Xenia native Dean Chenoweth became a legend in his own time. He was known as one of the best if not the best hydroplane racers in the world.
His father loved boats and so as a lad Dean was taken frequently to Indian Lake, spending many hours on his father’s boat.
It was not long before he was able to maneuver the boat around the lake himself and by the age of twelve was racing small boats.
At the age of 15 he won three National Championships in Class A & B hydroplanes and Class A stock boats.
It seems that hydroplane racing was in his blood and he loved every minute that he could be on the water piloting the muscular “thunderboats” to amazing speeds.
He attended Miami University and upon graduation came back to Xenia to work with his father A. E. Chenoweth at Chenoweth Motor Sales. The business was located on South Detroit Street in Xenia for many years.
Even though he enjoyed his position in automobile sales, racing the powerful hydroplane boats was his first love. In 1968 at the age of 31, he moved to unlimited class hydroplanes. This became a life-long passion.
His first major races were in a boat owned by Joe and Lee Smirnoff. The boat was a “bat wing” weighing 8,000 pounds, very heavy for that type of boat. Later it was re-designed to a lighter weight.
Dean drove the SMIRNOFF for two seasons, but was not pleased with his performance or that of the boat. He was convinced that he could be better.
When another driver was unable to compete, he was offered the opportunity to pilot the boat known as “Miss Budweiser.” This was a 3,800 horsepower boat which was owned by Bernard Little of Lakeland Florida, an executive with the Budweiser Corporation. This proved to be a good move for Dean and for the owner as well.
He became more adept at racing and maneuvering those large boats in the water and earned gold medals in 1970, 73, 80 and 81. This is the highest award which a driver can be given in this sport.
It seemed that Dean and “Miss Bud” were unstoppable when it came to racing on the several rivers and lakes throughout the country. In addition to all the other races he won, he was a four time National Champion.
In 1980, he set a record of twenty heat race wins and that same year set a speed record of just over 138 m.p.h. While racing on the Columbia River in the state of Washington.
In spite of the fact that he had some very serious crashes in 1973, 1979 and 1981; as soon as the boat was in good repair and he had healed from his injuries, he was right back, piloting the Miss Bud to more and more victories. He lived through these crashes with broken ribs and arms, but was in excellent physical condition. He was a serious runner, sometimes running eight or ten miles a day.
He sold the Chenoweth Buick-Pontiac agency in Xenia and moved to Tallahassee where he opened a Budweiser beer distributorship. There had been speculation in Xenia about whether he could continue the auto business and then in January 1974, he made the following announcement. “I have entered into an equity agreement with Anheuser Busch Co., brewers of Budweiser, Busch and Michelob beer, and will have a nine-county distributorship in the northern Florida with Tallahassee the hub.”
He maintained both businesses for the time being, but eventually sold the auto business to another local dealer.
As a provision of learning the distribution business, he had to retire from racing for a while but in 1979 he was back driving Miss Budweiser for even more recognition.
He was described as a quiet, mild mannered man who did not strive for publicity, though his racing record certainly did bring international recognition.
After he moved to Florida, he became active in the community. He was a member of the board of trustees of Florida State University and was named Tallahassee Man of the Year in 1981.
He was enshrined in the Florida Sports Hall of Fame in Cypress Gardens, which he considered a highlight of his career.
In an interview he was asked about the risks of hydroplane races. His reply was “I feel if you start thinking about that, you are going to psyche yourself out the wrong way.”
“Before I race any more I like to have a nice calm evening the night before. I’m a runner; I may go and run five or six miles the day before the race or a couple days preceding the race.”
“The boats are getting faster, but I think they are truly getting safer. It’s just like an Indy race car. Sometimes you run into a circumstance that doesn’t exist very often and when you run into it you either survive or you don’t.”
His last race proved to be his last. At the age of 44 he was racing on the Columba River in Washington attempting to establish a new speed record. At a speed of about 175 miles per hour, the front of the three ton boat came up out of the water; it seemed to stand on its tale then flipped over on him. He died within the hour. Hydroplane racing had lost one of the best drivers to pilot a boat.
Joan Baxter is a local resident and weekly historical columnist.