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Racing a water rocket is what Sparks native loves
by Dan McGee
Jan 16, 2011 | 3531 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tribune/Dan McGee - Steve Penberthy stands by the business end of his 7-second drag boat he campaigns with the NJBA series. The blown, alcohol fueled motor puts out between 1,100 to 1,200 horse power and sends him to a top speed around 160 mph in the quarter mile.
Tribune/Dan McGee - Steve Penberthy stands by the business end of his 7-second drag boat he campaigns with the NJBA series. The blown, alcohol fueled motor puts out between 1,100 to 1,200 horse power and sends him to a top speed around 160 mph in the quarter mile.
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Tribune/Dan McGee - Over the past 25 years, Sparks native Steve Penberthy has amassed a large collection of trophies racing a drag boat. Here he is showing just a part of his collection.
Tribune/Dan McGee - Over the past 25 years, Sparks native Steve Penberthy has amassed a large collection of trophies racing a drag boat. Here he is showing just a part of his collection.
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Tribune/Dan McGee - The 7-second drag boat that Steve Penberthy drives is named "The Butcher" as he's spent most of his working life doing meat cutting. He's going to display the boat at next month's Autorama in Sacramento on Feb. 11-12.
Tribune/Dan McGee - The 7-second drag boat that Steve Penberthy drives is named "The Butcher" as he's spent most of his working life doing meat cutting. He's going to display the boat at next month's Autorama in Sacramento on Feb. 11-12.
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Photo courtesy of Steve Penberthy - When it's at speed, the hydrofoil drag boat Steve Penberthy races only has the ends of the its Sponsons and the propeller touching the water as shown in this picture. So it's actually riding on a cushion of air during most of its run down the quarter mile.
Photo courtesy of Steve Penberthy - When it's at speed, the hydrofoil drag boat Steve Penberthy races only has the ends of the its Sponsons and the propeller touching the water as shown in this picture. So it's actually riding on a cushion of air during most of its run down the quarter mile.
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For Sparks native Steve Penberthy, water and going really fast on the water is his life's passion and what he lives for.

"I went to Greenbrae Elementary School, to Dilworth Middle School and graduated from Reed High School," he said. "When I was a young toddler about 5 years old, my dad bought a race boat in 1974 and we used it as a ski boat for 15-years or so while he kept building the motor up to go faster. "

Penberthy explained that his father and Sunny Jones, the father of drag boat racer Greg Jones were friends. In fact both families would go camping together at Lake Lahonton where they water skied and enjoyed being at the water.

"So we can blame Sunny Jones for all of it," he said with a laugh.

For other sports Penberthy said, "I did a lot of waterskiing when I was younger, snow skiing and a little bit of football but not much for school sports as I was hot and heavy into the boats."

Eventually Penberthy and his father teamed up and started bracket racing around 1987, and he drove his first race at age 20 in 1987. And he added, that's when his addiction to the excitement and speed that drag boat racing brings began.

Asked about that first race, he said, "It was really cool, what I expected and what I had always dreamed of. It was all the times you'd go to bed thinking about what you want to do, finally get to do it and it's just a bliss."

And like many that get hooked on racing, the buzz from competition is something that stays with them and carries a person forward.

"You come home, you get geared up, change things, buy and build new things and the buzz just never goes away. And I've been doing it for 25 years almost and every race I go to it's a different but more exciting feeling," he said.

Over the next few years Penberthy and his father traded time in the seat.

"We did it as a team, we shared as I'd race then he'd race," he said. "It became my interest as it was a little more extreme than his was. I was single and it's an expensive, expensive sport so we wound up buying another boat, an eliminator jet boat, and we were partners in that for a couple of years."

In 1994 his father decided to quit so Penberthy and his former wife took it over from there.

After about five years he bought another jet boat that he built up himself. This type of boat doesn't use a propeller.

"A jet pump is just a gigantic water pump, the water goes in the bottom of the boat and it just gets pushed out the back," he said. "I had that one for about six years and bought my current boat in 1996, it's a hydro, a propeller boat."

When his current boat is at speed its actually riding on a cushion of air with only the outboard tips of the sponsons and the propeller touching the water. Being an open cockpit boat Penberthy is limited in how fast he can cover a quarter mile.

"I'm in the fastest class in an open boat that you can be in, which is 7 seconds," he said. "This boat runs 7 seconds at 160 to 165 mph and the motor probably puts out 1,100 to 1,200 horsepower on alcohol."

