• Commentary- Steve David on Racing Tragedies

    by Steve David

    All too often when someone dies in a boat racing accident, the various websites have several postings of condolences, with many saying “they died doing what they loved”. While there is no doubt that those of us who race do love racing, I don’t believe any of us want to die. Racing in fact, is more a celebration of life and living it fully by our self definition. To others it’s too risky, or simply a waste of time. Just look in the newspapers after a racing tragedy. The comments section are strewn with people who find what we do thoughtless, selfish, etc. In part they are right, but we’ve made the decision and we can’t be angry with those who see it differently.
    There is the assumed risk, but there is also the assumed safety aspect. As boat racing has progressed over the decades, the safety advances have been significant. I’m alive today because people like Bill Muncey, Dean Chenoweth, George Stratton and others were killed in Unlimited hydros. We learned from their deaths, and today our Unlimited Hydro safety capsules, air system, restraint systems, structural integrity etc. have saved countless lives. We didn’t take comfort in “they died doing what they loved”. Instead the competitors and governing bodies said we must do better. We must do everything we can to insure these drivers return to their families in one piece after the days racing is over.
    And that brings us to Tavares Florida and the deaths at Lake Dora. I didn’t know Mark Van Winkle who died in a Jersey speed skiff accident on Saturday. As I understand he and his rider were ejected and another boat hit him. In APBA racing every Jersey skiff must have both a roll cage and a restraint system. APBA invoked those rules because people had died in accidents just like Mark Van Winkles. The APBA systems aren’t a guaranty, but they are an improvement to the equipment that ran at Tavares.
    I did know Dea Wiseley and Chuck “Rookie” Woodruff. I raced against Rookie since the late 60s. Dea ran in the 280 hydro class, in a boat called Warhawk. She was a Sooy hull owned by Wally Ossinga. Dea and I only competed with each other once. I was driving the E-555 for Jack Lindeman. I was 2nd, Dea was 1st. I was usually running every class but his, which is good, because he was great.
    These guys were the epitome of sportsmen, kind people to their families and others, stout competitors on the race course. Rookie had broken his back in a blow over at St Pete driving for Alan Vordermeir in the 70’s and yet continued to race. Dea had his share of accidents as well. On Sunday in Tavares, Fla., on Lake Dora they were killed driving open cockpit hydros in what was supposed to be a Vintage event. In APBA Vintage events, the boats are not allowed to race, but rather run moderate speed “fly bys” in generally a single file. The event at Tavares was not APBA sanctioned.
    And therein is the point. Dea and Rookie were as good as you get, great drivers with multiple championships. They both raced all over the USA and Canada. From conventional shovel nose hydros, E service runabouts to cabovers they were there at the Apex of boat racing. They were driving boats that in their days were the standard bearers. As APBA developed the Vintage category, specific rules were made to continue to keep people healthy and allow a sanctioned event for display, and fun runs. Well, this past weekend the fun ended. I find a parallel to Dale Earnhardt’s death. Dale apparently didn’t like some of the safety systems used by others. Since Dale’s death, countless others have survived almost identical accidents, if not worse.
    Dea’s wife Yvonne is one heck of a woman. Her quotes in the media were supportive, loving and gentle. She loved her husband, she knew he loved what he was doing, and isn’t blaming anyone. I’d wager she would much rather have him home to talk of the day’s events and grow older together. Would the accidents have happened no matter what? Maybe. However, if we know there is a better way to conduct events, regardless of sanction group or category, shouldn’t we? Or is it OK to just do your own thing because it’s your choice how you live and die? Maybe, but when your enjoyment leads to death, and ultimately shuts down racing in cities across the world, your idea of fun now impacts a lot more than just you. It is at that point that the collective racing organizations have a larger stake.
    Dea left a loving wife, children and grandchildren. As best I know, Rookie left a loving wife and a child. I don’t know if he had grandchildren. Last time I saw Rookie was at the Palm Beach boat show last year where he was selling Rampage boats. Always a smile, always a great and true story and always so full of life.
    3 deaths at Key West. 3 deaths at Tavares. All in the span of 6 months………