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Original Issue

Toughest chicken afloat

Czech refugee Mira Slovak may think himself timid. If so, his record as the nation's top hydroplane racer proves that he is the toughest chicken afloat

Hydroplane Driver Mira Slovak is first and foremost a flyer, and a good one. Slovak, a Czechoslovakian refugee who escaped from behind the Iron Curtain 13 years ago in a hijacked C-47, spends his working hours in the pilot's seat of a Continental Airlines Boeing 707 jetliner, flying by the book and conscientiously getting his passengers to and from their points of arrival and departure. But when Slovak gets weary of the responsibility of his job, as every hard-working businessman must, he likes to take a break. What makes Slovak a little different is the fact that his breaks take odd forms, such as flying his own stunt plane upside down only 50 feet above the ground with his hands dangling down beneath it.

"Doing stunts relaxes me," explains Slovak. "I'm able to unwind and stop being a part of a computer. It makes me a better pilot when I get back to the 707." It also helps counteract what Slovak considers a major flaw in his character: being a born coward. "Yes, sir," he said last week as he sat on a pier at Madison, Ind. waiting to drive a boat down the Ohio River at more than 150 miles an hour, "I'm a born chicken, absolute chicken." Slovak, who is now the top hydroplane racer in the nation, was once chicken about the very thought of entering this lethal sport. "Forget it," he said some years ago, when William Boeing suggested he race the powerful Miss Wahoo. "It's too scary."

But Boeing persisted and somehow Slovak, who had never piloted any boat faster than a kayak, found himself a hydroplane driver. He has been one ever since. So far the sport has cost him a broken leg, a broken arm, a broken back, 23 teeth and a pair of badly damaged kidneys. It has not, however, as it did Chuck Thompson, Ron Musson, Rex Manchester and Don Wilson earlier this summer, cost him his life. Slovak himself was racing for the President's Cup in Washington last June when Musson, the then champion, was killed. Mira dived out of his own boat in a vain effort to pull Ron to safety. He was contesting a tight turn with Chuck Thompson two weeks later when the latter was killed, racing for the Gold Cup in Detroit.

Slovak is a realist about these fatalities. "I'm in love with one person," he says. "That's Mira Slovak. I don't want to kill myself, but things can happen when you play around with speed. The law of averages catches up. All of us have been banged up, burned and bounced around. We're all prepared to face the consequences. I have and I am, but I always come back for more."

And so, over the Labor Day holiday, back he was again—this time driving Bill Harrah's Tahoe Miss for the Governor's Cup in the last big summer race of the fatality-marred 1966 season. As far as Mira is concerned, nothing much has changed in hydro racing. "There's no better boat in this race than Harrah's," he said as he sat watching a team of mechanics tuning up his huge thunderboat, "and no better crew. They're a bunch of pros amongst pros. Out of the 10 crewmen here I consider myself No. 11. But you know," he added, nodding at the boat, "it's a machine and I'm a human being. Things can go wrong."

In their first heat, things did indeed go wrong for Slovak and Tahoe Miss. Snaking upriver the hydros grouped into a ragged line, then roared for the starting line. As the gun fired, they zoomed at full tilt for the first turn just beyond the pits. There in front, as expected, flew Tahoe Miss, but high on top of the air-conditioned trailer from which the Harrah crew watched its charge, a top mechanic suddenly cupped his ears with his hands. "What's the matter?" asked someone. "You hear something?" The crew chief had indeed. Above the roar of the engines, the howling crowd, and the high speed slap of hulls he'd spotted the sound of two misfiring cylinders. By the time Slovak got them firing again, a boat called Miss Lapeer had grabbed the lead and Slovak had to settle for second place.

Between heats the Tahoe Miss crew worked feverishly to clear the trouble. Deceptively relaxed about his chances, Slovak claimed he would be content to earn just enough points to protect his lead in the championship. "I used to drive a boat with a lead foot," he explained gently. "Then I began a little bit using my head."

In heat 2A, Slovak's boat ran flawlessly, pounding around the turns behind a curtain of spray, roaring down the straightaways at 150 mph. Driving as though not only his foot but his ankle, shin and thigh bone were all made of lead, Mira won the next race at an average 101.294 mph, acquiring 400 more points to tie Miss Gypsy and Miss Lapeer. Never before in the 19-year history of the Governor's Cup had three boats entered the final heat tied for first place, but the tie was short-lived. By then Slovak had Tahoe Miss running over the choppy water as precisely as if she were on rails. Round the corners he cut closer than anyone else, and down the backstretch his boat's rooster tail arced high, wide and far back, a certain sign of peak performance. Building a 10-second lead over Miss Lapeer, by the fifth and final lap Slovak could afford to loaf along well under his top speed. He crossed the line just lazying along and finished with a 95.049 mph average, more than 10 mph slower than last year's time.

Five thousand dollars richer and the permanent winner of the Governor's Cup (Tahoe Miss had won the race twice before with the deceased Chuck Thompson driving), Mira Slovak the chicken was a happy man. He'd taken care of the present nicely, and ahead lay a future full of promise. First there was a flight across the Atlantic Ocean in a World War II German Messerschmidt owned by his good friend and fellow flying buff, Actor Cliff Robertson. Then he planned to have a go at the world water-speed record driving a jet-powered boat on Lake Tahoe. It sounded very relaxing.