Running in a bracket class means if the driver goes too fast they will "break out," and lose the run, even if they reach the finish line first. Penberthy explained that currently all the bracket boats are computer controlled, as there are many ways to either speed them up or slow them down.

"You've just got to take real good notes and keep good records," he said.

All the boats line up on a holding rope where the drivers pull them toward the center until they are lined up in either of the two lanes. Then a timer gives them a count down where the aim is to cross the starting line just as the green light goes on.

A driver reaching the start line too soon gets a red light and is disqualified.

"It's a timing thing and every boat is different. My boat is computerized but it's pretty much the same thing, you have to make sure you don't get there too soon. All the technology we use in drag boats was originated in asphalt drag racing."

One thing Penberthy has to deal with is that a hydro boat, unlike a flat bottom, will "glide forever." So to help him slow down on a short course the boat has a parachute attached to the back of the hull.

Safety in an open cockpit boat is a bit different than for a driver of a capsule boat. Penberthy explained that for any boat going over 100 miles an hour, or if the driver wants to be safe, they wear a life jacket with a parachute on the back of it.

"There's a static line hooked from the parachute down onto the motor and if you get more than eight feet away from that contact point it pulls this parachute out," he said. "It's designed to open and slow you down so that the wreckage can go by. We wear a neck restraint, similar to the HANS Device that attaches to our helmets. We have little "D" rings all the way around out helmet and it straps around our waist."

He added drivers wear a ballistic shorts designed to keep water from going into their clothing since they might hit the water at over 100 miles an hour that could result in serious and maybe life threatening injuries.

Over his racing career Penberthy has won in every bracket, starting in the 11-second class. He's also earned two championships, one in the 10-second and the other in the 10.5-second class.

Most of his competition is with the NJBA, National Jet Boat Association, down in Bakersfield, Calif., which is only a little over a 7-hour tow from Sparks. That series stages six races a year but if he went to the Lucas Drag Boat series he would have to do some serious traveling.

"I like to run my boat and to run it a lot so I'll stick with NJBA as they let you enter two classes," he said. "If you lose you can go 8 races a weekend but if you win you can go 10 or 12 rounds."

While there are certain things that are looked during a race the real heavy maintenance is done during the off -season when the motor is torn down and things like bearings are inspected for wear. His motor is basically a stock Chevy motor built with strong parts that give him a dependable motor as repairing a failure is an expensive proposition and can cost thousands of dollars.

For most of his working life Penberthy has been either a butcher or a meat cutter where he had to adjust his hours to what an employer needed. Now he works for Incline Glass, which allows him to have most weekends off for either family time or racing.

Being a single father of two with a 16-year-old son, Nathen, and 8-year-old daughter Hannah, he has a full home life and they all go to the races as a family. The racing begins in March, stops due to the heat in July and August then resumes in September and October.

This year he has picked up a good sponsor, L&H Concrete in Sparks. He also expressed appreciation to Dave Long, who owns L&H, Alan Hills, and his son.

Penberthy added that his son has really caught the racing bug and is eager to get into the boat so he can race. His daughter, however, hasn't shown much interest as she's been around racing her whole life.

Asked about his son's desire, he said, "I told him that when he finishes college we'll talk about it."

Any racer actually has two personalities, one off and the other on the track. And everyone is different and has a different way to handle this transition.

"For me personally, I'm a wreck in the pits," he said. "I let my crew guys take care of the boat, I concentrate, and then when I get in the boat and into the water, I relax. Then it's natural for me because I truly believe that this is what I was supposed to do.

"So when I get out there it's automatic for me. I'm focused the whole weekend and the entire trip as my worst experiences are waiting to go as I get anxious."

He added his least favorite part of the sport is the money as it's so expensive and maybe the reason he's single today.

Asked about his favorite part of the sport he said, "The speed, the winning as I love to win. That's the best part, when you get to beat your buddies, you get to go out there and win, it's what I work for."

He added that going 160 mph in a boat will take your breath away but it's fun.

"But we're out there to race and not to just go fast. My goal for this year is to win the championship in the 7-second class," he said. "Long term, I'll never be able to get away from these things, I like driving them, I'm a racer and I like the competition. Someday we'll do junior and see how he does but right now I'm just focused on getting through one season at a time."

Currently Penberthy is cleaning and polishing his boat, since he's going to display it at the Sacramento Autorama show on Feb. 11-12 over at Cal Expo. Then he'll begin to prepare for the first race of the season sometime in March.
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