One of the glories of sport is its refusal to be cautious and prudent. What cautious man would dare Everest? What prudent man would stand in and swing at Nolan Ryan's fastball? And, indeed, who in his right, weigh-it-out mind would dabble in the outlandish game of offshore powerboat racing, where the boats are fiendishly expensive, the purses nonexistent or absurdly small and the risks to life and limb all too real? Well, take Robert Magoon, 38, the distinguished Miami Beach eye surgeon. In the operating room Bob Magoon is the soul of prudence. But on the water he stands a 1,200-horsepower racer up on its tail at speeds of 75 miles an hour and more and socks it to one and all.
Last week, in what may have been the classiest event in offshore racing's modern history, Magoon, the U.S. champion for 1971 and '72 (and the outboard champ for 1969-70), went into the lead in his try for a third straight inboard title by socking it to as fascinating a field of rivals as these kidney-kicking boats have seen. This was the fourth annual Hennessy Grand Prix, put on by the cognac people over a 181-mile Atlantic Ocean triangle stretching from Point Pleasant, N.J. to Fire Island off Long Island's south shore, to a buoy off New York's Rockaway Beach, and back to Point Pleasant again. Part of the course was a bash up and down the coast adjacent to Point Pleasant so that a large fleet of spectator boats and scores of thousands of standees on the Jersey shore could have a close-up look.
Magoon won in a woolly finish by a mere three seconds (for a mere $2,000) from an imprudent publisher from Milan, Giorgio Mondadori, an unexpected visitor to American racing. Signor Mondadori, 56 years old, is obviously no stripling, but if a mature man wants to shove an 80-mph dart over Atlantic swells on a magnificent day in July, who is to say him nay? And if he has had the exceptional good sense to borrow the boat from a friend, not shell out $40,000 for it, then bravo.
Mondadori's friend, a brand-new one, is Sandy Satullo, at 51 no kid himself, the owner of a restaurant in Rocky River, Ohio called the Copper Kettle, after which he names his boats. The boat he loaned to Mondadori was a 36-foot Cigarette in which he, Satullo, had captured last year's Grand Prix—the only one not won by Bob Magoon. This time Satullo thought he had something hotter, a slick new 40-footer made of that old-fashioned stuff, wood (all the others are fiberglass), by Gara Boats of North Miami, an emerging rival for Don Aronow and his conquering Cigarettes. So where did Satullo finish? Third, two minutes and 20 seconds behind Mondadori.
July 29, 1973
Several elements gave the Hennessy its extra dash of quality: Satullo's prototype and another 40-foot Gara, a new 40-foot Cigarette entered by Roger Penske of auto racing achievement and a 38-foot Bertram (a name that dominated offshore racing in the late '50s and early '60s) driven by Sammy James, with Astronaut Gordon Cooper as co-pilot.
So it was Magoon against the world, Aronow against the non-Cigarettes and, not least, Carl Kiekhaefer, mechanical wizard of the ocean sea, against MerCruiser power packages from Mercury Marine, a company he formerly owned. Today Kiekhaefer builds Aeromarine power plants based on a beltless Chevy engine; MerCruiser puts together a more conventional unit that also starts with a Chevy engine. In order, the winners were Magoon—at an average speed of 73.86 miles an hour—Aronow and Kiekhaefer.
It was late morning when the big boats—19 of them—moved down New Jersey's Manasquan Inlet toward the sea, candy-wrapper bright and latent with power. They passed jetties barnacled with people, gazing at the rakish hulls as ancient peoples might have looked upon fleets set with bright sails also bound for dangerous waters. About the boats, too, there was an aura of romance—in the look of them, in the reputations of their drivers.
