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A blue collar under the race helmet
A St. Petersburg boat dealer competes against big money for a world title.
By TERRY TOMALIN
Published November 20, 2005
ST. PETERSBURG - In a high-dollar sport dominated by the independently wealthy, Mike Flanigan is a blue-collar guy trying to get by.
"Me, a millionaire?" laughed Flanigan of St. Petersburg. "I wish."
Like many boat racers, Flanigan, pilot for the Offshore Super Series vee-bottom boat Lightning Strikes, started his career in the pits.
"My father, John Flanigan, raced in the APBA and U.S. Offshore back in the early '90s," said Mike Flanigan, 34. "I worked for him until I got a chance to get in my own boat."
That was 10 years ago. Today, Flanigan is one of the young turks battling for acceptance in a premiere class dominated by veterans.
When the OSS World Championships continue today off St. Pete Beach, Flanigan and teammate Bob Teague hope to parlay their third-place finish Thursday into a shot at the title.
To do that, their Lighting Strikes Donzi will have to take down the Spiderman Skater, a boat that has achieved nearly superhero status this season.
Ken Bowen and Scot Conrad started off the year in a Donzi, Adrenaline, and took over the big, red Spiderman boat when owner Todd Welling was injured in an accident unrelated to racing.
The Spiderman Skater was built by Peter Hledin's Douglas Marine, a Michigan-based performance-boat maker known for high-performance catamarans. There is no denying that Hledin's vee bottoms are fast, but Spiderman has had trouble finishing races. The 40-footer broke on the eighth of 12 laps in the final race of the regular season in Corpus Christi, Texas, but despite that fifth-place finish it had enough points to win the national championship.
But Flanigan said he thinks his Donzi is just what is needed in the rough waters off St. Pete Beach. On Thursday a brisk wind and 2- to 4-foot seas damaged many of the boats in the first race of the World Championships.
"This Donzi is definitely a rough-water boat," Flanigan said. "We don't have the top-end speed, but we can make it up by carrying speed into the turns."
And turns are exactly what the OSS, a second-year sanctioning body, hopes to be known for.
"All of our courses have six or seven turns," Flanigan said. "That makes it much more competitive. You just can't go out there and run around in circles."
The St. Pete Beach course has five lefts and one right, which forces drivers to maneuver and navigate.
"The first time out we ran the course real slow," Flanigan said. "We have a GPS and mark all the turn pins. You need to keep those numbers in your head, so when you come off a turn you set the right course to be ready for the next one."
Sound easy? Try picking out a small orange buoy in 4-foot seas through the tiny windshield of a boat going close to 100 mph.
"Navigation is critical in a boat like ours because we can't afford to go wide," Flanigan said. "We just don't have the speed. We have to keep our lines tight and run pin to pin."
Flanigan has run on all three race circuits - OSS, Super Boat International and the American Power Boat Association Offshore - but says he has opted to stick with OSS because of the competition.
"All the boats on this circuit have canopies," he said. "The safety factor is important to me."
Flanigan said he also likes the OSS's tight specifications and strict postrace inspections. "You don't hear about anybody cheating," he said.
The rival SBI/APBA tour, which combines those two sanctioning bodies, is hosting its world championships in Key West this weekend with a larger vee-bottom class. The SBI/APBA Web site lists 19 "Super Vees," but the typical race draws around 10 boats.
The SBI/APBA race courses are typical four-turn oval courses with long straightaways that are ideal for boats with high-end speed, such as those built by legendary racer Reggie Fountain in North Carolina.
Fountain, who has more than 100 wins as a driver or throttleman to his credit, doesn't like to lose. He is known as an innovator and has had some highly publicized disputes with race officials over rules and specifications in recent years. Fountain's boats excel in flat water and have dominated the SBI/APBA circuit this year.
But how the SBI/APBA Fountains would fare against the OSS fleet, which is more equally represented by all of the manufacturers - including Extreme boats and Phantom - has yet to be seen.
Last month at the OSS National Championships in Corpus Christi, two veteran SBI/APBA racers entered to go head to head with Spiderman.
"There was a lot of talk on the Internet about who would have the fastest vee-bottom, OSS or SBI," said Joe Sgro, who has driven and throttled the Super Vee Instigator to numerous wins and records. "I guess we had to see."
Instigator ended up winning the race, but only after Spiderman was forced out in the eighth lap. The Skater recorded an average lap speed of 94.74 mph compared to the Fountain's 92.17.
But Instigator didn't show up at St. Pete Beach for a rematch. A prior commitment sent the boat to Key West, which last year hosted a unified world championships, the first in a decade.
Hopes of another universal worlds championship, one that would truly determine the fastest boat in each class, were dashed when organizers from the rival tours could not agree to terms.
Flanigan, who with Teague won the world title in Key West last year, thinks his future lies with OSS and Donzi, which he sells from his dealership on Gandy Boulevard.
"I think you will see a much larger fleet next year," Flanigan said. "There will be some surprises."