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Big shoot-out on Lake Havasu

Cesare Scotti of Italy won the world's biggest, richest outboard powerboat race from a fine field as an American archrival, Don Pruett, crashed

Not yet six years old, Lake Havasu City is one of the youngest communities in Arizona and the United States. It is a go-getting sort of place. With a touching glance back to the past, it has purchased London Bridge, whose 1,005-foot span will be reassembled with "dignity and respect" to link the town and its airport (and it's a damned lie, say Lake Havasuvians, that they thought all along they were getting the Tower Bridge with its more picturesque structure). It is also the site of the world's biggest and richest race for outboard powerboats—an activity more in keeping with the town's up-to-the-minute way of life.

This Outboard World Championship, which was run for the sixth time last weekend on Lake Havasu, was in essence a shoot-out among the leading engine and boat manufacturers. Win Havasu, the feeling goes, and the aura of victory will trickle down to a buying public that has something a little less special in mind than flat-out racing—like fishing, water-skiing or just noodling around on the water.

That spirit of competition and commerce attracted 114 boats from five countries for a four-hour endurance run on Saturday and another on Sunday—and for the first time all the leading contenders rode so-called "tunnel" hulls. This is a new wrinkle in boating: a hull with twin sponsons forming a tunnel between them. The hull is partly supported by a cushion of air developing in the tunnel, and as a consequence speeds have risen to alltime highs—better than 100 mph for the fastest boats.

Although he was not to taste the fruits of victory, the fastest man at Havasu was a Texas-born Californian named Don Pruett. Pruett is not completely at home with Chamber of Commerce notions like dignity and respect. After winning the Elsinore 500 on Lake Elsinore, Calif. this year he bit the cork out of a bottle of celebratory champagne and tossed it off without a pause. He is as fast with his fists as with the bubbly. "I saw Don in a real battle, in Galveston I think it was," said Racing Promoter Mel Zikes. "When the bar stools started flying, I just leaned back against the wall and watched. It was beautiful the way Don handled himself."

"Crazy," was the way Mrs. Pruett saw it on Saturday as she observed Don's technique on the one right-hand turn of Havasu's four-mile, boomerang-shaped course. Vagrant gusts of wind disturbed the boats' air cushions, and the shore was ominously close, but Pruett nonchalantly cupped his head in his left hand as he took the turn with the other hand on the wheel.

For two days brusque winds had lashed the confined waters of Lake Havasu. The redoubtable Italian driver Renato Molinari had flipped his boat during a practice run. Pruett's pal Joe Habay flipped during Saturday's race and broke his leg. Needless to say, Pruett, with three big Mercury engines making healthy sounds on his Ted Jones-designed hull, paid no attention to such trifles and went for the lead. After 1½ hours his Triple Trouble made her only fuel stop. At the end of the second hour Pruett still led. But soon he encountered trouble with the lower units of his engine rig and mechanics worked furiously to repair the damage. They did so and Pruett resumed the race. But at the end of the day he lay sixth, while up ahead there was a three-way tie between Italy's Cesare Scotti, Texas' Johnnie Sanders and Colorado's Robert H. George.

Scotti, driving a 21-foot Molinari with a pair of Evinrudes, is an extremely experienced man; he was voted the outstanding outboarder of 1968 for winning the Florida Gold Coast marathon and placing second in the Paris Six Hour Race during a consistently fine year. He and other Europeans are noted for a steady, disciplined approach to racing. But at Havasu a rare mental lapse cost him a clear-cut lead. Experiencing engine difficulty just before the finishing flare was fired, he stopped a few yards short of the finish line and turned into the pits instead of completing the lap. Had he done so, he would have been credited with 70 laps rather than 69—the number run by Sanders and George.

On Sunday, Scotti kept his wits about him at all times and defeated Sanders by a lap to take the $15,000 first prize at a record average speed (for the two days) of 72.54 mph. The veteran Bill Sirois of Miami popped up in third place. Pruett? Poor devil, in his haste to catch up he collided with another boat and nearly sank.