The ride of his life
By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 11, 2001
"I don't really want to grow up," Chris MacClugage said. "I'm not sure what I'd do. Oh, I've thought about it -- but not seriously."
MacClugage is 27 and still doing well at what he does. He's a watercross racer, steering his personal watercraft around closed courses at up to 80 mph. The best factory racers, with prize money and salaries from sponsors, earn well into six figures.
And MacClugage is one of the best -- five world championships and eight national championships on the International Jet Sports Boating Association racing circuit.
MacClugage will compete against racers from Canada, Mexico, Guam, Brazil, France, New Zealand and Japan during Sunday's $20,000 Pro Watercross Tour stop in St. Petersburg.
The Naples native has competed here before. "I like it," he said, "because we get to race along The Pier. People usually only get to watch from land, like a beach. Usually there's only one view. Here they get two; they can watch from The Pier or the beach. It's almost like a little arena. We're close to The Pier, pretty much right below it. . . .
"I guess you could say I'm competitive. It's always been in me," said MacClugage, who also wakeboards, races motocross, snowboards and races snowmobiles.
Watercross, he said, is tougher than wakeboarding or snowboarding. "You have to be a lot more fit, in a lot better shape. You have to have a lot more muscle, be a lot more flexible. And it takes a lot more endurance."
The training, the practicing, that's the work. "The fun stuff," he said, "is when you race. More fun when you win."
The MacClugage family lived on one of the Naples canals that feeds out to the Gulf of Mexico. Chris doesn't remember exactly how old he was when he got his first personal watercraft, but he knows he was 13 when he raced for the first time, off Marco Island. Just riding no longer was enough. "That's when the competitiveness really came out," he said.
Motorcycle racing is one thing, racing the equivalent of racing a motorcycle on water quite another.
"The course is always changing," MacClugage said. "You don't know what's around the next turn or what lies ahead. When you're on a motorcycle race course, you know what the road's going to be like, or the conditions, every time you go past a certain spot on every lap. Riding on the street, or even snowboarding, you can usually see what's coming next and you know it's not going to change. On the water, you don't know what you're going to hit."
And here perhaps is the biggest -- and best -- difference between motorcycles and personal watercraft, MacClugage said. "When you wreck, you don't get road rash. You still get sore. Water is a lot more forgiving than pavement or a dirt road, but it still hurts to some degree.
"If someone hits you, that's really when you get hurt," he said. "We're racing pretty close together and there's that chance of contact with another watercraft."
MacClugage has fractured his ankles a few times. "No big deal," he said. "You've got to expect it here and there."
The Tampa Bay area has been the site of watercross events for more than 20 years, but the national tour is making its first Pinellas County stop since 1988. From 1981-86, the sport's first five years, the Don CeSar hosted national tour races, and in 1988 it stopped at St. Pete Beach.
Pro WaterCross Tour
WHEN: 10 a.m. Saturday -- novice and expert racing; 10 a.m. Sunday -- pro racing.
WHERE: The Pier, St. Petersburg.
EVENTS: Closed course (personal watercraft racers on twisting, buoyed, motocross-style course); freestyle (tricks); slalom (timed event on buoyed course).
BORN: Dec. 30, 1973, Naples.
RESIDES: Canyon Lake, Calif.
HT.: 5-5.. WT.: 140.
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: International Jet Sports Boating Association Watercross Nationals Pro Runabout 1200 champion, 1997-2000; Pro Runabout 1200 World Champion, 1999; Jet Sports Tour Pro Ski and Pro Sport national champion, 1994; Florida Word Cup Series Pro Ski and Pro Sport champion, 1993.
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