To judge by its players past and present, the game of offshore powerboat racing has not changed much in the last quarter of a century. It is still the odd and stylish sort of masochism it was in the beginning, only more so. The engines and hulls are better, and more fragile because of it. The pounding, ever faster over the lumpy sea, is also harder today, not only on the machines but on the drivers' kidneys and their bankrolls.
Although the rewards are scarcely greater—an occasional modest purse and a 20-line press notice being the most of it—the price of the game is way up. Whereas 10 years ago a devotee of ocean racing could make it through one year on the American or European championship circuit for about $100,000, now it takes close to a quarter of a million. Some who love the sport maintain it will certainly die, impoverished by its own prodigality and convoluted politicking. Others insist it is a game of ups and downs and violent swings and is healthier for it. If there is truth in either prophecy, it is altogether fitting that one of the classic venues of offshore racing is Key West, Fla., a town that in its long and tangled past has often been flat on its back and lived hand to mouth, yet seems to prosper in uncertainty.
The 180-mile offshore race staged every November off Key West is literally a beginning and an end. It is the first contest that counts for points in the national championship of the upcoming calendar year and it also counts for points as the last race of the world championship of the year just ending. The American championships have been going on for 13 years, and the world championships, tabulated on a different point system, for 10 years. In that time only one American, Don Aronow of Coral Gables, Fla., who builds the winning Cigarette hulls that now romp around both circuits, has twice won both titles in one year—a record that should last at least until the high price of everything in the sport takes a smart drop.
Some of the heroes of offshore racing have loved the sport passionately, yet have been able to leave it easily. Others are hooked for life. When the performers are dissected, there are rarely any two that seem to tick alike. There is a touch of the motor-mad Mr. Toad in some of them, notably the present American champion, Sandy Satullo of Cleveland, who at Key West last Saturday began defense of his title. Because his racing hull is named Copper Kettle, after a restaurant he owned, he is best known as a restaurateur. In fact, in work as in play, he is the sort of multifaceted dabbler who gives investment counselors grief. To cite some extremes in his homemade conglomerate, Satullo owns a string of art shops and has a part interest in a shrimp farm on Borneo. After serving in Gen. George Custer's old Seventh Cavalry in World War II, he took up horse jumping for sport. Because of a tumor operation that cost him stomach muscles, he quit jumping horses 22 years ago to try Go-karting, and later moved into snowmobile racing. From that form of mechanized violence Satullo got into sports car racing, which he pursued until he saw his first offshore powerboat contest four years ago.
That race was a tame sort of bash: a one-shot invitational staged around a triangular course five miles to a side in sheltered Miami waters. Taken by the game, Satullo went to the company that built the winning Magnum hull, but its proprietor, Bobby Rautbord, who won the world title in 1972, told him it was not a sport for 50-year-olds. "Don Aronow gave me the same story," Satullo recalls, "so I told him I could do anything he could do, and that made Aronow mad enough to sell me one of his Cigarette hulls. I thought all races were closed-course. I didn't realize they wandered all over the ocean or I wouldn't have bought the damn boat. I didn't know anything about navigation. I can't even swim."
Three days after taking delivery of his boat, Satullo won the Hurricane Classic at St. Petersburg in near-world-record time. He won the next three races on the American circuit before settling into a vexing pattern of blowing engines and breaking stern drives. He won the national title this year because, as he puts it, "I realized these engines were fragile. I used to go all out, with everything to the wall, and if she blew, she blew. But I changed my way of thinking."
While this Key West race promised to be little more than a routine opener for Satullo and his home rivals, it was a most unusual ending for the world champion, 34-year-old Carlo Bonomi of Italy, who throughout the year had no intention of defending the title he won in 1973 and 1974. Although a billionaire by bloated public reputation and a multimillionaire in truth, Bonomi is, by his own insistence, "the only professional driver on the offshore circuit." He runs a boat named Dry Martini, sponsored by the vermouth makers Martini & Rossi. While he could possibly buy out Martini & Rossi and Cinzano to boot, he is a loyal team man.
World Championship scoring is curious. First place in each race counts nine points, second counts six, third place four, and each place down through six is progressively worth one point less. Even though he might go in every race, a driver counts his best scores in only one-third of the races in any year. If there are, say, 18 races, as there were this year, it is theoretically and absurdly possible for three drivers to make perfect scores without competing against each other at all.
Under this odd system, Wally Franz, a Brazilian electrical equipment manufacturer—and one of the few drivers to campaign seriously against the Americans and Italians who have monopolized the world title—got off to a fast start in 1975: three wins in races in which Bonomi did not compete. Bonomi subsequently got three firsts without meeting Franz. Indeed, until Key West the two pacesetters had met only three times. In one English race, Franz took second to Bonomi's first; in another, Bonomi took third to Franz' second. In the Miami-Nassau race, Franz got a fourth and Bonomi straggled in seventh on one engine. Franz might have had the title right there except somebody at Martini & Rossi noticed that Franz' six best races were four firsts and two seconds, and that Bonomi's four firsts and two thirds put him only four points behind. Thus if Bonomi won at Key West, he could ditch one of his thirds and win the championship by a single point.
