Monday, September 18, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hydro driver dies in crash in San Diego

Seattle Times staff reporter

Unlimited-hydroplane driver George Stratton died yesterday in San Diego after flipping during a test run.

It is the sport's first fatal accident in 18 years, and the first time a driver has died while racing in an unlimited hydroplane with an enclosed cockpit.

"It was almost like we whipped that problem, but we didn't," said designer Ron Jones, one of the pioneers in creating the enclosed cockpit. "Boat racing is always dangerous, as is any motorsport."

Stratton's death is the 15th fatality in unlimited-hydroplane racing, the first since 1982 when Dean Chenoweth died after flipping during a qualifying run in the Tri-Cities.

Yesterday's accident occurred at about 9 a.m., before the first race. The schedule continued, and Dave Villwock won the final, which was the last race of the season. It was Villwock's sixth victory in seven races this season.

Afterward, he drove a lap around the course in the opposite direction, a tribute to Stratton.

Stratton's death is the first racing fatality in the sport since the advent of the enclosed cockpit in the 1980s. Stratton's boat hit the water nose-first. He was airlifted to a San Diego hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

"I guess it was a reality check," said Gary Garbrecht, president of Hydro-PROP. "As much as you tend to feel you're secure and as much as you get a sense of complacency in those (reinforced cockpits), circumstances are such that it happened."

Designer Ron Jones of Fife was a pioneer in developing the enclosed cockpit. He used canopies from F-16 jets and pilots were strapped into the boat. Before the use of cockpits, the driver wasn't belted into the boat and instead hoped to be thrown clear of the boat in case of a crash. If the boat landed upside down, the driver wasn't protected from impact with the water.

The first hydroplane-racing fatalities occurred in Seattle in 1951 when a driver and riding mechanic of the Quicksilver drowned when the boat sank. There were eight more deaths in the next 20 years. Chenoweth's death in 1982 came a year after Bill Muncey, the sport's winningest driver, died in a race in Mexico. Yesterday's race was the Bill Muncey Cup, held in his honor.

No one had died in an unlimited-hydroplane accident since then, a tribute to the safety advances pioneered by Jones and Jeff Neff in creating the enclosed cockpit.

Jones spoke with Stratton's crew chief yesterday, who indicated the boat's front wing may have shorn off upon impact with the water and then struck the cockpit.

Kay King, spokeswoman for USA Racing Partners team, didn't see the accident, but was told the boat hit nose-first.

"It didn't land like a normal flip-over," she said. "It was like he hit cockpit-first."

Stratton was 44 and lived in Las Vegas. He is survived by his wife Cici, son Christopher, 14, and daughter Natalia, 6. His family was at the race in San Diego.

The accident occurred on the final lap of Stratton's morning test run on the Mission Bay course, which is the fastest unlimited-hydroplane course. He flipped on the backstretch of the course at a spot notorious for the wind that blows through the opening of the bay. In 1989, two boats blew over simultaneously on the same part of the course where Stratton crashed yesterday.

"The wind comes through there like a wind tunnel even on a good day," Jones said.

It is the seventh racing-related fatality on the Mission Bay course since races were first held there in 1958. He is the second unlimited-hydroplane driver to die in San Diego. Tommy Fults was killed during a testing run on the course in 1970.

Stratton was the only rookie unlimited-hydroplane driver racing in San Diego, but he had raced boats for the past 20 years. Stratton set five world-speed records in flatbottom boats and won four national championships. He was inducted into the American Power Boat Association's Hall of Champions.

"I loved George like a brother," Jones said. "I was closer to him than any other person I've ever been involved with in racing."

Jones said Stratton would call him before races if he was nervous.

"He would begin telling me every little detail of the boat, how it was running and what adjustments he made," Jones said. "We would talk for a while, and then he would say it was about 15 minutes until the next heat and he had to go. He said he called me because he wanted to relax and he felt much better.

"Unfortunately, I didn't get to talk to him (yesterday)."


Hydroplane fatalities

Drivers and crewmen killed during unlimited hydroplane races and testing:

Year Driver Site

1951 Orth Mathiot Seattle

Thom Whittaker # Seattle

1961 Bob Hayward Detroit

1966 Ron Musson Washington, D.C.

Don Wilson Washington, D.C.

Rex Manchester Washington, D.C.

Chuck Thompson Detroit

1967 Bill Brow Tampa, Fla.

1968 Warner Gardner Detroit

1970 Tommy Fults San Diego

1974 Skip Walther Miami

1977 Jerry Bangs Seattle

1981 Bill Muncey Acapulco, Mexico

1982 Dean Chenoweth Kennewick, Wash.

# on-board mechanic

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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