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Hugh D. Whall
November 20, 1972
A new season begins and the man who rules U.S. powerboat racing receives a rare vessel. He says thanks by winning a Key West thriller
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November 20, 1972

Wet, Racy And Royal

A new season begins and the man who rules U.S. powerboat racing receives a rare vessel. He says thanks by winning a Key West thriller

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Robert Magoon. It is not a name one would give instinctively to a monarch. Add the man's professional title and he becomes Doctor Magoon. The sound of it on the tongue immediately brings to mind Mr. Magoo, the nearsighted cartoon curmudgeon, and there's nothing kingly about that. And while Magoon is himself a handy man with a cornea—he is an eye surgeon of great and delicate skill—his true kingdom is the sea, over which he drives large and thunderous racing boats at exceedingly rapid speeds. For four years Magoon has reigned over U.S. ocean powerboat racing, leaving all pretenders in his boiling wake. Last week he began a new defense of his fief by winging 190 miles from Key West out to the Dry Tortugas and back at a near-record clip for a victory right royal.

That's Magoon driving up a storm to your right in what must be one of the nicest presents ever given a sovereign. It is a 36-foot Cigarette hull of the kind that has dominated recent ocean racing and in its stern are two splendid new engines—all in all, a $40,000 gift. Until last week Magoon had simply driven boats owned and prepared by Carl Kiekhaefer, a Merlin among mechanical abracadabrans, but now Kiekhaefer had not only pulled the engines from his bag of tricks but had given them, boat and all, festooned with a big pink ribbon, to Doc Magoon.

Well, the engines created quite a racket, even when they were not running, as the contestants assembled for the Hennessy Key West race. There was a clatter of complaint from drivers who did not possess the new power plants, built by Kiekhaefer Aeromarine, that perhaps they had not been truly homologated—i.e., that not enough had been sold to make them legal for championship competition. But since there were eight for sale at dockside (at $8,500 apiece) and another pair had been installed in a boat called Red Vengeance, the grumbling eventually died down.

What makes the new engines so attractive is the fact that Kiekhaefer has somehow managed to make them run without belts of any kind. Belts break. In addition they are more compact than most engines of their output—605 horsepower. Indeed, at 468 cubic inches they give away several inches to the rival 482-and 496-cu.-in. MerCruisers. Some of the owners of the bigger engines were among those who wanted the Aeromarines out. This perplexed a Kiekhaefer man, Odell Lewis, who said, "It's the only time in my life I've ever heard of anyone protesting a smaller engine."

When the racing crowd wasn't thumbing the rule book it was trading war stories, among them a yarn spun by Knocky House, once right-hand man to famed Don Aronow and now crewman for the new world ocean-racing champion, Bobby Rautbord of Miami Beach. ( Key West, one of four U.S. races counting toward the world championship, was the last on the 1972 world calendar but first on the 1972-73 domestic schedule.) Rautbord drives a boat called Fino and House is an ex-Olympic wrestler who went for a swim during the Norwegian championship race last summer.

House said it was the roughest race he could remember, and he is an expert on the subject, having been in more than 150 events all over the globe. According to House, the boat got lost while belting down the Danish coast. "Where are we?" he asked a Norwegian navigator who was aboard for his supposed local knowledge. Replied the Viking with a shrug, "I dunno." Just then, over the tops of towering waves, House sighted people on the beach. Rautbord headed Fino inshore. Dressed in life jacket and helmet and with a chunk of chart stuffed in his mouth, Knocky leaped overboard and swam the 100 yards to shore.

As casually as he could, he strolled up to the folks, laid the chart out before them and jabbed his finger at the finish line. They pointed, House ran for the water, swam out to Fino, climbed aboard—and off they went to win.

Also present at Key West was Oilman Roger Hanks with his Blonde IV. He had won the race last year and was back determined to repeat. A tall, rangy individualist who lets the world know how happy he feels when a well comes in—he claims he has drilled only one dry hole—Hanks is famous in racing for doing everything the hard way. "The harder I work," he says, "the luckier I get." If a vaultful of money and a tendency to shove the throttles through their mounts were the only criteria, he would never lose. "The difference between men and boys is the cost of their toys," says Hanks. His cost plenty. He has approximately half a million invested in boats and engines alone.

There was also a sensational Italian driver, Dr. Carlo Bonomi. A newcomer, Bonomi won the prestigious Cowes-to-Torquay run in England this year and gave Rautbord a good fight for the world championship. He had finished second in the Miami-Nassau race after a courageous trip in rough weather, but at Key West his Red Vengeance was fated to fizzle.

One of the mob not on hand was Sammy James. A not-so-funny thing happened to him on the way down. James is racing director of the Bertram Yacht Corp., once a world-beater in ocean racing, and had intended to make Key West the inaugural event in a smashing comeback with a winged racer. The idea behind the wing was that it would not only help stabilize the boat but glide it over rough water and add lift to lighten the hull, thus increasing speed. When James and co-driver Gordon Cooper, the astronaut, took the boat out for a test spin off Miami last week the wing was not in place. Coming in through Government Cut the boat hit a freighter's wake, leaped 20 feet into the air, landed on her tail, got slapped by a smaller wave and came down hard—so hard that James bit the steering wheel. Picking himself up, he turned to Cooper and mumbled through broken teeth, "Am I O.K.?" Replied Cooper, who escaped with a badly wrenched knee: "Well, your tongue's sticking out but your lips are closed." It took 26 stitches to sew up James' face. The boat was out of the race.

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