When the engine of an ocean powerboat racer begins to rev up, the sound reaches into the soul, sidles up through the bloodstream and plucks at the ego. Suddenly, to be an onlooker seems to be nothing; to be aboard, everything. And, almost uniquely in sport, it is occasionally possible for a nonparticipant to go along for the ride. Ego and opportunity joined hands last week in the Hennessy Grand Prix. As 19 soul-stirring racers skimmed abreast up to the start off Point Pleasant, N.J., I found myself right there in the cockpit beside the defending U.S. champion, Eye Surgeon Robert Magoon of Miami Beach, and his mechanic, Gene Lanham, on the best boat in the fleet.
Owned and tuned by Carl Kiekhaefer—who is peerless in his field—built to the famous Cigarette hull design of Don Aronow and skippered by Magoon, a gentlemanly tiger, the Kiekhaefer Aeromarine-1 had won last year and was favored again.
There were 181 miles to go—up along the beach to Asbury Park, down again past Point Pleasant to Seaside, then 50 miles across open ocean to Fire Island off the Long Island shore, 34 miles westward to the mouth of New York Harbor, 43 miles south along the Jersey shore to Seaside again, and finally 11.5 miles back north to the Point Pleasant checkered flag. The day was hot and hazy and the sea nearly flat—not necessarily a favorable condition, since it would be tempting to rev engines to breaking.
Doc Magoon had said, "Hugh, do me one favor. If you feel like you want to get off the boat for any reason, please don't bother to ask. We don't stop."
As we stormed past a very large beach-and-breakwater cluster of spectators and a watching fleet of perhaps 1,000 boats, Magoon looked as relaxed as if he were lining up an easy putt. But after the sprint up and down the beach, Magoon, normally a brilliant navigator, made a rare goof. We passed the committee boat on the wrong side. Instantly realizing what he had done. Magoon spun about to pass on the correct side, but in the meantime two other boats had sped ahead of us. Unworried, Magoon opened up a little and soon overtook them. One boat left behind was Roger Hanks' Blonde III. She lay broken beneath a pall of engine smoke. Perhaps Hanks, a Texas oilman, had lost his wallet again. Once, during a race in Spain, he threw his jacket into the engine compartment, where it spilled his driving-around money into the machinery: $10,000 in hundred-dollar bills. Having cleaned that mess up and emerged only a few thousand the poorer, he got underway again—only, witnesses swear, to have a credit card fall into an engine, causing it to blow.
Still ahead of us was a single foe: the very swift Black Tornado, owned and driven by the former world champion, Vincenzo Balestrieri of Italy.
Soon we were walled in by a woolly fog. Running nearly flat-out, suspended on an opaque sea, we entered an unearthly world of noise, speed and—for me—exhilaration mixed with apprehension. Hit a sea wrong or a piece of driftwood, and.... We were doing 70 miles an hour. Lanham pointed to the throttles. With thumb and forefinger he indicated an inch and a half of speed as yet unused, and he grinned evilly. We had the best boat; no doubt about it. By now my fingers were beginning to freeze into a death-grip on the grab bar. The water was never entirely smooth and we passed from one sea condition to another with unimaginable rapidity.
We caught up with Balestrieri at Fire Island, and commenced a thrilling duel with the Latin lion. When eventually we pulled ahead, there he was, sitting like a vulture just astern, waiting to capitalize on our slightest error. We hit a rogue sea that flung me across my foxhole as Aeromarine dug in, but she lurched back onto even keel—and now we were doing 80 mph. On the water, that isn't slow. Watching Tornado gather herself in and then launch off on a sea into the misty air, revealing her whole hull, was a sight so gripping that I did not then realize we must have been equally spectacular to see.
Near checkpoint six off Long Island's Rockaway Point, Tornado edged past us. Knowing he could catch her when he had to, Magoon chose to lie just off her stern for a while, his idea being to push her so hard she would break down. As we raced on to the Shrewsbury Rocks buoy off Jersey, with only 40 miles to go to the finish, I sensed victory. I almost relaxed. Then....
Crisscrossing in Tornado's wake, Aeromarine suddenly became its own thunderstorm, and we were chips in its vortex. The universe came undone. I remember the port side of the boat lifting up toward me and thinking, without undue anxiety, "We're going to capsize." But then the opposite side, just as suddenly and sharply, careened upward. Holding on was meaningless. Arms, legs, head, torso went their own ways.