As Dean Chenoweth advanced the accelerator on Miss Budweiser’s 3,800-hp Rolls-Royce Griffon engine, the hydroplane skimmed down the Columbia River, spitting a 100-yard-long plume of water behind it. The event was a qualifying heat for the Columbia Cup in Pasco, Wash., and Chenoweth, 44, was gunning for his third straight national “thunderboat” championship. He had hit 175 mph when suddenly—all such things happen suddenly—the powerboat’s nose lifted (sequence at right). In the blink of an eye it flipped over backward and hit the water with an explosive splash. When paramedics pulled the driver from the water, he had no pulse. An hour later Chenoweth was pronounced dead from massive head, neck and chest injuries.
Dean Chenoweth always understood that his life could end with a high-speed spill. His main rival as a hydroplaner, Bill Muncey, was killed while trying to catch up with Chenoweth in last fall’s world championship in Acapulco. Chenoweth himself had suffered three near-fatal accidents. On land, ironically, he acted as though he was trying to live forever: He didn’t drink or smoke, he ate carefully, took his vitamins and jogged 10 miles a day.
The only thing he did that wasn’t healthy was drive the world’s fastest boats as fast as they could go. He was the first man in history to survive a 200-mph water crash, and he was philosophical about it: “I’ve never believed in luck. I just believe we’re all here for a purpose for a certain length of time. I’ve always had the feeling that when my time on earth is up, regardless of whether I’m racing a boat 180-190 mph or driving my car down the street, it’s just my time to go.”
He was a man who had, as the cliche goes, everything to live for. He made good money from his Budweiser distributorship in Tallahassee, Fla. and lived well in a brick bungalow outside the city with his second wife, Jenny, 39. Friends have described his union with Jenny as “a marriage made in heaven.” The two frequently ran marathons together. A civic booster active in his local Rotary Club and YMCA, he was elected Tallahassee’s Man of the Year for 1981.
But there was also what he called “this itch.” Born in Xenia, Ohio, the son of an avid boatman, he “grew up in a boat” on nearby Indian Lake. He entered his first race at 12 and won fourth place and a $5 bill, which he framed. In the ’50s he won seven national championships in small outboards, then dropped off the circuit to attend the University of Miami and help run his father’s auto dealership. By 1968 he had returned to racing, this time in the “thunderboat” class.
His most spectacular crash came in 1979 while he was chasing a speed record in Seattle’s Lake Washington. As Miss Budweiser approached 220 mph, she hit a piece of debris. The boat went airborne, sailing 20 feet high, and Chenoweth flew 100 feet through the air before skipping like a flat stone across 50 feet of water. “If I had gone in face down,” he remembered a few weeks ago, “I probably would have drowned.” Instead, he suffered “only” eight broken ribs, a broken pelvis and heart and lung contusions. Two months later he had recuperated and was ready to race again. He took it all in stride: “I just thought, like everybody does, ‘Well, it’s not going to happen to me.’ But it did.”