SI Vault
Jerry Kirshenbaum
November 17, 1969
Don Aronow hurts a little, but as the world's top ocean powerboat driver and builder he is never bored
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November 17, 1969

Master Of Those Mad Racers

Don Aronow hurts a little, but as the world's top ocean powerboat driver and builder he is never bored

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In the nautical version of natural selection, a boat that can endure an ocean race is presumed to be capable of withstanding anything that a weekend sailor might do to it. Until he sold off Magnum last year, Aronow thus enjoyed much the same kind of far-ranging influence on the evolution of powerboat hulls that Mercury motors' Carl Kiekhaefer, whose formidable MerCruisers are used by most top ocean drivers (including Aronow), has long exercised on the development of marine engines.

Although production-model Formulas, Donzis and Magnums continue to sell briskly among the pleasure-boat crowd, only Magnums still appear with any regularity in major offshore races. The most popular racing hulls nowadays are the 32-foot, deep-V speedsters built by Miami's Bertram Yacht company, whose president, Peter Rittmaster, is a hot ocean racer. Aronow, one of the few racers who does not drive a Bertram ("I want to give Peter a goal in life," he explains), utilizes a pair of identical 32-footers built to his specifications by Miami's Cary Marine, Inc. Both are called The Cigarette after a celebrated Prohibition-era hijacking boat of that name, and Aronow runs one in Europe, the other in the U.S.

Aronow's sales agreement with Magnum (an accord currently entangled in litigation) constrains him from going back into boatbuilding until next spring. In the meantime, his influence may be seen everywhere. Rittmaster, for example, got into racing at the helm of a Donzi borrowed from Aronow three years ago. Italy's Vincenzo Balestrieri took the world championship away from Aronow last year in a 28-foot Magnum Don sold him. (This year Balestrieri is racing a Bertram.)

And then there is Bill Wishnick, another of the top drivers, but one who had never raced at all when he approached Aronow at the New York Boat Show in 1963. "Mr. Aronow," Wishnick said, "I'm interested in buying a boat." Aronow accommodated him first with a 23-foot Formula and later with a 28-foot Donzi. "I was a married, out-of-shape, middle-aged businessman," recalls Wishnick, board chairman of New York's Witco Chemical Company. "Now I'm divorced, an ocean racer and a swinger. Seeing Don was the best thing that ever happened to me."

Aronow's reputation for exuberant behavior ashore and afloat is well grounded in fact. ("I wonder," says his 16-year-old daughter Claudia, "what Daddy will be when he grows up.") Who but Aronow would have barged into a formal banquet in a Jamaica hotel on horseback? Who else would have starred in the following true-life vignette of marine life: Aronow was a guest on the yacht of a European sportsman whose wife, suspecting the man of keeping a mistress, unexpectedly arrived on board. The European went ashore in a hurry, leaving Aronow to placate her. This involved relieving her of a .38 pistol. When Aronow flung it into the water, the woman jumped overboard, whereupon a crewman went over the side to rescue her.

Says Aronow: "I'm thinking, 'How did I get involved in this?' It's like an Italian movie. Suddenly I realize this crewman can't swim. He's floundering. So I dive in and get the woman aboard. I look back and the crewman is still struggling. Nobody makes any move to save him, so I jump back in and bring him out, too."

The experience amounted to something of a refresher course for Aronow, who, in his Coney Island days, gained a reputation for saving people from drowning almost before they had a chance to get wet. The son of a New York businessman who had lost everything in the Depression, Aronow attended the Merchant Marine Academy during World War II, afterward became a seaman and sailed to Europe, Africa and South America in Liberty ships.

At Brooklyn College, which he attended both before and after his voyages as a seaman, Aronow won seven varsity letters as a football end, a trackman (hammer and shotput) and a heavyweight wrestler who knew only two holds but, as he recalls, "made up for it by being aggressive." It was during his second Brooklyn College hitch that Aronow married Shirley Goldin, who had caught his eye on the beach at Coney Island.

To support her, Aronow began trading in war surplus goods. In 1950 he became a field superintendent for Shirley's brothers, who were in the construction business in Northern New Jersey. Striking out on his own 18 months later, Aronow reportedly made his first million by the time he was 28.

A New Jersey community magazine said Aronow "moves too fast for the public to evaluate his incredible career." By the time the article appeared, Aronow recalls, he had become bored with building "one house after another" and had "retired" to Florida.

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