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Race to the Bottom: Organizers hope underwater scooter racing is the next sky surfing

At 5-foot-7 and 130 pounds, Michael Vivona has never excelled in sports. But that changed last weekend when the 56-year-old engineering supervisor for an Orlando television station earned a championship in an emerging extreme sport: underwater scooter racing.

Vivona piloted his $7,000 Dive-X Cuda 1150 to victory in a fleet of 15 in the Wes Skiles Memorial Shootout in Key Largo, the third event of the newly formed Wreck Racing League's Formula H2O circuit. The race was held 45 feet deep on the wreck of the Benwood, a 360-foot merchant freighter.

Vivona, a self-described "tech-head'' who overcame crippling migraines in both Saturday's practice and Sunday's race, credited his win to his size.

"I'm real small. I'm more streamlined. The whole thing in the water is drag'', he said. "There are very few sports that require you to be small. This appears to be one of those -- like a jockey racing a horse.''

Vivona won a trophy, the checkered flag, a congratulatory underwater kiss from "mermaid'' Toni Hyde and a decorative belt handed over by the series' defending champion, David Ulloa. The new champ said he hopes the sport will grow in popularity.

"It's so new. Nothing like this has been attempted before'', Vivona said. "We don't know whether it's going to have continued impact. It could go on to be just another fun thing to do with your friends.''

Racing underwater scooters, or diver propulsion vehicles (DPVs), is the brainchild of Joe Weatherby, who spearheaded the 2009 sinking of the Vandenberg as an artificial reef off Key West, and Dave Sirak, who works with Vivona at WFTV-Channel 9 in Orlando.

Pondering a way to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the missile tracker's deployment, they planned to race each other around the Vandenberg, but then decided to open the event. A fleet of nine DPVs lined up for the June 13 contest, which was won by Miami's Dean Vitale, inventor of the Pegasus Thruster, a hands-free DPV that attaches to a scuba tank.

Encouraged by the competitors' enthusiasm, the Wreck Racing League took its fledgling Formula H2O circuit to Fort Lauderdale for the Gold Coast Underwater Grand Prix on Aug. 22. A fleet of 24 racers did laps around the sunken freighter Tracey at 70 feet, with Ulloa, an underwater cinematographer from Reddick in Central Florida, taking the trophy.

Known among racers as the "Shark Whisperer,'' Ulloa is sponsored by Submerge Scooters, which he uses in his job shooting video in water-filled caves. His Magnus 950, which retails for about $6,500, can reach speeds of 300 feet per minute.

"This sport is not cutthroat,'' he said. "It's camaraderie. It brings people together from all types of diving for a very fun activity.''

Following last weekend's Wes Skiles Memorial, dedicated to a pioneering underwater photographer who died in a diving accident in July off Boynton Beach, Weatherby announced tentative plans to hold a fourth race in Key West next month. (Check for updates.)

"It's the new X-Games'', he said. "We are about alternative power and all things environmental. Everybody's determined to make the league a success.''

DPVs are among the most environmentally friendly forms of marine propulsion because they are battery-powered and quiet. Rather than disturbing marine life, one scooter practicing for the Key Largo race piqued the curiosity by a four-foot-long green moray eel that swam out of the Benwood wreck to check it out.

Originally used by scientific, technical and military divers, DPVs now are mainstream -- albeit big-ticket -- accessories for recreational scuba divers. Priced between $200 and $10,000, about a dozen models are expected to be displayed at the annual Dive Equipment and Marketing Association show in Las Vegas next month.

DEMA executive director Tom Ingram said the dive industry doesn't keep track of DPV sales, but he's glad for any emerging sport that boosts scuba diving's profile.

"People are always looking for ways to compete with each other'', Ingram said. "There's not a lot besides breath-hold diving and spearfishing that you can have competition underwater.''

Formula H2O racing has provided great fun and stress relief for Nathan Cruz, 37, a retired U.S. Army staff sergeant who lives in Miami.

Cruz survived his Chinook helicopter being shot down in Afghanistan in 2008 only to suffer severe injury days later when his motorcycle was struck by an SUV near Fort Campbell, Ky. Confined to a wheelchair, he underwent months of physical therapy, became a certified scuba diver through the Wounded Warriors program last spring and has scored two third-place finishes in Formula H2O.

"I was born to fly'', Cruz said, smiling. "Every time I go diving, I come out and nothing hurts.''