Steve Reynolds Green Lake Crash

By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is based upon an interview that I conducted with Steve Reynolds in 1979. It concerns Steve's accident with the 225 Class PAY `n PAK on Seattle's Green Lake in 1978. This occurred four months prior to his debut as an Unlimited hydroplane driver in September of that year with MISS CIRCUS CIRCUS.]

After entering the sport in 1973 with an old-style conventional hull called the SUNDANCE KID, I picked up my first competitive rig two years later. This was the WHITE LIGHTNING (later renamed PAY `n PAK), designed by Dave Knowlen and built by Norm Berg, which dominated the local 225 Cubic Inch Class scene until May of 1978 when I had a very serious accident on Green Lake.

The crash really put some maturity on my bones. I don't think that I drove with total abandonment, but there had been times when I drive not a foot or two over my head but way over it. This was because I just couldn't stand to have to run behind anybody.

In the First Heat at Green Lake, I locked horns with Jim Kropfeld in the COUNTRY BOY from Cincinnati and beat him.

Jim is a good friend of mine. We had met in 1975 at the Nationals, also on Green Lake, where we ran one-on-one for two and a half laps in probably the finest heat I have ever driven. It was racing at its very best. I was hanging in the air and so was he. Neither one of us took our foot off the floor for three solid laps.

I felt good after winning the First Heat, but I was still nervous. All week long, the media had played up the East vs. West element, the COUNTRY BOY against the PAY `n PAK. Kropfeld had won everything back East; I'd won everything out West. People were there to see who was supreme. I felt like I was holding up the whole APBA Region 10. If I lost, I'd be letting them down.

At the time, I was fighting an internal battle within myself. Did I drive hard because I loved to win or was I afraid of losing? Never before had I faced the possibility of defeat. In two and a half years of running, mechanical problems aside, I had never lost a race because somebody else did it better. But now I recognized that Kropfeld was awfully good and his boat was very fast. It meant going all out.

As we were sitting in the water waiting for the next heat, it was twice postponed because of wind. My partner and crew chief Jim Harvey was holding the boat. I said to him, "Jim, what do you say we take next week off?"

He was surprised. "Why? You haven't missed a race in two years." I told him that I was tired. In fact, I was exhausted. I didn't have my mind in the right spot.

Meanwhile, out on the race course, Don Due, who drives the CRAZY KANAKA, was a course judge in the first turn. He called the tower because the winds were gusting to 25 miles an hour. He knew that the 225s were coming up and tried to get hold of somebody to postpone the heat again and, instead, send out a slower class. He couldn't reach anyone by the time the 5-minute gun fired. So, the die was cast.

I went out on the course. There were eight or nine boats there. I got into position. The 1-minute gun went off, and I cut across the infield. I was right where I wanted to be and I had Kropfeld right where I wanted him to be--on the outside of me.

I looked up and there was another boat circling around in front of me. Well, I didn't want to battle him and didn't care if he had the inside of me as long as I had the inside of the COUNTRY BOY. So, I motioned to him to take the inside. He instead drove right along side of me, cut in front of me, and hosed me down.

Then I got mad and scooted around him. When I came out of his water, I ran right smack into another boat, driven by my good friend Mike Mills who was heading up the back chute. I rode right up onto Mike's deck, banged into his exhaust pipe, punched a hole in my sponson, and slid off. I tore his boat up pretty bad. My rig stopped and everybody went by me.

I was just madder than hell at the guy who cut me off because there was no need to do it. All he had to do was just take the inside because I was giving it to him and wasn't fighting him for it. He must have thought that I was. At that point, all I wanted to do was to get in front and hose him down in return. That was my first mistake. I lost my head.

After re-starting the boat, I tore off up the middle of the pack, weaving in and out of boats through the upper turn. I got in front and watered down the offending driver. Then, I realized that I was early for the start and in danger of jumping the gun but, having just rounded the exit buoy, I was committed. So, I had to back off on the throttle momentarily before I finally stuck my foot into it.

Meanwhile, COUNTRY BOY had made a good flying start on the outside. He was angling for the first turn and had about a two-boat edge on me. But the farther we accelerated down the front straightaway, the closer I got to him.

We finally pulled about even, except that he made a run at the entrance buoy and never bothered to turn, his arc being much different than mine. I knew what Jim was doing. He was actually setting up at about the third buoy while I had to hit the first marker and hang a hard left--very hard--or run right over the top of him.

So, in about a second and a half, I had to decide: "Do I slow down and go through his roostertail? But if I do that, I've lost the heat. He's going to give me a lane, but can I make the turn at 130 miles an hour with an 18-foot boat that, at a thousand pounds, is virtually weightless?"

I made a hard left turn…but didn't make it.

I turned the wheel but never backed off on the throttle. The boat came up off of the water and started to straighten itself out about four or five feet in the air. When it came back down, the rudder was still cocked and the transom hit the water first. When the rudder re-entered the water, it pulled the transom around.

Then, the propeller hit, and that sucked the back end of the boat down which, in turn, lifted the front end up. I did an inside roll and the boat came down with me in it, hitting so hard that my foot was pushed through the bottom. I also collapsed the steering column with the impact of my chest.

The boat skidded along upside down, flipped right side up, and threw me about 30 feet in the opposite direction.

I remember being admitted to the hospital. Everybody was concerned about whether or not I was going to drive again after an accident that severe, but the question never entered my mind. The only thing that irritated me was that I was going to be out. For how long, I didn't know. I also didn't know the extent of my injuries.

The first priority was to become unconscious. The pain was excruciating and I didn't appreciate it at all. The hospital staff wouldn't put me under until the orthopedic surgeon arrived. So, I started occupying my mind with other things. Even then, I couldn't wait to get back out and race.

I remember waking up at about 11:00 that night. They had wheeled me back from surgery and I was in traction. I was groggy but I remember a dream that I had. I was in the water, bobbing up and down. My boat was still upright, facing back at me with no wing and the cowling smashed. It seemed to be saying to me, "You got a little out of hand and you got stung."

The boat hadn't deserted me or turned on me. It hadn't stabbed me in the back or anything. I just drove over my head. It was just one of those decisions that a driver makes when he commits himself to winning a race.

My accident was caused by driver error. I now maintain that 99% of all accidents are caused by driver error when people drive over their heads. It's a matter of not measuring one's equipment. In my case, I simply took the boat beyond what I knew to be the safe limit.

If a driver measures his boat, he knows that he can safely run at "X" number of miles per hour. If he exceeds that, he is only responsible to himself because he knows that's the safe limit. Beyond that, he's going to get hurt and have no one but himself to blame.

Mel Crook, the YACHTING MAGAZINE writer and a former champion driver, once commented that "the safest boat in the world will eventually reach a speed where it travels unsafely. And for a driver to place his boat in an unsafe attitude--even for the purpose of improving his order of finish in a race--is to court disaster."

I heartily agree with Mr. Crook. I learned that lesson well.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Steve had not completely regained all of his strength, following the Green Lake accident, when signed to drive MISS CIRCUS CIRCUS at San Diego later that year. Reynolds nevertheless finished an overall third in his very first Unlimited race. He went on to win Rookie-of-the-Year honors in the Unlimited Class in 1979.]

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