Don Aronow, the world champion ocean powerboat racer, has two nicknames: The Animal and The Czar. The first was conferred on him by his fellow racers for the lionlike way in which he drives small boats over big seas. The second reflects his eminence as a builder of racing boats. The American offshore champion for the third straight year and holder of the world title for the second time in three years—all in hulls of his own design—Aronow cracks other people's records and his own bones with equal �lan. "There is something about myself and the ocean," he says. "I respect it, but I'm not afraid of it. When I get out there, I want to dominate it."
Aronow performed his animal act for the final time this year in last week's Miami- Key West race and, with a typical win-or-bust flourish, surged into a widening lead before a blown water pump forced him out. It was a heady, if anticlimactic, finish to a season in which Aronow campaigned tirelessly in both Europe and the U.S., won an unprecedented eight out of 12 races, and in Italy's Viareggio-Bastia race last July roared over the 214-mile course in a world-record average of 74.3 mph.
Until this year just about the only offshore prize to elude Aronow was the Bahamas 500, a 542-mile gut check out among the cays and cuts of the Bahama Islands. He had finished runner-up in the first 500, held in 1967, as trying conditions forced all but 16 of the 63 starters to drop out along the way. Last year he became ill on the eve of the race and had to be flown to Miami, where he was hospitalized for a stomach injury suffered in a boating accident a month earlier.
No sooner did Aronow arrive in the Bahamas for this year's 500 than he fell ill again. On race morning he had a fever of 101�—a trifle to Aronow but a matter of possible concern to his wife Shirley. Leaving her asleep in their motel room, he sneaked out to the starting line and grabbed the controls of his remarkable boat The Cigarette. When Aronow found himself falling behind the leaders, he veered from the prescribed course and boldly—feverishly, one might say—took a shortcut through a treacherous, rock-strewn cay. He went on to win by a scant six feet over Mel Riggs at the astonishing average speed of 64.523 miles an hour.
By such exploits Aronow not only has emerged as the king—czar, if you like—of powerboat racing but also has found a powerful antidote to boredom in these, his retirement years. A former chief lifeguard at Coney Island who made a pile as a New Jersey homebuilder, Aronow decided at age 34 to stop building and start playing in the Florida sun. That is when he began playing with boats. Today, at 42, he is a big (6'3", 210 pounds), duskily handsome, thick-browed man who enjoys the good life but chooses to spice it with a bit of speed and danger.
"I'm a charger," he says with a shrug. "I go all out in whatever I do. I like to compete, but I also like to do well in what I'm competing in. At my age there are few other sports I could do as well in. But in ocean racing you can let the engines do the work that your legs and arms used to do, and you can compete successfully against men who are much younger. Experience and desire, those are the equalizers."
Experience, desire—and an attention to details that drives his more happy-go-lucky competitors up the wall. "In getting ready for a race," he says, "you have to check the boat over, recheck it and then check it again, and then when you're all through you have to check it one more time. So many little things can go wrong. I want everything to be perfect when the race begins. I like to get into the boat and go."
Sometimes Aronow checks the little details right out into the Gulf Stream, which can be treacherous in any season. He and Crewman Knocky House went out one spring day last year for a test run in a 27-foot Magnum. Wearing neither racing helmets nor life jackets, they were churning along at 60 mph when the boat suddenly submarined into heavy seas. The impact sent Aronow crashing against House, knocking them both out. Knocky suffered a concussion. Aronow, who, among other things, had slammed into the wheel, wound up with gashes on his legs, abdominal injuries and chest pains that turned out to be a cracked sternum.
When Aronow came to, the boat was creeping along at 10 mph. Aronow lay flat on his back watching the clouds drift by as he slowly regained his wits.
"Want to try again?" he asked Knocky, who by then had regained consciousness also.