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Bluster or Luster? : Jury’s Out on Whether Brash New Commissioner Bill Doner Will Inject New Life Into Hydroplane, but He Promises Wild Bid

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 wobbly the last 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 top-fuel dragsters and funny cars.

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

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 West Coast drag-racing dynasty that included Orange County Raceway and Irwindale Dragstrip.

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 forced out in a palace revolt at Seattle headquarters. From Jones’ boardroom-like administration, Doner has brought a helter-skelter, shoot-from-the-hip-and-ask-questions-later approach.

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“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 after presiding over his first two events, the APBA Gold Cup on the Detroit River and the Texas Hydrofest last Sunday near Dallas.

“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.”

Doner, 55, didn’t seek the job. He was happily living in Seattle, helping run the Vancouver Indy car race, preparing to install 65,000 seats for the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada--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,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you tell me how to fix this thing?’ And the next thing I knew I was appointed commissioner.

The sport 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.

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When the season started with the Gold Cup--the Super Bowl of hydroplane racing--there were only 10 boats in the water, and there are only eight races on the schedule, not enough to attract big-money sponsors needed to field more boats. The fleet had shrunk to seven boats in Texas.

“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.; Pasco, Wash., or Madison, Ind.?”

Those are three of the eight racing sites on the 1994 schedule.

“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 were a bunch of them at the Gold Cup, and I hope what they saw is what they like because we need them to come back--with money.”

A crowd of 350,000, as estimated by the Detroit Police Department, witnessed the Gold Cup, which concluded with a hull-to-hull race won by Mark Tate in Smokin’ Joe’s boat over Nate Brown in the Tide.

“The unlimiteds still draw the biggest sporting crowd in Detroit, and it’s the same in Seattle,” Doner said. “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. There has always been too much down time, time when there was nothing for the spectators to do but just sit.

“If (actor) 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.”

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Bernie Little, the Florida beer distributor whose Miss Budweiser boats and sponsorship money have been the backbone 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, was favored to win his 15th series championship before Hanauer was injured in an accident during the Gold Cup race. Hanauer’s injuries are expected to keep him sidelined until midseason. Mike Hanson, who filled in for Hanauer, finished third in the Gold Cup and won the race last week on Lake Lewisville.

“It’s still Chip’s ride all the way,” Hanson said. “The boat is only on loan to me.”

Hanson will be in it again next Sunday when the series resumes on the Ohio River, near Evansville, Ind.

Hanauer, who is home in Seattle recuperating, is not expected back until the series reaches Pasco, Wash., on July 31. The unlimiteds will be at San Diego’s Mission Bay on Sept. 18.

Little, inducted into the National Motorsports Hall of Fame in Detroit last week, not only owns the No. 1 boat, but is also responsible for Budweiser’s sponsoring two races, the Governor’s Cup at Madison, Wis., and the Columbia Cup at Pasco.

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“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 15 of 22 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 for Indy 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 keep the consumption of fuel in the turbine engines at 4.7 gallons per minute, thus keeping the engine cooler and preventing parts from burning up.

An immediate result was to slow the boats. Tate ran a Gold Cup record lap of 170.087 m.p.h. last year on the Detroit River. This year, the fastest lap on the 2.5-mile course was Hanauer’s 162.614 in Miss Budweiser.

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“I was more than pleased with the way the restrictor valve did its job in the Gold Cup,” Doner said. “Not a single boat had engine damage from overheating.

“There wasn’t a person on the river who could tell the difference in speeds when Smokin’ Joe’s and Tide came around the Roostertail Corner about three feet apart in that final heat. If the guys I brought in as potential sponsors didn’t like that for excitement, maybe I’d better go back to putting up grandstands.”

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