Hovercraft makes debut as pace car at Action
Six pace laps ruled a success
June 2, 2002
By Lorna Taken
Vroom, vroom. Many people who live in Terre Haute recognize that
sound, which often hails from the Terre Haute Action Track, where
cars can be heard miles away.
For onlookers, though, the sound might have been a little confusing
Saturday night -- confusing because a sprint car is usually what
one expects to see when gazing at the track, not a hovercraft.
But that was just the case as the first non-wheeled vehicle was
used as a pace car on a dirt track, prompting the USAC Silver Crown
Sumar Classic to go down in history. In addition to making the
history books, a dream became a reality for two men with a passion
Don Smith and Chris Fitzgerald saw a plan they had 27 years ago
finally come to life.
For all the other witnesses, "They can say they were there
when it happened," Smith said.
Smith, founder of Sumar Racing, and Fitzgerald, formerly of Australia,
and a manufacturer of hovercrafts, were both excited to see their
idea take action.
The concept of having a hovercraft open as a pace car appealed
greatly to the two friends.
While most pace cars are used to set racing cars into position
and stabilize their speed, this car, err craft, was a little different.
One reason being -- lack of wheels. Another reason is that it seemed
to float on a cushion of air. It's also more comparable to a flying
machine than a car.
Nonetheless, it served as a successful pace craft.
But 27 years ago, things were a little different for the duo.
Twenty-seven years ago, Fitzgerald was scheduled to drive a hovercraft
as the pace car at the Hulman Classic.
"I didn't sleep for a week," Fitzgerald said.
The lack of sleep was part due to the abundance of plywood that
made up the majority of the craft. This made it significantly weaker
compared to its racing counterparts.
"There was five times the horse power in the other cars," Fitzgerald
said. "[I was afraid] if I broke down, they'd drive on top
He never realized his fate, however, because rain on race day
caused the event to be canceled, and a first-ever event was postponed
until 27 years later.
"I was relieved," Fitzgerald admitted.
On Saturday, nerves weren't an issue.
Smith says part of the reason in his friend's greater confidence
lies in the fact that other materials than plywood make the ride
Fitzgerald also didn't have the responsibility of being behind
the wheel. He was more than happy to let his friend Billy Zang,
president of Universal Hovercraft, take control of the craft.
"He's been driving [hovercrafts] since he's been in diapers," Fitzgerald
But taking a hovercraft on a dirt track was an adjustment for
the experienced driver.
"It felt dirty," Zang said.
When driving, Zang must maneuver the hovercraft at an odd angle.
A seemingly tough technique to master. Add that to the ingredients
of a dirt track, and a little difficulty is to be expected.
"The clay is real sticky so it grabs the [air] skirts we
have," Zang said. If it grabs too much, it pulls it [the skirt]
and tucks it under ... it tries to roll the craft over."
But the six pace laps were a success for Zang.
The next big hovercraft event, the 2002 World Hovercraft Championships,
will take place Sept. 15-22 in Terre Haute, with Fitzgerald serving
as the chair.
"Whatever we can do to make the public take notice is worthwhile," Smith
The public is also taking notice of Fitzgerald's hovercrafts
for another reason, that of homeland defense.
Some of Fitzgerald's hovercrafts, manufactured in Terre Haute,
are being sent to places throughout the country for border patrol.
"We do business all over the world," Fitzgerald said.