Offshore powerboat racing is, for all intents and purposes, the aquatic version of off-road automobile racing. There are similarities, such as man and machine versus a demanding environment, and the demands on both simply to survive any given contest. Yet there’s also a key difference: In off-road racing, the course changes from mile to mile or segment to segment. In offshore powerboat racing, the course changes from moment to moment—swell, wind, tide, current, and more make the offshore race course perhaps the most dynamic environment in all of motorsports. In an instant, the track can go from docile to hostile.
Since its beginnings in the late 1960s, offshore racing has changed dramatically. True offshore courses where the boats, mostly V-bottoms in the early years of the sport, disappeared beyond the horizon for one big out-and-back lap have given way to multi-lap events on near-shore courses that are more friendly to spectators and sponsors. Though V-bottom powerboat classes still exist, twin-engine catamarans with top speeds of 170 MPH in the most powerful classes dominate the sport, which enjoys a relatively small but intensely loyal group of competitors—less than 75 teams across the country—and fans.
The story of offshore powerboat racing in the United States is one of repeated expansion and contraction, the result of endless politics within the sport and forces outside it, most notably the economy (Offshore racing always been a sport for the wealthy, as it has never been a moneymaker for anyone other than a few promoters over the years). The first offshore raceboats of note were produced by Bertram, a name better known among the general boating public for yachts rather than go-fast V-bottoms.
Don Aronow, the New Jersey-born entrepreneur behind the iconic Cigarette Racing Team brand of V-hull sportboats, brought offshore racing into the limelight in the 1970s and 1980s. A born showman with a playboy persona, Aronow took to the cockpit of his own V-bottom creations with his mechanic, Norris “Knocky” House, and the two won several world championships. More important, Aronow created not just an image of Cigarette as a coveted powerboat brand for alpha males, but an image of a sport that put all competitors to the test. Before he was murdered in 1987, a victim of the criminal company he reportedly kept, Aronow had added the famed Donzi and Magnum brands to his high-performance boatbuilding resume.
In addition to the death of Aronow, the mid- to late 1980s also saw the rise and fall of the Offshore Performance Tour (OPT), which attracted celebrity racers including actors Chuck Norris and Kurt Russell. But despite its early star appeal, the OPT failed to attract a mainstream audience and ultimately fell apart. Still, the sport had the Offshore category of the American Powerboat Association (the domestic arm of the Union Internationale Motonautique, powerboat racing’s international sanctioning body) as well as U.S. Offshore, to sanction events. U.S. Offshore eventually splintered into promoter John Carbonell’s Super Boat International.
By the mid-1990s, only the American Power Boat Association (APBA) and Super Boat International remained the primary circuits in the sport. Picking up offshore powerboat racing’s showmanship reins during that period was Reggie Fountain, the flamboyant founder of Fountain Powerboats. Like Aronow, Fountain cultivated a playboy image that extended to his brand of V-bottoms. Also like Aronow, he backed up the Fountain brands with domination on the racecourse in the monohull classes.
Fleet sizes varied from year to year until APBA leased out its Offshore category name and rights to attorney Michael Allweiss, who started APBA Offshore LCC. Under the tenure of Allweiss, which ended in the 2004, offshore racing fleets grew to more than 100 boats across multiple classes at the biggest events. APBA Offshore gave way to the race team owner-formed and ultimately ill-fated Offshore Super Series, which vanished within two years.
As an offshore powerboat racing organization with a national core of teams and fans, Super Boat International is all that remains. Races during the regular season typically attract 25 to 30 boats across eight classes, although the organization’s annual World Championships in Key West, Fla., typically pull in twice that number.
Class Structure Simplified
Super Boat International currently has eight classes under its umbrella. Here’s a look at the basics of the top four:
Superboat Unlimited—As implied in its name, this class literally has no limits. Canopied catamarans and V-bottoms can complete, although the class is dominated by catamarans with twin engines, primarily from Mercury Racing, from 1,350 HP to 1,850 HP. Boat length in the class ranges from 42 to 52 feet, though there is no set limit. Boatbuilders with teams in the Unlimited ranks include MTI, Mystic, and Victory. Top speeds in this class are in the 170 MPH range. Given the tremendous amounts of horsepower involved, the Unlimited class tends to be Super Boat International’s most “fragile” category. At any given race, attrition due to mechanical failure is high.
Superboat—With the closest competition and the largest average fleet size, the Superboat class is made up of canopied catamarans from 36 to 40 feet with twin “spec” engines (meaning they must comply with certain technical specifications laid out by Super Boat International) from 750 to 850 HP. Top speeds range from 120 to 130 MPH. The Superboat class is the organization’s marquee category.
Superboat Extreme—The fastest V-bottom class in Super Boat International ranks, with speeds up to 120-MPH, Superboat Extreme consists of canopied monohulls from 40 to 43 feet long. Each boat is powered by twin engines in the 750 to 800 HP range. While any V-bottom manufacturer can build a Superboat Extreme-class raceboat if it meets the class requirements, the only builders currently in the game are Fountain Powerboats and Outerlimits Powerboats.
Superboat Vee—Single-engine canopied V-bottoms from 29 to 31 feet long make up the popular and competitive Super Vee class. Power output ranges from 550 to 600 HP. Two boatbuilders—Extreme and Phantom—dominate the class, though Outerlimits and Fountain have produced successful Superboat Vee-class raceboats in recent years. Superboat Vee-class raceboats can reach speeds of 100 to 105 mph in racing conditions.
Where To Catch The Action
For the best in domestic offshore racing action, the Super Boat International World Championships in Key West, Fla., are the place to be. The event usually is held during the second week of November, and it features a three-race—Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday—format. What happens during the regular season, even taking a National Championship, means nothing in Key West. Points accumulated during the three races for podium finishes (first, second, and third places), laps completed, and lap times determine the winners in each class.
Viewing areas for spectators in Key West are almost unlimited. What’s more, most waterfront establishments (as well as those off the water) in Key West carry Super Boat International’s Livestream from each race, so spectators also can catch the action on television—with play-by-play and color commentary—as the boats roar by them on each lap.
Starting in May, the Super Boat International regular season schedule typically includes four to six events, including the National Championships in early October in Clearwater Beach, Fla..
While primarily a “racing club” based in the Northeast, the Offshore Powerboat Association circuit also holds its own world championships in Florida. To enable Super Boat competitors to join in the action, the organization typically hosts its championships the weekend after the Super Boat event in Key West. During its regular season, the Offshore Powerboat Association hosts races as far west a Detroit, though most of its events are on the East Coast.