Despite the endless bickering and politics among racers and organizers that always have and always will define offshore powerboat racing, the sport is—in its finest moments—truly awesome to watch. And from the exotic hardware in the pits on Truman Annex to the nonstop party on Duvall Street, there is no better place to watch and experience it than Key West, Fla.
Scheduled this year for Nov. 4-11, the Super Boat International Key West Offshore World Championships are to offshore racing what the Indianapolis 500 is to open-wheel automobile racing. It’s a benchmark event that draws racers and fans from not just around the country, but from all over the world.
The Key West Worlds use a three-race format to determine the winners in the organization’s many—some say too many—classes. Races happen Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. There are two races into which the fleet is divided by classes each day. Teams earn points for their finishing order at each race, and the team with most points after the racing concludes on Sunday wins. In the event of a tie between teams -- and that’s happened more than once over the years -- the lap times determine the winners.
All teams start with a clean slate at the Key West Worlds. That means regular-season victories, points, and even national titles don’t matter. Earn the most points in your class over three races and the world title is yours.
The off days—Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday—are testing and practice days. That means fans who just can’t get enough of super-fast—up to 150 mph this year—and really loud V-bottoms and catamarans can, between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., usually look toward Cuba and find a raceboat running. For an up-close view of the hardware, there’s the Duvall Street Party on Friday, where a number of raceboats will be on display.
For spectators who want a great view of the action, Mallory Square is a sure bet because the boats, after roaring down the final straightaway, have to make a hard turn of almost 180 degrees within 100 yards or so of the seawall. After they complete the sharp corner, the boats run wide open to the next turn, which is marked by a distant red/orange pillow on the horizon. The long straight leading to that turn sees a lot of passing and jockeying for position.
As for classes to watch this year, here are those likely to provide the best action:
Superboat: New engine specifications adopted into the SBI rulebook a little more than a month before the 2012 Key West Worlds have reignited this 36- to 46-foot catamaran class in a big way. While in recent years the Superboat fleets in Key West have been in the three- to four-boat range, this year the class could have as many as seven or eight entries—and all fairly competitive. That’s the early buzz, at least. With the class limited to twin 510-cubic-inch naturally aspirated engines this year, tops speeds should be in the 120- to 125-mph range.
Superboat Unlimited: Think of the Superboat Unlimited class as the Superboat class on steroids—catamarans from 38 to 50 feet long with unlimited piston power. The most likely candidates to be at the front of the three- to five-boat pack are a pair of 48-foot Marine Technology, Inc., catamarans, Gasse and CMS. With its twin 1,500-hp Sterling supercharged engines, CMS has a slight power edge over Gasse, which is powered by twin turbocharged 1,350-hp engines from Mercury Racing. But anything can happen in Key West, especially when the water gets rough. Plus, the Sprit of Qatar has committed to racing its Lamborghini-engine-powered Union International Motonautique Class I cat in the class in Key West this year.
Superboat Stock: This could be the most underrated class on the SBI circuit, and it's guaranteed to provide hot action at the Worlds. In Superboat Stock, catamarans from 28 to 32 feet long tap twin Mercury Racing 2.5-litre outboard engines to power to speeds of more than 100 mph, and the racing is as close as it gets. For a front-runner, it’s tough not to pick Gary Ballough, a multi-time world champion, in Black Sand, a 32-foot Doug Wright cat that held its own in the tough Union International Motonautique XCat class overseas. Look for five to eight boats to make the starts in Key West.
Super Vee Limited: Just a few years ago, the single-engine (Mercury Racing 525 EFI) Super Vee Limited class—also known as Super V Light under the Offshore Powerboat Association Sanctioning Umbrella—was the up-and-coming class to watch. Internal politics set it back, but for fans looking for a healthy field of V-bottoms, Super Vee Limited is the most likely to provide a four- to six-boat fleet and deck-to-deck racing. The boat to watch this year is Snowy Mountain Brewery, a new 29-foot Outerlimits that reportedly led “wire to wire” the SBI Nationals in Clearwater, Fla., the final race before the Key West Worlds.
Of course, all it takes for a good offshore race to break out is two evenly matched boats on the course. That means, for example, if both Semper Fi and Aqua-Mania show up, there could be a fierce battle in the Turbine class. More likely to provide racing action, however, are the other classes noted here. At least one of them certainly will produce a good battle. That’s just the way it is in Key West.
- Matt Trulio