Rookie Racer

Aylesworth won’t let 2005 crash
keep him from driver’s seat

He and partner buy Unlimited
U-21 boat to compete in 2006

By Don Ward

(June 2006) – Freedom, the name of Kevin Aylesworth’s new Unlimited hydroplane race team, is fitting considering that a mere nine months ago, he was lying in a hospital bed connected to a life support system after surviving one of the sport’s most violent crashes.

Kevin Aylesworth and Jeffrey Johnson

Photo provided

Kevin Aylesworth (left)
and partner Jeffrey Johnson.

The 37-year-old from San Diego had flipped his Unlimited Light race boat in dramatic style while charging for the lead against Greg Hopp on the backstretch of the first lap of the season’s final race event at the San Diego Thunderboat Regatta on Sept. 18, 2005. As he neared the turn, his left sponson lifted into the air, flipping the boat upside down. Aylesworth would have to fight his way out of the cockpit while submerged under water.
But the force of the impact had crushed the air vent in the front of the boat and blasted water into the cockpit. Breathing little air – and mostly salt water – he took one last gasp, pushed open the capsule and managed to free himself from the cockpit just before blacking out.
The rescue team arrived quickly to pull Aylesworth, then floating face down, out of the water and airlift him to a nearby hospital, where he spent the next four days recovering on a ventilator. Most of his injury occurred from heart trauma and from inhaling Mission Bay salt water into his lungs. The day he was released from the hospital, he had only 20 percent use of his lungs and heart. It took him four weeks of bed rest and six months to fully recover.

Aylesworth crash
Aylesworth crash
Aylesworth crash
Aylesworth crash

Photos by Robert F. Peters

Kevin Aylesworth’s canopy saved
his life after flipping his Unilimited
Light in September.

“It was a long, six-month recovery, and I’m glad to finally get it behind me,” Aylesworth said in a June 16 telephone interview. He received his doctor’s clearance to race on May 1 and recently participated in capsule training in Washington state. He said he is not tentative about getting into the cockpit after his crash but admitted that the capsule training brought back the memories of that fateful day.
“I’m not tentative at all about racing; I’m ready to go,” he said.
The accident obviously did not deter Aylesworth from boat racing because in September 2005, he and friend Jeffrey Johnson bought the former U-25 Ron Jones Sr.-designed boat from owner-driver Ken Muscatel and spent the offseason completely overhauling the hull. They sent the two motors to Montana to be overhauled by the same engine experts who built engines for the 2005 series champion U-1 Miss Elam Plus.
Now Aylesworth is among a newly reorganized group of Unlimited drivers and owners taking to the water this year in the American Boat Racing Association’s second season as the Unlimited series’ sanctioning organization. Several teams have sold their older boats to buy newer ones, including four former Budweiser boats that will be racing under new names. In all, 11 Unlimited teams are headed to Madison for the 55th Madison Regatta, July 1-2.
“It’s interesting that if you’re ever going to be a rookie coming onto this tour, this is the season to do it. We will have probably the 10 best drivers and 11 of the fastest boats to ever compete on the tour,” Aylesworth said.
And although he’s never before been to Madison, “I’ve seen the movie – several times. It’s a great inspiration for our sport.”
Aylesworth grew up with engine oil in his veins, after having grown up around the sport in San Diego, where his father, Richard Aylesworth, helped organize the Thunderboat Regatta in 1975. Kevin began his racing career at age 12 and was inspired later in life when International Hall of Fame Unlimited hydroplane champion Bill Muncey gave him his first race boat, a bathtub equipped with a 7.5 horsepower Evinrude outboard. Muncey was a friend of his father’s, so Aylesworth was able to learn much from the veteran racer, who was killed in 1981 at age 52 in his third career boat racing crash. Muncey, still the sport’s winningest driver with 62 career victories, served as Aylesworth’s mentor in those early days and encouraged him to follow his dreams.
“I studied how Bill (Muncey) drove and how he nailed his starts, and I listened to his articulate media interviews,” Aylesworth said.
“He told great stories that made kids like me dream of becoming a boat racer. Now I’m living the dream, and it’s my turn to pass it on.”
Aylesworth worked his way up from 1-liter hydros to the Unlimited Lights class, where he accumulated an impressive 15 top-five finishes and the 2004 World Championship in Quebec.
So after a successful career in the Unlimited Lights, Aylesworth this year enters the sport’s premier level of hydroplane racing, fielding the U-21 Freedom racing team. The Unlimited team is donating money to a local charitable group in each race city it visits this year. In Evansville, it will contribute to the local Boys Club; in Madison, it is giving to the Make A Wish Foundation.
“We don’t just want to go boat racing, we want to have a drastic impact on the longterm future of boat racing,” Aylesworth said. “That’s part of what Bill Muncey taught me about giving back to the communities that support this sport.”
ABRA Unlimited historian Fred Farley said, “Kevin Aylesworth had a very successful career in the Lights, so this was the next logical step for him. I expect to see him do well in the Unlimiteds.”
Aylesworth is backed by a solid team that includes owner Johnson and his father. Johnson, his partner, said of him: “Kevin might be new to this class of racing, but he’s passionate, hard-working and backed by a crew with experience – on the water and on the shoreline.”
Aylesworth said there is a huge difference in driving the Unlimiteds versus the Lights. “The biggest difference is the amount of boat you’re bringing. The Lights go about 150 mph and are agile, while the Unlimiteds can top 200 mph. That’s a lot of boat on the water and a lot of speed.”
The team also is exploring the possibility of fielding a piston-fired boat in future seasons. The only piston-powered boat still on the Unlimited circuit today is Ed Cooper’s U-3 Master Tire, based in Evansville.
Aylesworth said fans miss the noise from those early years when Muncey was winning races in a piston boat. The team has aspirations of using a Griffon-power plant that would in theory generate more noise and speed. The only obstacle to pursuing this course is sponsorship money, Aylesworth said.
“If we find a sponsor willing to partner with us in this adventurous endeavor, San Diego will find itself once again home to an Unlimited thunderboat race team,” Aylesworth said.
Aylesworth, who is single, and his two 13-year-old sons reside in San Diego, where he operates an equipment rental company. He says his boys remind him of when he was growing up around the sport.
“The cornerstone of our team is, ‘Wherever we race, children win,’ “ he said. “We want to be an inspiration to everyone to succeed in life.”
Judging from the comeback he has personally made from his crash last year, Aylesworth won’t have any trouble inspiring others while touring the country this year.

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout Madison. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email: info@RoundAboutMadison.com.

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