MasterCraft Boat Company announced on Nov. 30 an exclusive engine-supply agreement with Ilmor Marine, effective with the beginning of the 2012 model year. This means that MasterCraft will end its 25-year relationship with Indmar Marine Engines of Millington, Tenn. MasterCraft began offering Ilmor engines as an option on 2011 models in mid-2010.

In 2012 this Mastercraft will be powered with Ilmor engines.

In 2012 this Mastercraft Star will be powered with Ilmor engines.

Ilmor is a familiar name to auto-racing fans. The company was founded in 1983 by Mario Illien, Paul Morgan and Roger Penske, and its engines have since won 225 IndyCar races, 16 Indianapolis 500 races, and two Formula 1 world titles, according to a MasterCraft media release.

Ilmor High Performance Marine, LLC, founded in 2004, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Ilmor Engineering, Inc. and shares its headquarters in Plymouth, Michigan. The company has built some championship-winning marine racing engines, including a marinized version of the Dodge Viper V-10 and its own Indy outdrive. The effort for MasterCraft is Ilmor’s first foray into the realm of mainstream, production-style marine engines.

In a Dec. 1 interview, MasterCraft Marketing Director Jason Boertje was very careful to state that the decision to work exclusively with Ilmor should not reflect negatively on Indmar.

“This is really about creating some product differentiation for MasterCraft,” said Boertje. “We’ve had a great relationship with Indmar and they build an excellent line of engines, but two of our leading competitors use what are essentially those same Indmar engines. With Ilmor, we can offer an exclusive engine that delivers equal or slightly better performance than the engines in our competitors’ boats.”

The boat companies Boertje refers to are MalibuBoats and Skier’s Choice (which builds the Moomba and Supra brands). MasterCraft and Malibu have battled for the lead in towboat sales for a decade, and together own about half the market. Skier’s Choice ranks number three, just ahead of Correct Craft, which sources its engines from PCM. Over the years the Indmar engines in MasterCraft boats have carried the company’s brand, or have been called “MasterCraft by Indmar.” My own perception is that there has been some tension between the boat builder and the engine supplier over Indmar’s relationship with arch-rival Malibu, for which it is has created some special engines.

 Ilmor MV8 5.7 marine engines destined for MasterCraft resting on racks at the 50,000-square-foot Ilmor facility on the Penske Racing campus in Mooresville, N.C.

Ilmor MV8 5.7 marine engines destined for MasterCraft resting on racks at the 50,000-square-foot Ilmor facility on the Penske Racing campus in Mooresville, N.C.

According to Boertje, MasterCraft first came in contact with Ilmor in 2004 when the boat company became a sponsor of the Panther racing team on the IndyCar circuit. Then, in 2007, a private equity group lead by Roger Penske took effective control of MasterCraft. Penske has many business interests but is best-known to the public for his successful auto racing teams. The Penske group walked away from its MasterCraft investment in June 2009, when Wayzata Investment Partners of Minneapolis restructured the MasterCraft debt.

But the relationship initiated by Penske between MasterCraft and Ilmor lingered. One could speculate that by landing this engine business, Ilmor is also helping Penske recoup some of the investment he lost when he backed MasterCraft in 2007.

Compared to Mercury Marine and Volvo Penta, Indmar is a small player in the marine-engine business. But it has been innovative and nimble over the last decade in responding to consumer demand for fuel-injected engines, and especially in the development of low-emissions engines equipped with exhaust catalysts. It’s also small enough to be able to build custom engines for its customers dressed up with chrome and powder coated components. More importantly, Indmar has a reputation for building engines with rock-solid reliability, perhaps the most-important attribute for any marine engine. If the engine won’t start or breaks down, a boater’s precious day on the water is ruined.

An Ilmor MV8 6.2 engine as assembled for MasterCraft.

An Ilmor MV8 6.2 engine as assembled for MasterCraft.

So in that regard, MasterCraft is taking a risk with Ilmor, a company with no track record in this field.

“There’s no question we are staking the MasterCraft reputation on Ilmor,” said Boertje. “But from the beginning we’ve been impressed with the Ilmor research and development capability and its manufacturing facility, both of which are in line with our business. Not to say that Indmar wasn’t, but we feel confident that Ilmor can meet the challenge.”

Ilmor will supply MasterCraft with 5.7, 6.0 and 6.2-liter engines, which Boertje says offer comparable or slightly better performance and economy to the Indmar engines of the same displacement (which are rated at 310-, 400- and 450-hp respectively).

“The next step is brain-storming for the future,” said Boertje.