The whole matter was of little interest to Bonomi, who had announced his permanent retirement from offshore racing several times, notably after the Miami-Nassau race, and was planning a vacation when Count Rossi got him on the telephone. As Bonomi remembers, the count implored, "For God's sake do me this one last favor."
What made the whole affair more curious is that in any race that counts toward both the American and the world title, any driver whose equipment complies with the regulations of both the American Power Boat Association and the Union Internationale Motonautique can run as he wishes, for national or world points or both. Franz drives a Bertram hull powered by Kiekhaefer engines. Bonomi drives a Cigarette hull. Through his whole championship career Bonomi used Kiekhaefer power, but after the Miami-Nassau race the Martini & Rossi team switched to Mercury motors. Since Cigarette hulls dominate on both circuits, if Americans driving Cigarette hulls declined to go for world points, would it not seem that they might be trying to help Bonomi in his rivalry against Franz? It is in such a climate clouded with commercialism that politicking flourishes and bickering abounds. The referee of the Key West race, Art Hafner, cleared the air by declaring that any competitor he deemed eligible for world points would get them whether he wanted them or not. So it turned out that to get the nine points he heeded to win the world title Bonomi would not be racing Franz head to head but battling a dozen rivals in the 15-boat fleet.
Franz and Bonomi have one thing in common: the reason they got into the offshore game in the first place. It was not at all an affection for the slick equipment they use but a more genuine love of the sea at large, and specifically its underside as seen through a face mask. Both are ideal for team effort—extravagantly loyal. Out of respect for the U.S. origins of his hull and motors, Franz' boat is called Pangaré Gringo, Portuguese for "Dependable Yankee," but it also bears the Brazilian flag and a sales pitch, DRINK BRAZIL COFFEE. "Coffee is Brazil's most important export," he says, "and I must always be a patriot."
Four days before the race the five-day forecast indicated good weather. In a subtropical watery area like Key West's, in autumn when the sun is sinking into the winter, a five-day projection is usually worth its weight in flea feathers. Despite the promise of a bonny day, during the last hours before the race the winds jumped up to 12 knots with heavier gusts in the dirty fringes of rain squalls. Some drivers swore the swells toward the shoals exceeded 12 feet. Older hands said they were at least eight feet.
Since it is the last on the circuit, the Key West race is normally not a suspenseful chapter in world competition; usually someone has clinched the title at some other venue along the way. The race customarily has been dominated by the likes of the now retired Dr. Bob Magoon, or some pretender anxious to knock the good doctor out of the title ranks. This year it seemed the fates were conspiring to keep the drama of Bonomi battling the field for nine points from being upstaged. Long before the halfway mark, Bonomi was solidly in front, plunging across following seas like a broad spear blade. By the time he turned the most seaward checkpoint and started the 70-mile run back into head seas, there were only four boats with a beggar's chance of catching him. Satullo, in the first event in defense of his national title, never got his boat moving. ("It ran like a pig," he said later.) In the field of eight that made it all the way, Satullo placed sixth, taking solace that three of the rivals with a chance to dethrone him—including newcomer Rocky Aoki, owner of the Benihana restaurant chain and winner of the Miami-Nassau race—had to be towed back to port.
At the ninth of 10 checkpoints, 36 miles from the finish, Bonomi had a good seven-mile lead on his nearest pursuers, Franz and Joel Halpern, a New Yorker driving a narrow prototype Cobra hull called Beep Beep in his debut in the open class. For more than 30 miles Bonomi had been easing off, playing it safe, but suddenly in an instant he had not played it safe enough. Twenty-one miles from home the nose of Dry Martini dug into a head sea. The impact broke one of Bonomi's ribs and his mechanic's heel and ruptured the gas tank. Bonomi's wife Manuela, after circling over him in a plane for 10 minutes, said, "They are now eating sandwiches and drinking coffee, so it must be over for them."
In the last 15 miles Franz opened a 1½-mile lead over Halpern in Beep Beep. In the last eight miles Beep Beep closed noticeably, but Franz got across the finish line with 26 seconds to spare.
It was not a race distinguished for speed (Franz averaged only about 50 miles an hour in the rough water), but it had more than an ordinary share of joy and grief. A Brazilian becomes the world champion in a sport the Italians, the Americans and the English seem to own. An Italian bows out of the sport in a humbling way. After six years of domination, Don Aronow's hulls lose a world title to a Bertram, and are now running behind Halpern's Cobra hull for the next national title.
There were 10 sets of Mercurys in the race and only one pair of Aeromarines, made by Carl Kiekhaefer, the onetime boss of Mercury, but the lonely Aeromarines got home first to clinch a third straight world title for Kiekhaefer. It is indeed a sport of troughs and crests, of unexpected ups and downs.