“My dad started in 1967 and he raced until he passed away in ‘87,” Jones said. “My class races for his memorial trophy every year as he was the only driver ever to be licensed in all the classes for drag boat racing and he held numerous records.”
While he was growing up, Jones competed in regular stick-and-ball sports.
“I played baseball and was a catcher in Little League, Babe Ruth and played basketball all the way in high school,” he said. “And I was an avid snow skier when I was growing up but boats just consumed my life.”
Jones graduated from Reed High School in 1981 and his transition from ball player to a boat racer was natural for him.
“I worked in my dad’s shop forever because he had Sunny’s Marine Supply here in town,” he said. “I could never stay focused on anything besides boat racing. My classmates liked it but my teachers didn’t.”
As a youngster he was only taken to races close to home but when he got older the elder Jones began to take him to races in the eastern part of the country.
“We made my mom a promise that we both wouldn’t start riding at the same time,” he said with a laugh. “So when my dad passed away in ‘87, when I was 22, I started driving.”
Asked about his first race, Jones said. “I really wasn’t surprised because I had been around it for so much and had worked on the boats.”
First, he drove for another owner until 1989. He raced an open cockpit, flat bottom boat until 1993. Then he had an engine fire and explosion but the replacement motor was too powerful for the class so he switched to the Alcohol Flat Bottom class.
Boat drag racing has a unique starting procedure.
“They tow us out to what we call a holding rope. You basically have eight boats in your class and you move in toward the starting boat,” he said. “The rope sits 125 feet behind the Christmas Tree or starting lights.
Starting from the ends, the drivers go hand-over-hand as they pull their boats to the center where the two racing lanes are. The rope also helps them keep their boats straight in cross winds or currents.
Once in the lanes, a blinking light tells the racers to fire their motors and after 30 seconds it goes solid then a board in the middle of the tree begins a count down.
“You don’t want to cross the Christmas tree before it hits zero but when I see five, I throw it in gear and nail it.”
The three top classes are Top Fuel Hydro, Alcohol Hydro and his class, Top Alcohol Flat Bottom. All the boats use safety capsules and, just like NHRA, all three run on a 1,000-foot course while the other classes use a full quarter mile.
Until the change, the top fuel boats, which turn 280 mph, were having problems slowing down, even when using three parachutes.
“We like it as the alcohol flat bottom boats mostly crash in the last 300 feet of a quarter mile but we don’t use parachutes as they slow down pretty quick,” he said.
The Hydro classes use a hull much like Hydroplane boats use where only three points are in contact with the water, the propeller and tips of both sponsons.
“A flat bottom is a one point ride as we basically ride on the prop and use Cavitation Plates to control the boat,” he said.
These plates are attached to the rear of the hull and in the cockpit Jones uses his left foot for them, right foot for the throttle and he has a wheel to control the boat’s rudder.
He added the ride is very smooth but before a start he finds an aiming point on the horizon since he can only see the deck for the first 300-feet then he uses that point to steer the boat.
A breakaway capsule, with a full roll cage, is used to protect the driver and separates from the boat in the event of a crash. Drivers wear sealed helmets with regulators as they have an oxygen supply in the capsule.
“It fits in pretty tight and it’s held by two quarter-inch hollow pins. But if I turned my boat over, it would fall out,” he said. “And I’ve only used the oxygen in orientation, thank God.”
Two safety crews, with divers and special cranes are positioned at the start and finish area and the capsule has hooks so it can be easily raised from the water. A crash at over 150 mph will tear a boat apart and the safety items are very important to the driver’s survival.
Due to their wings cross winds are a concern as they want to turn a boat when it starts a run and a driver can have a hard time straightening it out.
The sanctioning body was the International Hot Boat Association but last year new owners took over and it’s now the Lucas Oil Drag Boat Series, who thought most boats were based on the east coast. After this season they are switching to a western orientated series as most boats are based on this side of the country.
At first Lucas thought most boats were based in the east but now have adjusted next year’s schedule toward the west, where most of the boats come from.
Drag boat racing is a very much blue-collar sport and people like Jones couldn’t afford the added traveling so he ended up sixth in points this season.
