I recently wrote an article for Ride Magazine on the re-release of two classic PWC videos, Jet Dreams and Jet Ski Fever, both of which are now available for the first time on DVD. At the time I featured an exclusive interview with Jet Dreams co-creator Gary Shlifer. Now, I’m happy to add another exclusive interview to the mix, this time with Jet Ski Fever’s Chris Lauber.
As I said in Ride, Jet Ski Fever is really the grandfather of all personal watercraft videos. Professionally shot in a documentary format, it’s the story of the former World Cup Series, in particular the battle in 1983 between now-legendary riders Larry “The Ripper” Rippenkroeger and “Flyin’ Brian” Bendix. In that way, it really chronicles the birth of the sport of PWC racing.
You can now order Jet Ski Fever on DVD for $25, which includes shipping and handling. I highly recommend it if you’re into all things retro, have an appreciation for our sport’s history…or just want to laugh at a simpler time when cut-offs and facial hair were the height of fashion.
Now let’s hear what Chris Lauber had to say about Jet Ski Fever…and check out some truly great vintage pics from his personal collection.
How did the idea to shoot a video come about?
John Biffar, a video journalist shooting for WINK-TV in Ft. Myers, FL came to Lake Placid for our 3rd Annual Florida State Championships in 1981. A fast friendship was formed between John, my brother Mark, and myself. We didn’t really map out any big plan – it just came about naturally, as an extension of our relationship, individual interests, and complementary pursuits.
Simply put, we promoted three Florida races in 1983 in Panama City, St. Pete Beach, and Cypress Gardens, all sanctioned through the IJSBA as the Inaugural World Cup Challenge. John produced a weekly segment for his station called “Nautical News,” so he had the equipment, the know-how, and the skill to produce a video. So we agreed to become partners for the video. Mark and I paid all his expenses, and John produced the video.
We discussed some of the racers we wanted to feature, but we really put everything in John’s capable hands. We just wanted to capture the Jet Ski scene in one of the sport’s earliest days and John was the perfect video journalist to do it, from start to finish.
What are your fondest memories of those times?
Wow – way too many to possibly write about, but we enjoyed so many magical moments.
For instance, in 1981, John Biffar produced a segment after his visit to our state championships for his Nautical News show on WINK-TV. We hadn’t seen any of the footage or the original airing on his station, as we raced in Miami the week after our race in Lake Placid and then drove directly from there to Lincoln, NE for the first-ever National Jet Ski Championships, sanctioned by the United States Jet Ski Boating Association.
Obviously, the stories from that weekend of racing could fill a book, but for me, the on-water highlight was successfully riding two skis during freestyle and finishing in a four-way tie for second with Larry Rippenkroeger, Brian Bendix, and David Gordon. My good friend, Tom Koscica beat the four of us by one point. We didn’t run it off, instead, we divvied up the prize money from 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th. We each earned about $285 for our two minute routines.
Later that night, we were partying in our hotel room with the entire Florida contingent of about 15 racers. The television in the background showed CNN. We were hoping for some kind of coverage from that day’s National Championships. The room was abuzz with activity, talking, and laughing when we suddenly saw Jet Skis on television. After we all settled down, we realized that the action on the screen was actually from Lake Placid, Florida. It was John Biffar’s “Nautical News” segment, which his station had passed on to CNN.
Naturally, all of our jaws dropped, as we saw ourselves on national television from our race two weeks earlier in Florida. Amazingly, every single person in the room that night was seen in that segment. We were blown away.
In retrospect, and there’s no way to confirm it, but that just might have been the first time Jet Ski racing was ever shown on national television.
So, the buzz of racing for three straight weekends in Florida, followed by racing at the first-ever National Championships, was elevated that night for every one of the Florida racers seeing John Biffar’s “Nautical News” segment.
But for me, it absolutely peaked when I saw a photo of myself in the Lincoln Journal-Star newspaper the following morning – I was riding two skis, the trick I originally learned from my brother Mark, after we both saw that video of Rippenkroeger.
What are your thoughts looking back on it after all these years?
I can’t possibly think of doing anything that could have been as much fun as we had in those early, formative years of the sport. I vividly remember sharing a beer with Doug Silverstein in 1982. He stated that we were enjoying the sport’s best days, that even though we weren’t making much money, we were creating an entire sport. We were the pioneers and we would have the privilege to see the whole sport develop right before our eyes. And as important, we had the opportunity to help it grow and develop. He was so right!
How does it feel to have produced arguably the grandfather of all PWC films?
It is definitely one of the highlights of my career.
At the time we produced Jet Ski Fever, I was working in the film industry in Boston as a lighting technician. I had a very deep interest in producing Jet Ski Fever, but to be honest, John Biffar deserves all the credit. Mark and I just provided the opportunity, the financing, and some creative input.
There is no doubt Jet Ski Fever was the first independently produced Jet Ski video and it certainly helped the sport’s progress. Not only did we sell broadcast rights in Canada and Japan, but the IJSBA provided every Kawasaki dealer with a copy for display in their showrooms. And to top it off, John produced a highlights video, which we later hand-delivered to television stations all over Florida, resulting in regular television news coverage for every race we promoted.
Anything else in your video archives?
I have boxes and boxes of broadcast-quality, raw video which has never been seen since it was shot between 1984 and 1998. These videos include killer action and interviews with all the legends from back in the day, like Jeff Jacobs, Christy Carlson, David Gordon. Name a top pro from that era, and we have video of him or her. One of my life goals is to edit it down into a finished dvd recalling the golden days of the sport.