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Powerboat circuit looks to NASCAR as its model

Offshore racing wants to build a solid fan base with close races and parity among teams.

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 12, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- When the first powerboaters raced across the English Channel in 1904, nobody imagined a day a boat could be too fast for its own good.

How the sport has changed.

Today's powerboats have supercharged engines and hulls that can skim across the water at 200 mph. And though this may sound exciting, if you put two dozen of these catamarans on a race course, they wouldn't make it a lap without an accident.

"That is why our new rules system is competition-based," said Michael Allweiss, chairman of the American Power Boat Association's Offshore Division. "We want to build a sport with a solid fan base. To do that, racing has to be fair, close and exciting, where the best team, not the one with the most money, wins."

The concept is nothing new. Motorsports fans flock to Winston Cup events, where cars race door handle to door handle around an oval track. Shouldn't the same concept work with powerboat racing?

Only time will tell.

One thing is certain. When the power boat association's Offshore World Championships come to St. Petersburg this week, the competition will be the closest the sport has seen.

"Pete Rozelle used to say that the ideal NFL season was one where every team went 8-8," Allweiss said. "We like to see powerboat racing get to the point where we have a different winner every race."

More than 150 boats will compete in 12 professional classes and five classes for beginners. The most hotly contested races will be in the Super Cat and Factory classes.

The new Super Cats -- big, fast, sleek catamarans that exceed 130 mph -- have proven to be the circuit's crowd pleaser this season. Tight weight, length and power restrictions have kept the class so competitive that racers from other disciplines are abandoning their boats to get a piece of the action.

Super Cats are 36 to 40 feet long and powered by twin 495-510 cubic inch inboard engines. They cost about $500,000 and are among the most colorful boats on the race course.

Typically, the Super Cat field consists of a dozen or so boats, and they run with the introductory catamaran classes, the FIIIs and the FIVs. Several new teams are expected to unveil new boats at the St. Petersburg event, so the class could have up to 20 boats.

"There may come a time when we have to limit the field," Allweiss said. "We hope to someday offer Super Cat franchises, like they do in Formula One car racing, so if a team wants to stop racing, it will have a tangible asset that can be sold to another team."

The Factory classes are the most popular among racers. The boats come directly from the factory. The rules prohibit teams from tinkering with the engines, an attempt to assure that the best driver and throttleman, not the fastest boat, wins.

The circuit will unveil its new Certified Racing Engine program in St. Petersburg. The program is patterned after a similar system used in auto racing.

"The engines in the top boats will be sealed and certified by an inspector before the race," Allweiss said. "This will keep everything fair and even."

The goal, Allweiss said, is to have "deck-to-deck" racing in the Factory classes. "We want the race to be decided in the last 100 yards," he said.

The Factory II class, with its field of 20 or more boats, has not disappointed fans or race organizers.

"Everybody is evenly matched," said throttleman Matt Rice of the FII team Utz Quality Foods. "Nobody is going to run away with a race. On any given day, anybody can win."

Rice and driver Lute Dickey, in their rookie season, are fourth in the points standings with a string of top-three finishes, and they stand a good chance of winning this weekend.

"This class is one of the most competitive," Rice said. "We had a chance to move up into one of the larger canopied boats but decided not to. Why go out and race against three people when you can race against 20?"

The popularity of the twin-engine FII and its smaller, single-engine cousin, the FI, lies in the boats' availability. The 35-foot Fountain powerboat you see running along Clearwater Beach, in theory, is the same 35-foot Fountain powerboat you will see racing in St. Petersburg on Sunday.

The typical FII, which measures 30 to 39 feet and is powered by two Mercury 502 engines, costs about $200,000. A team can count on spending at least as much on travel and maintenance if it wants to race the national circuit.

And that is where the sponsors come in. Everybody from boat builders to jelly bean distributors have put money behind teams this season.

"I don't know if we will ever get as big as NASCAR," Dickey said. "But I know we are starting to pull in the fans. I think the sport will continue to grow as long as we keep the competition tight."

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