Offshore powerboat racing is seldom a spectator sport, but the Hennessy people, with a limited market among sea gulls, did what they could for the viewers by starting the race with three passes close along the shore. From there the boats were wonderful to watch—close together, 22 to 40 feet long, skipping off the swells like stones across a pond. As Magoon had pointed out before the race, there was danger in the pack—nine-thousand-pound boats are not stones—and as the leaders headed to sea he was running sixth, intentionally. Penske was eighth, or rather Jerry Simison was eighth. Penske had left some doubt as to what he would be doing during the race, and now Simison, a man of some boat-racing experience, was steering while Roger handled the throttles. Together they were more than a mile behind Magoon, who in turn had some water to make up on Mondadori and another Italian, the whippet-thin veteran Vincenzo Balestrieri who, since Magoon does not race in Europe, is leading in the world championship, which he won in '68 and '70.
It is 50 miles from Point Pleasant to Fire Island Inlet, and halfway across Magoon took the lead. He was a minute up on Mondadori at the Fire Island checkpoint and two minutes ahead of James' Whittaker Moppie as the new Bertram was called (Whittaker for the firm that now owns Bertram Yacht, Moppie for the deep-vee hull design from which all these boats have descended).
In the Bertram, Astronaut Cooper was serving as James' navigator. Said James: "He's tough. He ain't gonna fall down and cry if the going gets rough." It was Cooper who took over the landing of a Mercury space capsule in 1963 from its faltering automatic system and put it down "right on the old gazoo." Off Fire Island the gazoo eluded him. Whittaker Moppie took a very wide turn at the Fire Island buoy—2½ miles wide, it was calculated—and in no time was eight minutes down to Magoon. By then the good doctor was leading Mondadori by five minutes. In all fairness to Cooper, though, he has been accustomed to having more room to navigate in.
At Fire Island, Penske was still eighth when he switched to his center gas tank, which somehow had collected enough dirt to cause a loss of pressure and power. Eventually he lost his way and was disqualified for missing a checkpoint.
Some fog was drifting in as Magoon blasted west along the Long Island shore. He could not find the Rockaway Point buoy a mile out to sea, so he kept going, followed Ambrose Channel at the outer entrance to New York Harbor and made his way back on course. But he had gone an extra half mile. Mondadori, who was also lost, saw Magoon turn south and followed him, but turned a quarter mile sooner. By the next checkpoint, New Jersey's Shrewsbury Rocks, they were only 50 yards apart. This was after 140 miles on the ocean at speeds at times in excess of 80 miles an hour and over good-sized swells. And their battle had just begun.
Magoon did not need boat troubles now, but he had them: his steering had begun to go slack. It took a quarter turn to make the wheel respond. Three times in 30 miles he nearly spun out of control. Each time Mondadori gained.
At the next-to-last checkpoint the racers had to round a boat marked by a red flag. There was another boat nearby, an unofficial one flying a blue flag, and there were 10 or 12 fishing boats, too, to confuse the view. Barreling down upon them, Magoon could not see the red flag. So he headed for the blue flag and then he saw the red one, just beyond and to the side. He made a tight turn around the boat, with Mondadori on his tail. Mondadori's turn was wide, however, and he fell farther behind. As they began the last 11.5-mile leg up the shore from Seaside, N.J. to Point Pleasant, the Italian was 200 yards back.
Now Mondadori opened his throttles all the way and started to gain. Magoon was afraid to do the same. Before, when he had tried, he had begun to spin out, and if that were to happen now he might lose his lead. So Magoon hung on, with Mondadori crawling up his neck, which may still be tingling. Afterward Magoon kept saying, "I've never seen a race with such competition. There was someone pushing me all the time." That someone, of course, was Mondadori, who muttered, "I will have nightmares tonight, with little Magoons running around."
It had been a portentous race for the sport, what with the survival of Satullo's wooden boat ("If I had been able to trim my props right, we would have won," he said), the advent of the 40-footers and the new competition for the Cigarettes. And Penske had brought some lucrative sponsorship (Sunoco-DX) to at least one boat in a sport that has had little enough financial backing.
Boatbuilder Aronow had not really wanted to go up to 40 feet, but Penske had insisted. "I'm not going to have the same boat as everyone else," Penske said. "We're innovators. We're not afraid to be wrong."
