By TERRY TOMALIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2001
There was a time when all it took to win an offshore powerboat race was money. The team with the deepest pockets, not the best driver, usually won.
But those days are gone.
"Last year during the race in Baltimore I could have literally reached out and touched the deck of another boat," said Gene Weeks, throttleman for the St. Petersburg-based Thunder Performance Marine team. "We have never had competition this tight before. And it looks like this season it will get even tighter."
The American Power Boat Association Offshore season kicks off Saturday in Daytona Beach, the motorsport capital of the world, and swings through St. Petersburg in October when the tour's national championships will be on the fickle waters of Tampa Bay.
The World Championships, held in November in St. Petersburg, will move to Key West. Officials with APBA Offshore said they hope to avoid some of the difficulties they encountered last year when they hosted the event the same weekend as the Florida-Florida State football game.
"We have been trying to get back to Key West for a long time," APBA Offshore chairman Michael Allweiss said. "By adding Key West we will have another rough-water venue, and this will help us achieve our goal of bringing parity to the sport."
Last year's APBA tour was criticized for having too many "flat-water" events. So Allweiss struck a deal with Daytona International Speedway to bring a powerboat race to the home of NASCAR.
"Our goal has long been to achieve the kind of level playing field you see at a stock car race," Allweiss said. "Nobody wants to watch a sport where the same team wins week after week."
The key to the APBA Offshore's plan is the new Certified Racing Engine program that assures that all the boats in the Factory Classes, the closest thing powerboat racing has to the Winston Cup, are using the same equipment.
"Back in the old days it was not uncommon to have races where some boats were running at 80 mph and other boats running at 90 mph," said Weeks, who will be racing a 33-foot Baja on Sunday. "With everybody using the same engines, you should never have that kind of disparity."
But the introduction of the CRE inspection program at last year's Worlds put the racers on notice that "creative interpretation" of APBA rules no longer would be tolerated.
The results were obvious. November's Factory II race, which had nearly 30 boats competing, could have been won by anybody. Allweiss hopes this level of competition will help build a fan base similar to the one that has made NASCAR one of America's top spectator sports.
Allweiss hopes that the Factory Classes (F II has double engines, F I has a single engine) will be the tour's big crowd pleaser.
"Just like Winston Cup features cars that are similar, at least in appearance, to what ordinary people drive, these factory boats are almost identical to the ones you'll find in any boat dealership," he said.
Weeks, who began racing in 1986, said a would-be racer could get into the sport for an initial investment of $150,000 to $300,000, about the cost of a good offshore fishing boat.
"To run a legitimate campaign you would have to go to at least 10 national races and you could count on spending at least $5,000 a race," he said. "You'll need to keep at least another $30,000 in reserve for repairs and equipment, so it is not cheap."
But boat and engine manufacturers, as well as restaurants, oil companies and soft-drink distributors, are eager to sponsor offshore racing teams because of the exposure they bring to their products.
In addition to the Daytona Beach race, which includes a high-performance boat show at the speedway, APBA Offshore has added events in Cleveland, Manhattan, and Mississauga, Ontario, which is a stone's throw from Toronto.
"We are expecting some big things this season," Allweiss said. "We're moving forward and we expect the competition to be better than ever."