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In his workaday world 43-year-old Dean Chenoweth of Tallahassee is a near-perfect person. He doesn't smoke. He doesn't drink. He eats what he needs, takes diet supplements and runs eight miles a day. Although a model of abstinence in his ordinary life, in his specialized avocation, unlimited hydroplane racing, Chenoweth has been the worst kind of backslider. He has given up the brawling game several times, but like a sot passing a frontier saloon, somehow each time he has been sucked back through the swinging doors for one more round.
In the 35 years since unlimited hydroplane racing became a sensibly formalized sport, more than 130 drivers have taken, part in it. Only Chenoweth and six others have won more than a dozen races. Only 51 drivers have won so much as a single race, and eight of those died trying to win one more. Today, a worthwhile unlimited hydro (or "thunderboat") complete with a half-dozen backup motors and assorted support vehicles, costs about $300,000. To campaign it for a season costs again as much. Although it is now a micrometric game, the only certainty is still uncertainty. Rods pop through engine walls, welds fail, superchargers choke up, fuel lines clog, hulls delaminate, holes appear in the rock-hard water. However fat his bankroll, no backer should get into the game unless he is willing to be unlucky, and no driver should until he is ready to accept a gravestone as a permanent trophy.
The sport has always been in a state of giddy flux. Drivers jump from boat to boat, owners change boats, and boats change their sponsorship and names with abandon. A handsome craft that starts a season as McTookey's Blue-Plate Special may well end it, for better or worse, as Miss Cocoa Butter Hair Oil.
Since 1946, there has truly been only one monument of constancy, a driver named Bill Muncey, who took up boat racing, legends say, shortly after Noah ran his ark aground on Mount Ararat. Muncey won his first thunderboat race 25 years ago, when some of his present rivals were still toddling. He has won 61 since, a supremacy that had rarely been threatened until two years ago, when Chenoweth made another of his returns from retirement. Two weeks ago, on Seattle's Lake Washington, Chenoweth won the Gold Cup race, the 22nd victory of his on-again, off-again career (which, if totted up, amounts to about eight seasons). Taking into account the performances of the two drivers, if Chenoweth really sticks with it this time, it looks as if he will pass Muncey on the alltime winner's list in about the year 2005.
In thunderboating, the outcome of each race is decided by a final heat, but in determining the national champion each year, the points scored in all preliminary heats count equally with those of final heats. Since he first stepped into an unlimited hydroplane in 1968, Chenoweth has run in 197 preliminary and final heats and won more than half of them—a percentage that no rival has approached. Last year, in the process of winning the national title aboard Miss Budweiser (the 13th hull so-named), Chenoweth had a record-setting string of 20 victories in heats before losing the final of the sixth race to Muncey. In the first three races this year, while Muncey and his boat, Atlas Van Lines, suffered routine misfortunes, Chenoweth won all his preliminary heats and all three finals. Granted, he lost the next two races on the circuit—Thunder On the Ohio at Evansville, Ind. and the Columbia Cup at Tri-Cities, Wash.—but his victory in the Gold Cup was enough to clinch the 1981 title with one race to go in the season.
Every driver worth the name knows that before his playing days are done, he and his thunderboat will probably have at least one mad fling together. It may happen in front of the grandstand or in the distant fury of a turn, but wherever, it will be impromptu, the boat suddenly roaring out of the water, swapping ends or looping or barrel-rolling, throwing geysers of spray one way and her driver the other. The crowd will gasp, the caution flags will wave. The paramedics will descend. Sometimes the boat is demolished and the driver survives. Sometimes it is goodby to both.
Whatever his luck, whatever his special genius, when it comes to making dramatic exits and remarkable comebacks, Chenoweth is in a class by himself. His boyish face may not be familiar, but his figure certainly is. Photographs of him flying through the air silhouetted against the spume of one disaster or another have appeared in papers and periodicals the world around. In 1969, his second year of thunderboating, at the wheel of MYR's Special (formerly Miss Smirnoff) Chenoweth scored 6,175 championship points, only 200 fewer than the winner, Bill Sterett Sr., driver of Miss Budweiser (the sixth so named). The following year, when Sterett retired, Chenoweth was offered the ride in Miss Budweiser by her owner, Bernie Little, a vibrant Anheuser-Busch distributor and celebrity hound who has been photographed hobnobbing with just about every notable of the last decade except Santa Claus and the Pope. In his first season in a Miss Bud, Chenoweth started well, giving and taking with Muncey, who had moved into the cockpit of MYR's Special (renamed MYR Sheet Metal), the boat Chenoweth had forsaken. Then, in the sixth race on the Columbia River at Pasco, Wash., on the first turn of the second lap of his first heat, the nose of Miss Bud dug in and came apart. Bits and pieces of the hull flew every which way. As the boat swung, she lobbed Chenoweth into the air. Still swinging, she hit him again, batting him about 50 feet across the water.
It looked like a final fling for both driver and boat, but it was the end of neither. Chenoweth got out of it with many bruises, minor contusions and a severed nerve in his left arm. The boat was raised from the river bottom. Twelve days after the crash, Chenoweth was back aboard. He won the last two races on the circuit and the national championship. The press, which early on had nicknamed him "Dapper Dean" and the "Xenia Zip" (in deference to his Ohio hometown), began calling him "The Comeback Kid."
In 1971, when Chenoweth was on his way to his second national title, the press asked why he didn't have a go at the world straightaway speed record of 200.419. Chenoweth firmly shut the door on that prospect with two quick sentences. "Owners and drivers are now thinking of winning races," he said, "not setting straightaway records. You realize very little publicity out of a record."
Eight years later—Oct. 23, 1979, to be exact—on Lake Washington in Seattle, Chenoweth sat in a big, wide, new, superpowered Miss Budweiser, prepared to run for the straightaway record. He failed, but crashed so spectacularly in the attempt that he got far more publicity than if he had succeeded.