The forgotten man at the end was Balestrieri, whose Black Tornado had blown an engine after 70 miles. He walked around shirtless in the race headquarters at Point Pleasant's Kings Grant Inn, with two black-crayoned circles on his abdomen. There were Xs in the circles—targets, he explained, for Magoon. Months ago, in the pounding of a race, he had torn some muscles, and before leaving Rome his doctor had marked him up. That morning in Point Pleasant Magoon had injected the Xs with novocain.
It was not the only time recently that Magoon has ministered to a competitor. In May, in Florida's Sam Griffith race, Driver Roger Hanks tried to make a tight turn around the official boat at the first checkpoint. It came close to being the last checkpoint of his life. His Blonde IV crashed into the official boat and there they bobbed, like an olive on a toothpick in a big drink, when Magoon raced up.
"Anyone hurt?" he called. "Yes," the official yelled, "my wife." The ocean was rough and Magoon couldn't bring his boat alongside safely, so he jumped overboard and started swimming. He got to the checkboat and saw the woman walking around, so he swam over to Hanks' boat. Hanks wasn't hurt, either, but now the woman was hysterical and screaming, "I can't swim. We're sinking. Save me!" So Magoon scrambled over and comforted her, and then he swam back to his boat and completed the course, finishing fifth. Later he said, "If you compete, you like to win. But I'm a doctor first, and it's my duty to help."
Now Magoon sat in a New Jersey restaurant, eating lobster, and he said, "Anyone can go at top speed, drive a boat and break it. The thing is, you have got to finish. And anyway, basically I'm a coward."
It doesn't show. Last December, playing tennis, Magoon tore the cartilage in his knee. He was up the whole night in agony, but the next day he raced in Fort Lauderdale's Le Club International, and won. Four people had to carry him out of the boat. And the day after that he was in the hospital where, he says, they drained "a quart of blood" off his knee. This spring he underwent an operation on the knee.
At Point Pleasant people kept asking Magoon about his plans. He said he did not care too much about winning any more national championships, but there was a Miami-to-New York record, 31 hours and 32 minutes, that he might like to beat. He said he thought he could do it a lot faster if he could get by Cape Hatteras O.K. And then he mentioned the 1,403-mile Round Britain marathon next year. He gestured to the boats at dock-side, and said, "It might be better to let others take over."
Mondadori, for one, would not be taking over, but his certainly was a welcome presence in the Hennessy. He is a handsome man with enormous, shaggy brows. At 6'2" and "220 pounds in your money," as he describes himself, he lumbered around the docks like a jolly bear, smiling brightly and kidding with everyone. "We are like a big club," he said of the racing people. "We like each other very well, before the race and after."
"When you are around engines and racers, you forget the problems of publishing," he said. The Mondadori firm is Italy's largest producer of magazines and books, and Magoon's runner-up is president and managing director. Mondadori puts out 24 magazines, including Epoca, Panorama and Topolino. The last means Mickey Mouse and is a huge seller.
Mondadori has been an ocean racer only since 1970. This year, he says, he has his first good boat in Europe, the Nico-Pao, named for his sons Nicolo and Paolo. Mondadori also likes cars; he owns a fast one, a custom-made Iso Rivolta, which he describes as something like a Maserati or Ferrari. He says he sometimes drives the car at 175 miles an hour. "Speed is my only hobby," he says. "When the boat is at full throttle, in heavy seas, there is a feeling of something special." During the Hennessy he spun out of control and was thrown hard to the deck, but he jumped up and drove on. Co-driver Davy Wilson said, "The old guy went down at 80 miles an hour, but he asked no quarter."
After the race Magoon and his wife were talking with Mondadori, who gestured at Andrea Magoon and said, "I was going to win, but then I thought of this lady crying and I let him go. I didn't want to break up their happy family." Which is one way to give the doctor the treatment.