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Driver Donny Smith, left, has won three of five races in the U.S. Championship Series and leads in points.

Jet boats set for wild ride on scenic Rogue

What would entice someone to jump into a 21-foot aluminum boat featuring 1,000 horsepower and roar up a river at 110 mph?

If you're Donny Smith, it's the roar of the engine, the breathtaking speed and the scenic beauty that changes from one bend in the river to the next.

You don't have much time to look around, though, Smith admits.

Smith will be one of the favorites at this weekend's Rogue River Jet Boat Marathon at Gold Beach. The Medford businessman, competing in the unlimited class, has won three of the five races contested this year in the U.S. Championship Series and owns a big lead in the point standings.

This weekend marks the final leg of the series. The Gold Beach race begins at 10:30 a.m. Saturday.

Smith, 46, was all set to race flat-bottom speedboats a couple of years ago when he got into an unlimited jet boat owned by Medford's Steve Soderberg. Smith was struck by the awesome nature of Soderberg's craft -- the huge engine with its full-blown carburetor, the ease in which it glided through the water, the sturdiness of the aluminum -- that he just had to buy one for himself.

In less than two years, Smith has become the king of unlimited jet boat racers in the Pacific Northwest.

The boats roar through the calm, straight stretches of rivers at more than 100 mph and tackle turbulent whitewater like a shark chasing bait, bouncing through the rough stuff at more than 50 mph.

Although the Rogue offers some raging rapids and unique challenges, nothing compares to the Clearwater River in Idaho, where Class IV rapids are common, Smith says.

It can get pretty ugly, Smith says of weaving through the whitewater. You just try and glide through the tops of the waves and ride them out. You don't want to fall into them, or you can sink your boat.

The races are held in two stages -- one Saturday and one Sunday -- with the boats heading up and down the river a couple of different times.

This weekend at Gold Beach, boats will roar away from Jot's Resort in one-minute intervals, beginning at 10:30 a.m. both Saturday and Sunday. They'll head upriver 38 miles to Foster Bar and then dash back, with the first boats expected to return at 1:30 p.m.

Along with the unlimited class, competition will be held in A, B and C limited divisions, with the variations linked mostly to engine restrictions.

In the unlimited class, Smith has piled up 1,890 points compared to 1,400 for runner-up Tim Harding of Gold Beach.

Dwain Longfellow of Lewiston, Idaho, tops the A class with 2,213 points; John Rachor of White City paces the B class with 1,194 points; and Sam Waller of Gold Beach leads the C class with 1,269.

Racers are awarded 400 points for first place, 300 for second, 225 for third and so on down a sliding scale through the first 20 places.

Smith, who owns one business that builds helicopter grapples and hooks and another that manufactures plastic wedges for timber falling, hasn't had a serious accident in his two years on the water. He did, however, suffer quite a scare last month when his boat struck a rock on the Klamath River near Marysville, Calif. Smith's craft flew into the air and came to a dead stop in the middle of the river.

We went from 104 mph to zero in 60 feet, Smith says.

The rock punctured several small holes in the boat, but Smith turned on his two bilge pumps and was able to complete the third leg of the eight-leg race before withdrawing.

The brush with calamity didn't phase Smith, who at 46 is one of the oldest drivers on the circuit.

I'm trying to keep up with Dale Earnhardt -- we're the same age, says Smith, referring to the Winston Cup stock car racing legend. Right now I'm not even thinking about giving this up. I'm having too much fun.

Photo by Bob Pennell/Mail Tribune