During the early 70s the Open Class World Championship was made up of several Grand Prix events in various countries. In 1977 it was decided to stage just one race and that was in Key West, Florida. The Grand Prix featured horrendous weather conditions and even the most hardened offshore teams found it heavy going. However, Betty Cook, a 5 foot 4 inch lady from Newport Beach, California, aboard her Scarab Karma excelled in the large seas and became a hero overnight when she won the inaugural GP leaving her rivals in her wake.
The following article was published in Powerboat Magazine…
BETTY BEATS THE BEST
“She really stuffed it to us…didn’t she?”
A sad wide-eyed and still feeling the effects of being torqued out of his English noggin by a particularly seditious Yankee sea, Londoner Keith Dallas succinctly summed up how Ms. Betty Cook once again minused the machos by winning the first historic World Championship Offshore Power Boat Race at Key West, Florida on November 13th.
The idea of having one true international event for the Sam Griffith Trophy, instead of a series of globe trotting confrontations, has definitely brought new zip into the sport. Unfortunately, Mother Nature decided to zap most of the competitors.
Key West is almost always a rough stuff race course, but that is what offshore competition is all about. Drivers from the United States, South America, Europe, Australia and South Africa had all waited several agonizing months for the start of the single most important offshore race ever. The race committee kept the intensity at high level when a decision was made on Saturday to postpone the classic until the Sabbath and shorten the course from 183 to 127 statute miles due to giant seas.
Fortunately for Cook the one-day delay of the race gave crewman John Connor time to replace both of Kaama’a engines which failed in the warm-up tests on Friday, November 11, with two new mills prepared by Californian Bill Allen.
With seas running from 5-8 feet tall, conditions were hellacious off America’s southernmost city which makes it all the more difficult to explain how itty-bitty 5’4, 112 pound Betty Cook of Newport Beach, Californian, a 54 year old granny, beat not only all the other wave slammers home by a full mortifying 21 minutes, but how she finished the race at all.
Cook’s beautifully trimmed and prepared 38 foot Kevlar clad Scarab Kaama averaged 54.8 mph taking 2.19 to cover what even the English and Aussies admitted was the year’s roughest offshore battle. Riding with the brinelands version of Joan of Arc was throttleman John Connor of Newport Beach and navigator Don Holloway of Ft Lauderdale, Florida.
It took ‘Bounding Betty’ a mere ten minutes after the start flag dropped to get her kidney belt and sea legs adjusted for a move into the lead position which she maintained throughout the race.
Not until 2:40 did the second place male driver rumble past the Mallory Square finish line. That honour belonged to two time US champion Joel Halpern in his famed Kevlar 38 foot Cobra Beep Beep. Made in Halpern’s own South Florida boat shop, Beep Beep was the pre-race favourite in nasty seas. Unfortunately for Halpern, throttleman Wayne Victor and navigator Leo Fredricks, one of Beep Beep’s trim tabs broke off half way into the race rendering the trio with little control and an extraordinarily wild voyage.
Nine minutes after Beep Beep twisted across the finish line, Italy’s towering giant Guido Niccolai kept his 1977 record of finishing every race he’s entered in tact by taking third place in the 38 foot Picchiotti Alitalia Due. Like its sistership Alitalia Uno, constructed of aluminium from a design by Englishman Don Shead, Alitalia Due was powered by twin American made 625hp Mercruisers… the same kind of units that propelled Kaama to its great win. The two Alitalia boats are co- sponsored by Italy’s world airline and by the 22-hotel Ciga chain in Italy.
A driver who found himself in what might have been the right boat in what was definitely the wrong race was fourth place finisher Bob Nordskog of Van Nuys, California. Nordskog is the man who masterminded the idea of creating the one race world championship while he was President of the American Powerboat Association two years ago.
Nordskog’s mount was a 39 foot Kevlar Cigarette named Powerboat Magazine Special after this publication which he owns and whose bare hull weight of only 2900 pounds is so light that painting the thing may be the only reason it doesn’t fly.
Nordskog’s 3.06 time was impressive considering that the PB Special was dead in the water early in the race with mechanical troubles. At one time during the event race navigator Noel Younger recalled hearing mechanic Norm Teague warn Nordskog that the deck was coming off. Nordskog, who had his hands full not only driving the boat but working his one-of-a-kind foot throttle, quickly brushed aside the warning and continued his assault of the sea and the seagulls.
None of the first four boats to finish were made of fibreglass which must be some sort of writing on the waves. And for the first time since 1972 MerCruiser powered the winning world champion.
