Pity Jon Varese. Last week he towed a 38-foot, 8,000-pound boat from Florida to New Jersey in order to race in the 200-mile Benihana Grand Prix, and then his engines did not show up. But don't pity Varese any more than the other 65 entrants—most of them had to run in the race. As it did last year when Varese won by being in the only boat to finish, nothing went smoothly. Only survivors of an offshore powerboat race know what that means.
One who certainly does is Miami's Dr. Robert Magoon, U.S. champion in 1968 and 1970-73, who came out of retirement for the Benihana. "I love it out there," he said, at the same time revealing that he has been strengthening his neck and back for his comeback by lifting 25-pound weights wrapped in Turkish towels with his teeth.
Magoon was at the wheel of Cam2 Motor Oil, a 40-foot Cigarette hull powered by two 492-cubic-inch MerCruiser engines. Beside him, at the throttle, stood racing-car entrepreneur Roger Penske and next to him Jay Signore, crew chief for Penske's cars. Their shoulders touched, but the terrible roar of 1,200 hp flooding the cockpit made sign language necessary; Magoon kept slapping Penske's hands to make him back off the throttle. The boat, yellow and blue and with the number 66 (the number of the Penske-owned car in which the late Mark Donohue won the Indianapolis 500 in 1972), skipped from the tops of waves like a four-ton flying fish. It looked smooth, but the stops were sudden.
Not long after the start, Magoon found himself thinking, "Only a few more hours." Never mind that he holds the boating record from Miami to New York—22:41:15—and next year hopes to set another (of about three days) crossing the Atlantic. He and Penske were discussing that project last spring, when Penske said he had a new boat at a test lake in Florida. Would the Doctor care for a warmup? As a result, there they were last Wednesday leading the largest field in U.S. offshore powerboat-racing history.
August 1, 1976
Suddenly, after 85 miles, the engines developed an odd sound. Penske killed them and Signore leaped to open the hatch. In 10 minutes he had replaced the belts that run the power steering and fuel injection systems. But Cam2 had fallen behind, and Magoon, his concentration interrupted, noticed that his neck ached from the calcium deposits the sport had given him.
It was a weird, difficult day, rough and foggy. Big waves are usually caused by wind, which in compensation sweeps the fog away. But now there were both waves and fog, and as the boats smashed down from five-foot crests and compasses swung wildly, the visibility was less than half a mile. With Magoon temporarily dead in the water, Preston Henn, in the 38-foot Bertram Streaker, and Joel Halpern, current point leader in U.S. offshore competition, in the 38-foot Cobra Beep Beep, had raced into the lead—only to miss a 16-foot-high buoy in the fog and spend 20 minutes searching for it again. At least four of the other boats darted wildly about the ocean, thoroughly lost. And no one seemed able to locate the sponsor of the race, Japanese restaurateur Rocky Aoki (SI, March 1), in the 35-foot Cigarette named Benihana. Before the race Aoki had said, "It will be the first time in sports that a sponsor awards himself his own prize." Would the all-too-scrutable Aoki miss this opportunity to pat himself on the back? Maybe.
But Benihana's steering had gone sour at the start, and just past the halfway point its throttle box ceased functioning. Aoki's mechanic, Harold Smith, finally grabbed the throttle cables and tied them, keeping the engines running at near top speed. The result was that when Benihana took off from a wave, its engines raced dangerously close to their redlined limits, and when the boat smashed down into the water again the propellers had to absorb a tremendous shock.
An English boat, Michael Doxford's 35-foot Cigarette Limit Up, had lost its steering at the start, too, but cruising at 15-to-20 mph under top speed, Doxford managed to hold its compasses fairly steady on the complex course of overlapped rectangles and triangles on the roiling face of the Atlantic. The 1975 U.S. champion, 54-year-old Sandy Satullo, had no compasses to guide him; those on his 38-foot Bertram Copper Kettle were not working at all. There also was dirt in the fuel line and a header had fallen off an engine. But Satullo hung in, barely. That seemed to be the formula: keep plugging away if you possibly could because there was no telling how badly off the next guy was. He might even be sinking. Which was the fate of the 37-foot Signature Marine Spirit of America driven by Tom Adams. Shortly after the start the ocean began pouring through Spirit's defective outdrives, and it finished its race at the end of a Coast Guard towline with a portable water pump chugging away in the engine bay.
It came down to who would survive. Magoon, back in action, was fighting Sammy James in the 38-foot Bertram Whittaker Moppie for the lead as they raced around the checkpoint at Barnegat Light, 17 miles offshore, and headed northwest on the 27-mile leg to the Manasquan Sea Buoy. Neither would let up, neither could see where Manasquan was, and James sped two miles beyond the buoy before he realized, by elapsed time, that he had missed the checkpoint. He did a square reach—two minutes south, two minutes east, two north and two west—then a three-minute square; and finally, a four-minute square, on the third leg of which he found the buoy. The search had cost 28 minutes. Magoon, using a less scientific probe, came up lucky and spotted the marker.
Now Magoon and Penske headed due south on the 24-mile leg to the Barnegat Sea Buoy, two miles ahead of Billy Martin's 35-foot Cigarette Bounty Hunter II, which was coming on strong. Magoon, ever cautious, as befits an eye surgeon, feared he had rounded the buoy from the wrong direction, so he doubled back. While he was doing this, Martin took the lead. But though Martin did not know it, his race was over. At Manasquan, confused in the fog and trying to make up lost time, he had arrowed through what looked like the cleared course opening behind the spectator fleet. It only looked that way. Though Martin was the first to cross the finish line he was disqualified for racing through the spectator area. Magoon and Penske, 17 minutes behind Martin with a time of 3:32, an average of 57.8 mph, were the victors.
James finished one minute later, then the careful Michael Doxford, in 3:42. But fittingly, the most dramatic finish of the day was provided by Rocky Aoki. Where was he, people had been asking. Rumors had swept through the spectator fleet and come crackling through radio receivers in the swarm of planes and helicopters above. "Benihana won!" "Benihana is lost!" "Benihana sank!" Then, suddenly appearing out of the fog like a banshee, there was Aoki, heading toward the last checkpoint. Joel Halpern's Beep Beep hung on Benihana's tail.
As they rounded the marker buoy, Halpern pulled alongside. It looked like a neck-and-neck, 80-mph thriller down the final 8½ miles. But although Beep Beep was having steering trouble, Aoki's throttle controls were gone completely, and now one of the overstressed propeller blades broke. With its engines locked wide open, Benihana spun and landed almost on its side, but still Aoki would not slow down. Spectators closed their eyes. As Beep Beep pulled ahead, Aoki finally surrendered to the obvious. He would back off and fight another day; ashore, he challenged Halpern to race from Miami to New York for $100,000.
Meanwhile, Roger Penske, limping, rubbing his hands, his back sore from slappings, his palms blistered, was saying that the race was much tougher than the Indianapolis 500: "Out there at least you go around the track once and you know what to expect."