VENTURA COUNTY HALL OF FAME : She Finally Got Up to Speed at 50 : Drag boats: Cunningham got into the race at an age many get into a rocking chair.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jacque Cunningham was a 50-year-old grandmother when she began her career as a quarter-mile jet boat drag racer.

The longtime resident of Simi Valley has won more than 20 titles in her 11-year racing career, which began shortly after she and her husband, a former car drag racer, watched a boat race in Parker, Ariz.

The idea of getting behind the wheel of one of those powerful speed machines immediately invaded Cunningham's mind. So she did it and it has earned her a spot in the Ventura County Sports Hall of Fame.

"I used to compete in 30 to 33 races a year, then it was down to 20," Cunningham said. "Now I do about eight a year."

In 1987 Cunningham, 61, was named driver of the year by her peers in the International Hot Boat Assn. pro gas jet class. In '92 she was named driver of the year by one of the trade's magazines.

Cunningham, a board member of the Drag Boat Racers Emergency Support Program, is the first woman boat racer to be featured in Hot Rod magazine.

Her wildest ride occurred when her jet boat flipped at more than 120 miles per hour and she suffered five broken ribs and a broken ankle. The diamond was knocked out of her wedding ring.

It didn't scare Cunningham out of racing, however.

"Three months after the accident I was out on a 150 mile-per-hour hydro," she said with a laugh. "That accident didn't frighten me because I knew what was happening.

"It's like an earthquake. You can't stop the world and say, 'I want to get off.' You have to lick up the wounds and keep going."

Cunningham's boat, Midnight Oil, is a liquid fuel-driven capsule with a 1,000-horsepower engine that can go up to 170 m.p.h. Most of her opponents are a lot younger.

"I drive against all the kids," Cunningham said. "It's fun, you know. They're mostly in their 30s and 40s."

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