The race committee should have made an extra margin on the results list next to the DNF column for the DNFD (did not finish drivers).
Italy’s veteran offshore racing ace, 55 year old Francesco Cosentino of Rome, former general secretary of the Italian parliament and current chairman of the Ciga hotel chain, had to pull his 38 foot aluminium Alitalia Uno out of the race when a series of waves sent his face into the steering wheel twice… causing his teeth to chomp a three inch slice in his upper lip and nearly breaking his nose.
One of four ill-fated foreign catamaran pilots who showed up with the wrong gun for the big shoot-out in the Keys was Keith Dallas who went out early in the event when his sleek double beaked hull Penthouse Rizla dug a sponson into a huge wave and stove in the ribs of his co-driver Mike Mantle. Another catamaran driver who wished he had been anywhere but in Key West on November 13 was Mike Doxford.
With his own Cigarette Limit Up broken up in the last regular race of the year, England’s globe-trotting Doxford of London made two tactical errors at the world championship. First he borrowed Cowes-Torquay winner Ken Cassir’s 38 foot wooden Cougar Cat, then he got into a boat he had never driven before. Ten minutes from the start Doxford was all through. The brutal seas had kinked the heavy steel tie bar that kept the two big Mercruiser engines in line on Limit Up.
Another contender who went kaput was Anheuser-Busch Natural Light with a hull that was split from the deck to the waterline. After the split was discovered the boat’s gas tanks ruptured, sending high octane fuel into the bilges of Bernie Little’s craft.
Only seven of the original 18 starters were able to complete the shortened race in the required five hours. Australian national champion Peter Dean’s Sling Shot finished fourteen minutes behind Nordskog after being down in the water twice with steering ailments. Another Aussie, Kevin Wyld of Melbourne, like Dean, gave California boatbuilder Larry Smith both world championship decided in the race as he finished sixth overall and first in Open class II in a twin 175 Mercury Scarab. Wyld took a severe pounding for four hours and eight minutes to complete the race. Class 2 favorite Vaughn Szarka of Ohio was felled when his single engined Headhunter lost a prop and he didn’t have the right one aboard to replace it.
The last offshore boat to finish was Californian Dick Dewitt in Allosaurus, a Magnum powered by three Mercury outboard engines. Dewitt was 32 minutes behind Wyld for a 4:40 clocking.
Despite the busted lips, rented hulls and an assortment of mishaps that befell the DNF’s, the two most disappointed drivers in the race had to be the Argentinians Juan Taylor and Andres Nara who both finished too late to be legal. Both would have won world class championships since they were the only ones in their respective classes to show up.
Getting back to our heroine Betty Cook, to the credit of the men they all came up to the new ‘Queen of Offshore’ and sincerely expressed their admiration. There was little else they could do, so devastating was her victory considering the conditions. The sentiment among the woman on the race scene transcended a mere sport so proud were they. Miami Herald boating writer Jim Martenhoff said in his next day’s covering story that he saw woman weeping over Betty’s success.
Meanwhile the little woman was giving all the credit to her crew of throttleman and set-up genius John Conner, navigator Don Holloway and boatbuilder Larry Smith. It wasn’t the first bit of fame to come Cook’s way. On March 5th of this year she won the Bushmills Grand Prix in her home Pacific Ocean waters, becoming the first woman to ever take the chequered flag in the sport. She kept the US points lead for the next three races yielding it to the ultimate U.S. champ Halpern only after first cracking a rib then blowing an engine in that order at the 13th July New Jersey Grand Prix.
On 10th September the little lady who admits to being so short she spends much of each race hanging in the oversized cockpit by her armpits and who says she can’t even see over Kaama’s nose at times, previewed the Key West race by taking the lead at the start of the San Francisco offshore race and keeping it all the way home. Key West was Betty’s third victory this year which places her second in all the world behind England’s Doxford whose nine coups broke Don Aronow’s previous record of eight set in 1969.
To date, no one including herself has been able to figure out just how Betty does what she does. Her boat, although made of Kevlar, is not recognised as the fastest. There are several ocean racers that have a top end 5 mph quicker or more. There are also drivers who are more talented than she… and certainly many who are stronger, like maybe all of them. There are a few smarter… like maybe none of them… and none more courageous.
Betty says that throttle man Connor had her “stretched out about as far as I could go”, “I thought I was in over my head,” she recalls.
Maybe, but stretched out Betty Cook looked at least twenty-one minutes too long to the rest of the fleet at Key West.