Suttles ready to Rumble again

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 27, 2005

DEMOPOLIS–Despite years of trying and any number of top five finishes, Demopolis drag boat racer J.R. Suttles has yet to finish first in an Outdoor Drag Boat Association (ODBA) event. He says he can’t think of any better time to do so for the first time than in front of his friends and family at the River City Rumble this weekend.

“My birthday is Thursday so it would just be the icing on the cake to win this one,” he says. “I still have not had a first place. It would mean so much for it to happen the first time here. I’m really going after it.”

Suttles admits, though, that claiming his elusive first ODBA win at this particular Rumble would mean more than just giving himself a birthday present. Suttles’s father, one of his biggest racing supporters despite misgivings about the dangers involved in his son’s choice of sport, is currently hospitalized in Tuscaloosa. Suttles says that bringing home the Rumble’s top prize in his father’s honor would make a win that much more sweet.

“I sure wouldn’t mind winning it for him,” Suttles says.

To do that, he will need to shake off the rust of not having entered an ODBA event so far in the 2005 season. He says he’ll be glad to be back in his “Wild Hair” racing boat and back on the water.

“I haven’t went at it so far this year so far this year. I’ve had more important things I’ve had to do,” he says. “But racing is my true passion.”

That passion means that while Suttles hasn’t actually had his boat out in competition, it doesn’t mean he hasn’t been working diligently to prepare for the Rumble. Suttles and his crew have been making constant minor adjustments to the boat and its performance, hoping to help the high-tech vehicle survive the rigors of two days of heated head-to-head competition.

The format of the Rumble is a “softball-style” double-elimination tournament in which two racers go head-to-head each round. Lose two races, and the racer is eliminated. Because Suttles’s class of boat is the largest–with always more than 20 racers involved and as many as 37 in one event, Suttles says–the boats can be put through the wringer of a race many more times in a weekend than other classes of boats. It creates a war of “attrition,” Suttles says, in which the boat that holds up best mechanically over the course of the weekend will be the winner.

While the racers worry about how well their boats hold together, some first-time attendees to an ODBA event may worry about how well the racers would hold together in the event of an accident. With RPMs over 11000 and speeds approaching 140 miles-per-hour, it’s a valid concern. But speaking as a survivor of a horrific crash three years ago that sent his boat hurtling 30 feet into the air and plunged it against an outcropping of rock (he escaped with relatively minor injuries), Suttles says it’s not something he worries about. Like modern race cars, the “Wild Hair” boat is constructed with its driver’s safety in mind.

“I’m not scared,” Suttles says. “[His crash experience] is a testimony to the strength of the boat.”

If there was a positive to come out of his accident, it’s that Suttles saw again the strength of the bond between the ODBA racers. Several of his rivals, Suttles says, offered to let him drive their boats after his had been put out of commission. It was a touching gesture Suttles says is an example of the unique connection the racers share.

“We’re the worst of enemies on the race course,” he says, “but off the water we’re the best of friends.”

Best of friends or not, Suttles wants to win the Rumble and wants it badly. With the final tweaks on “Wild Hair” due this week, he says he’s ready to push things to the limit.

“I’m gonna go with what I know,” he says, “and I’m going to hang her out.”