Lucas also explained drag boat racing is one of their most watched events on TV and next year two of the meets will be on CBS.
He also races with the National Jet Boat Association in Bakersfield, as they hold an event about once a month. He’s also competed with the Colombia Drag Boat Association in Oregon and in an exhibition event on the Rogue River in downtown Grant’s Pass.
But like any sport, the economy has taken a toll on these racers.
“Because most of the boat racers are working class people we’re sponsored by a lot of construction companies so with the economy the way it is it’s really hurt,” he said.
Jones does motor work for hydro boats and his day job is running the service department for Marine Specialties in Reno.
“So I’m still, boats, boats, boats,” he said with a laugh.
At the World Finals in Phoenix, he and his boat “Back in Black” faced off in the championship run against Marcus Kinsey, who drives “Bad Company.” But mutual problems led to a very unusual ending in an event most boat racers consider their Indy.
We both got lined up and were going to start our motors but I got nothing. He could start but couldn’t keep it running so when the lights finally turned green he clicked his in gear because he had battery power.
Jones explained that in his last run his motor threw its blower belt and that took out the starter’s solenoid.
Since a driver has five seconds to cross the Christmas tree beam, Jones got on deck and began to paddle while Kinsey was able to use his starter to reach the line first.
“It wasn’t very close at all, I was out of breath and don’t think I moved five feet. They were laughing and the camera was turned right on me,” Jones said.
As to the future, he intends to keep competing where he is now.
“My dad was a flat bottom driver and flat bottom drivers are kind of in a different league,” Jones said. “Anybody can jump in a hydro and go straight but in a flat bottom you have to drive it and you have to have your timing so it’s kind of a pride thing I think.”
Like most part-time racers he’s supported by a loyal crew of friends. Along with his wife Julie are Mike Freeland, Steve and Shannon Cotiga (She sells the team T-shirts.) as well as Tom and Sharleen Loftis.
“We have not real crew chief so I’m pretty much it but Steve has been with me since I started so we call him the Head Wrench,” he said.
Race days are busy times for the team as the boat’s 575 cubic inch motor is pulled every three runs and on Saturday evening so they don’t have to worry about it on Sunday. Due to the blower boost the main areas of concern are the bearings and crankshaft.
He also has some appreciated sponsors including the Reno firms of Advanced Precision Machine, Jet Line Aviation as well as The Blower Shop and Vince Wells Construction.
“We need all the support we can get,” he said.
As to the future, his goal is pretty clear as the trophy for the Top Flat Bottom Driver of the Year is named for his father.
“I want my name on my dad’s trophy as it usually goes to the champion of our class,” he said.
For this racer, piloting a water rocket is a way of life.
The World Finals will be shown on Speed, starting at 7 a.m. Pacific time Dec. 4 and Dec. 11 with a season in review show on Dec. 18 starting at 7 a.m.
OTHER RACING NEWS
•The Honey Lake Motocross Park ends its year with a doubleheader this weekend. Saturday’s event is GP style races with the individual events beginning at 8:30 a.m. Saturday followed by team marathons beginning at 11:45 a.m.
Then Sunday the park hosts Sierra MX Association’s final round of its Northern Nevada MX Championship series with a 10 a.m. start for the motos.
•This week’s storm postponed the final round of the Nevada GFI Volvo fall series and it’s been moved to Dec. 11-12 with practice on Saturday and racing should begin around 10 a.m. on Sunday.
•For those that can’t wait, the Mustang Motor Plex will host practice sessions on the motocross track both Saturday and Sunday.
•NASCAR’s Las Vegas trio spent Championship weekend at the Miami-Homestead Speedway.
Kyle Busch, despite bouncing off the wall, won Friday’s Camping World Truck race and earned his first year team the owner’s title. Busch made it a double when he won Saturday’s Nationwide event and clinched that series owner’s championship for Gibbs Racing while Brendan Gaughan had a good run starting 11th and finishing eighth.
Neither Busch brother had a good Sunday in the Sprint Cup event with Kurt finishing 18th and Kyle 32nd while sitting in the pits.