Last year drag boat racing just about killed itself off.
Seven of the sport’s top drivers died in eight months. They died because they were trying to make their boats go more than 220 miles per hour. At that speed, drag boats tend to flip into the air. When they come down, they break apart. By the start of this year’s racing season, there were only a handful of the best drivers left.
Last weekend, they returned to race at Castaic Lake.
As an estimated crowd of 12,000 watched, Jerry (The Hillbilly) Fulgham beat out Ron (Madness) Braaksma to win Sunday’s top-fuel hydro competition. Fulgham screamed across the lake’s gently rippled surface at 206 miles per hour for his second win of the 1987 drag boat season.
But the most important driver at Sunday’s race was the one who wasn’t there. It was on this very lake, less than a year ago, that the sport’s pre-eminent driver was killed in an accident that may have marked drag boat racing’s darkest day.
Bill Todd still holds the national record for driving 226 m.p.h. across a quarter-mile strip of water. More important, other racers say, he was drag boat racing’s most charismatic and loved racer. On a day like Sunday in September, 1986, Todd was pushing his top-fuel boat over the 200 mark when it quite suddenly flipped.
Sunday, Todd’s ghost hung in the air over Castaic Lake, amid the crowd’s cheers and the shriek of alcohol-fueled engines. In his honor, the event had been renamed the Bill Todd Memorial drag boat races.
“It was hard coming back here. I feel that man around me every day of my life. He wakes me up in the middle of the night,” said Dennis (Fuzzy) Thompson, who was Todd’s mechanic for five years and returned to Castaic to work for Braaksma. “But who am I to say how a man should die? The man died doing what he loved. He went exactly the way he wanted to go.”
There will be deaths in any form of racing, be it cars, boats, motorcycles or planes. Accidents and fatalities were nothing new to drag boat racing before last year, but they’ve never been confined to that particular type of boat. Hydroplane and sprint-boat racing have lost their share of drivers over the years.
There are over 16 classes of drag boats, ranging in size and speed. But only the top-fuel hydros, the largest and fastest boats, have been overly accident-prone.
Drag boat drivers and officials admit that their sport had gone a step too far, a bit too fast. The speeds kept inching upward with no regard for safety. Some boats weren’t even equipped with seat belts, officials said. It wasn’t until last year’s deaths, especially Todd’s, that everyone began to take notice.
“Drag boat racing hadn’t had a major safety revolution in 30 years,” said Judith Walker, an administrative assistant with the International Hot Boat Assn., which governs most racing in the western United States. “Bill Todd was well-loved and well-respected and his death had the most impact on the sport.”
At the beginning of the 1987 season, the IHBA set down new rules for its top-fuel boats. Drivers must be strapped into roll bars and flotation cages--"pods” that will break away from the boat and keep the driver protected and afloat.
These protection devices are still experimental and extremely expensive, costing up to $10,000. Drag boat racing is not a big-money sport. Boats can cost $75,000, and first-place money for a given race rarely exceeds $5,000. Only five or six IHBA top-fuel drivers have been able to afford the safety devices at this point. The rest can’t race until they have such devices in place.
The ruling was a gamble for the IHBA. Paying spectators come to see top-fuel boats, so the association has risked killing off its most popular attraction.
But without the ruling, the IHBA risked killing off its drivers.
“It’s a horrible thing to have deaths and you have to deal with them,” Walker said. “That’s why we made the rule changes.”
There is no national drag boat organization, but other regional associations like the IHBA have adopted or will soon enforce similar rulings, said Dottie Pierce, publisher of Hot Boat Magazine.
“It was a bad situation, yes,” Pierce said of last year’s racing deaths. “Everything has to grow. Boat racing has been through its bad times and now it’s getting back up on its knees.”
The drivers, too, have been more cautious. Speeds this year are down 15 to 20 miles per hour from last year.
“It’s dangerous--we all know that,” said Larry Schwabenland, an IHBA official who used to race. “But we’ve tried to take all the precautions we can. What you saw out there Sunday was the beginning of a new era.”
Fans who came to see the Castaic races lined the shore along beaches and grassy hillsides. Beach Boys music blasted over the public address system. There were women in bikinis and men without shirts and many people drinking beer.
Even on shore, several hundred yards from the drag strip, the sound of the engines was deafening. Each pass of the boats was punctuated by yells and hoots from the crowd. There was little discussion of the safety factors of drag boat racing.
“Do you see all the pretty girls? Doesn’t it look like a big party?” said Tom Winchell, who had driven from Orange County to watch the races. “This has got to be fun.”
On a bluff overlooking the lake, former football star Deacon Jones watched on.
“I’m here as a spectator with my mouth wide open,” Jones said. “Out here, a 10th of a second could mean your life. They don’t get much money for this. They’re doing it for the love of the game. It’s got to be what they call sports.”
And down close to the starting line, a scantily clad Stephanie Gonzalez stood at the water’s edge with friends.
“It gives me chills when they go that loud,” the 22-year-old Northridge model said.
Even spectators have been in danger at drag boat races. At a race on Irvine Lake in Orange County three years ago, a boat veered out of control and onto the beach, killing a 9-year-old Burbank girl. Drag boat racing has since been banned at that site.
Michael Sinsheimer, Bill Todd’s son-in-law, said he thinks the sport must change to avoid similar catastrophes.
“You look out there. Hillbilly’s driving cautious. He’s seen too many of his friends get killed,” Sinsheimer said. “If they enforce safety rules, the sport will survive.”
But down in the pits, it was racing business as usual. Over the course of nine hours on Sunday, there were semifinal and final races for each of the 16 classes of drag boats. Mechanics and drivers worked intensely, preparing their engines.
Fulgham, whose boat had blown an engine earlier in the day, watched as his workers fine-tuned a new engine for the championship race against Braaksma.
“You feel the pull and you know you’re going fast,” Fulgham said, describing his sport. “I guess we’re just doing it for the love of it.”
And, as the sun drew lower on that day, Fulgham drove his boat fast and won.
Fuzzy Thompson, who had been the mechanic for Braaksma, relaxed after a long weekend of work.
“I can’t begin to tell you all the times I’ve quit drag racing,” said Thompson, who has raced and worked on engines since he was 7 years old. “You can’t quit. It’s like an addiction.”