Boats Turn on the Switch With Doner as New Commissioner : Motorsports: Promoter is hired as the boss to put life back into unlimited hydroplane racing.


Shock treatment is sometimes used as a last resort to get a person's heart going again when he's at death's door.

Unlimited hydroplane racing may not be dying but it has certainly been walking on wobbly legs the past few seasons. So it opted for shock treatment when it hired Bill Doner as its new commissioner.

Bill Doner?

Yes, the same brash, fast-talking, arm-waving maverick promoter from Orange County who filled the stands for drag racing at Irvine and Irwindale with such outrageous stunts as Fox Hunt night, where female-ogling was as much a part of the scene as dragsters and funny cars.

The same Bill Doner who was flushed out of a fishing village at Cabo San Lucas by a head-hunter organization to become vice president of marketing at Caesars Palace, where he promoted the Sugar Ray Leonard-Marvin Hagler fight.

The same big, blustering redhead who was sports editor of the Orange Coast Daily Pilot in Costa Mesa right out of college before moving to Seattle, where he established a drag-racing dynasty that included Orange County Raceway and Irwindale Dragstrip in Southern California.

It was his work in taking seven drag strips, all either in bankruptcy or nearly so, and making them profitable that caught the attention of the Caesars Palace recruiters.

No shrinking violet, Doner said when he was introduced as commissioner of the Unlimited Racing Commission of the American Power Boat Assn., "I feel like Jack Nicholson (as the Joker) in Batman when he comes in and says, 'Wait'll you get a load of me.' "

He took over April 1 from Don Jones, a 10-year veteran who was forced out in a palace revolt in Seattle headquarters. From Jones' boardroom-like administration, Doner has brought a helter-skelter, shoot-from-the-hip-and-ask-questions-later approach.

"Hey, this sport has nowhere to go but up, and it had better get going in a hurry if it's going anywhere," Doner said as he prepared to conduct his first event, the Exide Gold Cup, on the Detroit River.

"We need more boats, more races, more sponsors, more of just about everything, including enthusiasm. I'm pumped up for what the future can hold, and I want all these people to get pumped up, too. We're going for a ride, a wild one if I have anything to do with it.

"I hope when people come back and take a look at us in three or four years, they don't recognize the sport."

Doner, 55, didn't seek the job. He was happily living in Seattle, helping run the Molson Vancouver Indy car race, preparing to install 65,000 seats for the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, B.C.--including a box for the Queen--and putting together a marketing company for recreational vehicle parks in the Pacific Northwest.

"I was on my way home from a fishing trip to Australia last October and stopped off in Honolulu to watch the last unlimited race of the year," he said. "It was terrible. I told (boat owner and long-time friend) Steve Woomer, 'This is the last time I'm going to tell you (that) it's the last time I'm going to one of your boat races.'

"Well, sometime in January, I get a call from Woomer. 'OK, big mouth. Why don't you tell me how to fix this thing?' And the next thing I knew I was appointed commissioner.

"This was going to be my busiest year, but the more I thought about it, the more I decided I wanted a 'mulligan' for 1994. I wanted one more run in the arena. How can you not sell this sport? It has beautiful bodies of water, beautiful bodies in halter tops and shorts standing on the shore, guys standing on the shore looking at them and beer companies for sponsors.

"All that, and a fleet of the biggest, fastest and most powerful racing boats in the world running 200 m.p.h., sending up rooster tails that can take your breath away. How can it miss?"

It not only can miss, it was withering away through lack of marketing, both inside and outside the sport. Each year it seemed harder to find competitive boats and racing sites.

As the season starts today with the Gold Cup--the Super Bowl of hydroplane racing--there will be only 10 boats in the water, and there are only eight races on the schedule, not enough to attract big-money sponsors who are needed to field more boats.

"We've got to come up with a strong schedule, at least 12 races, maybe 15, in places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and maybe Phoenix and Las Vegas," Doner said. "We have to give sponsors, potential sponsors, something to think about. The sport has spent too much time in the boondocks. How can you sell a race in Evansville, Ind.; Pascoe, Wash., or Madison, Ind.?

"Those people have been loyal to us, and I don't mean we should drop them, but we need big-city races. I would like to work with Chris Pook (promoter of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach) for a race in Long Beach that would satisfy the Los Angeles market, and I would like one in New York on the Hudson River. You know, that was where they held the first Gold Cup in 1904. The last one in New York was 1947 on Jamaica Bay. We need to get back there."

Danny Foster, driving Miss Peps V, won the '47 race, with orchestra leader Guy Lombardo third in Tempo VI.

"To have 12 or 15 races, we would need at least 20 boats to start the season," Doner said. "Since Day 1 on this job, I've been on the phone, cajoling potential sponsors. There'll be a bunch of them here for the Gold Cup, and I hope what they see is what they like because we need them to come back--with money.

"The unlimiteds still draw the biggest sporting crowd in Seattle, and it's the same in Detroit. What we need at some of the other races is a side show. If it takes hiring Evel Knievel to jump over some boats, I'll get him.

"If Don Johnson and his wife have a spat, I want them to have it in the pits at Seattle, and then they can make up in the pits at San Diego. Whatever it takes, I want unlimiteds to be talked about.

"If we have to change rules, bend rules or make new rules, we have to do the things needed to get the sport back on track. It's been too hide-bound on tradition. For instance, as commissioner I'd never let happen what happened two years ago in San Diego.

"Three boats went dead in the water in the championship heat, so two boats cruised around by themselves. I'd have stopped things, got the three boats running again and had a race. The people watching deserved as much."

Bernie Little, the Florida beer distributor whose Miss Budweiser boats and sponsorship money have been the soul of hydroplane racing for 30 years, was against ousting Jones, but says he will support Doner.

"He's a hustler. He's been running his butt off to get things done," Little said. "He's trying to do a positive job, and as long as he keeps going in the right direction, I'll give him all the support I can."

Little, 69, has been an unlimited hydroplane owner for 32 years. and with Chip Hanauer as his driver and a new twin-hulled boat, is favored to win his 15th series championship and his 10th Gold Cup.

He will be inducted into the National Motorsports Hall of Fame in Detroit on Wednesday.

"Bernie Little has been the best thing and the worst thing--at the same time--in this sport," Doner said.

"His support, in sponsoring races as well as his boats, and the publicity he has given unlimiteds, has saved the sport. At the same time, his domination with the best boat, the best driver and the biggest budget has discouraged other teams."

Since Little hired Hanauer as his driver three years ago, the team has won 14 of 20 races, including the 1992 and 1993 Gold Cups.

"He has been like Roger Penske with Indy cars," Doner said. "Penske, who was winning everything anyway, built a still better engine this year and the race was no contest. Bernie is the same way. He has a new boat that was built around the new fuel restrictor valve, which will give him even more of an edge."

The valve is designed to control the consumption of fuel in the turbine engines to 4.7 gallons per minute, thus keeping the engine cooler and preventing parts from burning up.

"The whole fuel-restriction deal was in place before I arrived, but I can see its value," Doner said. "Costs of keeping engines running has rocketed, and last year there were so many engines blowing up from overheating that the commission decided it had to do something."

An immediate result has been to slow the boats. Mark Tate, in the Winston Eagle, ran a record lap of 170.087 m.p.h. during Gold Cup qualifying last year on the Detroit River. This year, the fastest lap on the 2.5-mile course between Detroit and Belle Isle was Hanauer's 162.614 in Miss Budweiser.

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