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Hovercraft makes debut as pace car at Action Track
Six pace laps ruled a success

June 2, 2002
Tribune Star

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 for hovercrafts.

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 of me."

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 much smoother.

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 said.

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 said.

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.

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