GRANTS PASS, Ore. — The speed and tight quarters on the Rogue River make the sport of hydroplane racing unique to Southern Oregon and Northwest California.
“There’s nothing else going on in the world like this,” said Don Burnison.
“Just the feel of it,” said Derek Woolsey. “I mean, getting in this thing, and being that close on the water, going 80 miles per hour down the river. You know, your adrenaline is pumping, you’re feeling good. I crack my face shield and get a little bit of oxygen force fed into my nostrils. It feels great.”
It feels great, but it can also be terrifying.
“Every once in a while the boat starts lifting up, and you think you’re going over backwards,” said Matt Richardson.
Imagine feeling that excitement and fear for nearly 50 years. One man who understands that feeling is Jeff Lewis. He started racing as a teenager and is still competing at 62 years old.
“I don’t think about it. You go out and accomplish it,” said Lewis. “Sometimes you win. Sometimes you don’t, but it’s all in having fun. If you quit having fun, you need to find something else to do. I wouldn’t be too good at sitting back in a rocking chair and watching tv. It just doesn’t fit me.”
So rather than sit in a rocking chair, Lewis sits in a boat.
“Getting out of the boat is a little tougher,” said Lewis, “but as far as when you’re out in the boat, your adrenaline goes and you don’t really think about it. I’d have to say, after the race, it takes a few more days to recover from the event.”
Despite the inevitable changes that come along with age, Lewis continues to perform at a high level on the river.
“We’ve got a lot of young people now and everything,” said Burnison. “They’re pretty aggressive drivers so they’re coming to the front, too, but Jeff has been real successful just due to his experience and knowledge.”
Lewis has nearly half a century of knowledge and experience to draw upon, something that seemed unimaginable when he started off racing.
“I hadn’t even thought about it,” said Lewis. “In fact, I wasn’t supposed to live this long, at least at the rate I was going. You wonder if I was lucky enough to make it to 40. That’s a long ways away. I won’t worry about it. Another year or two, anyway, we’ll have some fun and see how this goes.”