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When 16 of the country's best drivers bunch together at the line and open their throttles in each heat of a national outboard race like the one at right, the man who gets to the first buoy in front is odds-on to win. Don Baldaccini (top), a 21-year-old outboard motor dealer from Miami, Fla., absorbed this basic tact years ago, and has since made winning his business. As Stuart Gray, one of Baldaccini's top rivals in the Florida racing circuit, told SI Reporter Jack Roberts recently, "Don always gets out in front. That's half the battle. Once you're out front it's like riding on a millpond. Every turn you make is clear. Get behind and you have to worry about other boats' wakes."
Baldaccini has spent very little time in anyone's wake. In 1950, his second year in big-time competition, he cleaned up the fast winter circuit around Miami, winning 48 of 71 races and placing in the money in every other race but one. Three years later he was APBA national A stock hydroplane champion. Last year he won again. And this week (Aug. 26-29) at Devil's Lake, Ore. he will go alter his third straight title. In the face of this rather impressive list, however, Baldaccini claims there is no special secret to hitting the line right at the gun with the engine wide open.
"I simply know distance in relation to time," he says blandly. "After a while you know when to cut loose."
Once he has cut loose, he is just as clever at staying on top. Kneeling in the cramped cockpit, right hand on the steering wheel and left hand clamped down on the spring throttle, he is continually shifting his body to keep the flighty hydro in perfect trim. "Everything depends on knee balance," he says. "Going downwind you shift your weight back to keep the nose up in good planing position. Going upwind you lean forward to keep from flipping. Moving into a turn you lean to the left to keep the boat from sliding. If you lean to the right the boat digs in and flops over."
Even a champion can't always keep a 50-mile-an-hour hydro in hand. "I was running in the Biscayne Bay regatta in 1953," Baldaccini recalled, "when the thing got airborne. When I finally got it back down the nose hit a wave. It was just like hitting a brick wall. The boat flew to pieces and the motor passed over me. The propeller raked my left leg and laid it open. I was lucky I didn't get killed. But you can't let things like that bother you. Once you get scared and start holding back, you're through."
Two days before the 1953 Orange Bowl regatta, Baldaccini broke his right hand. He ordered the doctor to make a cast that would leave two fingers free for steering the boat. He won; but by the time the race was over the cast was a soggy mess. "I take boat racing seriously," he said. "You have to treat it like a business. The guys who get out on the course just to horse around don't win."
Besides his instinctive feel for a boat and a fixation on first-place finishes, Baldaccini is a near-genius at tuning a motor. In the stock classes of the APBA, there are strict rules which allow a man to improve his engine by polishing, adjusting and replacing certain parts. But they insist that the engine and its component parts end by looking and measuring like something that can be bought from a dealer's shelf. After Don won his second straight Class A stock hydro championship at De Pere, Wis. last year, the judges made a particularly thorough post-race check of his engine and abruptly disqualified him. The engine was too perfect.
If the engine was too perfect, the judges' ruling was too obscure for Baldaccini. It was also too obscure for the APBA which, upon his appeal, reversed the decision and gave him back his title.
This year Baldaccini is aiming for more than another A stock hydro championship. He also plans to enter the B stock hydro and A and B stock runabouts. In a warmup at Passe-a Grille Beach, Fla. last month he put on an awesome preview, winning both heats of his races in all four classes. A few weeks later he went to Hallandale, Fla. for one last tuneup before heading for Devil's Lake. Just before the race his A stock engine balked and he stripped it down for a complete overhaul. He managed, nonetheless, to win fourth place in the A hydros and one heat in the B hydros and take a first and second in the B run-abouts. Then Businessman Baldaccini was set for the nationals. "I learned what the motors need," he said finally. "I think everything is ready now."