled trout. He subsequently bought a 20-acre spread in the rolling cattle country of the Florida panhandle, which resembles the Kentucky bluegrass but is more beautiful the year round.
Then, along came Little again, making thunderboat noises. In 1978 Bernie had contracted to have a bigger, better-than-ever Miss Budweiser built. She would be wider and have a bigger skid fin. She would have a lower center of gravity and a cab-over cockpit and engine compartment inward of beam center to compensate for centrifugal thrust. Most significant: She would be powered by a Rolls-Royce Griffon engine, which weighs roughly 500 pounds more than the Allison and Rolls Merlin engines customarily used in thunderboats but puts out about a thousand more horsepower. Griffons had been tried several times before, but never successfully. To ease the doubts anyone might have, in a red-hot advance press release, Little's new Griffon-powered beast was described as having "interplanetary-missile schematics," whatever that means.
Chenoweth first heard about the boat from Little at an Anheuser convention in late 1978. He kept hearing about it by phone the following January and February. On his fourth or fifth call, in early spring, Little asked his former driver to go to Seattle, expenses paid, to talk to the crew and look at the boat then abuilding. "It was a psychological move on Bernie's part," Chenoweth says. "I knew that, and Bernie knew I knew it. But I went to Seattle and saw the boat. When I got back home, the itch was itchier."
So once again he went back through the swinging doors. The new wonderboat was not ready until the fourth race of 1979, and for the balance of the season suffered many of the ills that such novel, high-revving machines are heir to. Chenoweth didn't win a race, and only five heats of 17. The most that could be said for the super-new interplanetary-missilized Miss Bud was that she showed great promise. Then, Little decided to give his wonderboat a go at the straightaway record before the next season began.
It wasn't a slapdash effort. Miss Bud was specifically modified for a straightaway try. On the morning of Oct. 23 on Lake Washington, Chenoweth made three two-way runs through the one-mile time trap, increasing his speed in 10 mph increments, from approximately 175 to 195. Shortly after noon the water conditions deteriorated, then improved until by midafternoon there was only a three-knot wind dappling the surface. Chenoweth took off shortly before 3:30. During her long run-in, on past the one-mile green warning marker, the trim of Miss Bud looked good. Just as the boat entered the time trap, Chenoweth glanced at his speedometer. It read 220. That is the last he remembers.
Miss Bud possibly struck a submerged object. In the first photographs showing the bottom as the boat flew through the air, both the propeller and the rudder are missing. In a half-looping roll the boat reached a height of about 20 feet. As she descended, Chenoweth was thrown out. He flew about 100 feet through the air and skipped 50 more across the water before settling in, fortunately faceup. The Coast Guard rescuers say he was conscious. "I felt the impact of the water. That is all," Chenoweth says. "If they say I was conscious, it may have been my mind subconsciously trying to find out if my body was still alive. Until I came to in the hospital, I had no idea what had happened." In addition to a concussion, he had eight broken ribs, a fractured pelvis and lung and cardiac contusions. Dr. Kaj Johansen, his surgeon in the intensive care unit of Seattle's Harborview Medical Center, told him that but for his good physical condition, it might have been the end.
Little had another Miss Budweiser built, almost identical to the one that had been demolished, and last year she proved to be what his first had been expected to be. But on Aug. 10, just before the seventh race of the circuit, in Seattle, she came to an equally spectacular end. Chenoweth qualified easily for that race, but then went back out on the course to try to set a qualifying-lap record. As he headed for the starting line at nearly 190 mph the welds of the rudder brackets failed. Miss Bud swapped ends, rolling as she did. Chenoweth was thrown out at the start of the second roll. He traveled through the air and skipped across the water about as far as he had on his record-attempt disaster on a different part of Lake Washington, but this time he was conscious. "I remember the boat going over my head," he says. "It was upside down and I could read the name 'Budweiser' as it sailed off into the blue."
For the second time in nine months he ended up at Harborview Medical under the intensive care of Dr. Johansen—this time with six broken ribs, a fractured shoulder blade and lung hemorrhages.
By the last race of the season, in September in San Diego, Chenoweth had recovered, but where would he get a boat? Some years earlier Little had bought a race-worthy old hull called Notre Dame to use promotionally. After having her painted in the bronze and red colors of the Budweiser racing teams, he had displayed her in shopping centers and other public places as Miss Budweiser. Notre Dame had indeed raced (with little success) under a variety of names, such as Miss Valvoline, Miss Cott Beverages, Miss Technicolor and Miss Northwest Tank Service, but never as a Miss Bud. But, what the hell, how would the yokels in a shopping center ever know?
There was one big problem, however. The old girl had no backup engine. Chenoweth needed 600 points to assure a tie with Muncey. Should he go all out, try to get the points fast, before the engine died? Or should he nurse it, hoping for a combination of seconds and thirds that would be enough?
Chenoweth went for it. He won both his heats in San Diego to take the 1980 national driving title with 200 points to spare. As if knowing it had done all that was needed, one minute before the starting gun of the final heat, his engine blew.
This past winter Little had a third Miss Budweiser built, and once again Chenoweth came back. Because of their mutual interest in distance running, Chenoweth had kept in touch with Dr. Johansen. This past spring, before he went to Seattle to test-drive the new Miss Bud, Chenoweth phoned Johansen to say he was coming out. "I'm glad you called," Johansen said. "It will be a pleasure to meet you for once while you are still on your feet."