Offshore Powerboat Racing - An Amateur Shambles!

'Big Oil' supporting offshore powerboat racing, 'then'!

Then & Now

The sport of racing powerboats in open waters was spawned from motorsport interests among a few ‘gentlemen racers’ in the 1950’s. Its ethos was forged in ‘distance’ races – the Miami-Nassau, 184m (USA), Cowes-Torquay, 179m (subsequently Cowes-Torquay-Cowes 236m) (UK) and Viareggio-Bastia-Viareggio, 198m (Italy). The evolving structure of the sport created classes based on engine capacity. Class 1, became its heart and the pinnacle of the sport. Its soul was forged in the classes that 'aspired' to emulate that pinnacle. Its charismatic image embraced, not only the challenge of navigation, seamanship and speed - but human and mechanical endurance. Collectively this was its spirit.

Finding favour for its commercial value in the wider marine leisure industry, the sport and resulting exposure, soon captured attention among a wider public and media audience. The industry attention and technical development – and the clear class structure – enabled the less affluent to engage and its popularity blossomed both nationally and internationally. As an amateur sport, it gained an impressive professional image!

Being an amateur sport, offshore powerboat racing always ebbed and flowed with national and world economic cycles. The 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s all saw peaks and troughs but a key factor became escalating costs created by focusing specifically on the ‘speed’ factor – bringing with it the ‘cat’ revolution. By the mid to late 90’s we witnessed a decline in all but the US and a few overtly wealthy middle-eastern nations.

The true global situation in the 21st Century, is a fractured structure, supported by a wealthy minority for whom the huge cost of remaining competitive is justified, it has to be said, essentially for their own gratification. Ultimate speed with no other consideration, has become the only focus. It’s also fair to suggest, the amateur status of the sport has allowed the more affluent participants to exert greater influence - which on the face of it appears only fair where they may be covering much of the administrative budget. The unfortunate consequences however, are only half-hearted attempts to accommodate the somewhat disparate aspirational participation, and a largely incoherent class structure!

The big picture is, speed per se is not interesting, except perhaps to feed morbid curiosity, when terms used in event marketing suggest a horrendous accident may be part of the spectacle.

The reality is: having no significant commercial, media or public interest – and despite some noble efforts, this once thriving sport has become largely irrelevant to anyone beyond its somewhat incestuous, self-serving bubble!  

A different view:

I invite you to view the sport from a ‘professional motorsport’ paradigm. Essentially because I have witnessed, first hand, the reality of corporate investment in motorsport, supporting its existence to the maximum benefit of all parties. I do fully acknowledge that this is a minority viewpoint; although, mercifully, there have certainly been those historically, who have taken this view.

In the early days, the affluent ‘Gentleman Racer’ could perhaps be respected. Often his knowledge and experience in professional motorsports were factors, reflected in the structure and parameters that were set for him – and indeed his wife – to race in fairness and safety. Equally the sport’s history has, at times, witnessed modest marine industry engagement, auto industry support and participation - and in its early days, ‘big oil’ considered offshore powerboat racing to be a viable avenue to public hearts and product loyalty.

Today, we have to acknowledge an amateur paradigm, total lack of corporate interest – and a totally different world.

'Professional' starts with understanding ‘Value’!

It’s a huge step to insist that the sport looks to successful professional automotive equivalents for role models - but the alternative is to continue down the present path to obscurity.

At this point I’ll make it clear that I am talking about international offshore powerboat racing – that is: both ‘Planet America’ and beyond – particularly the UK and Australia! I will make another really significant point (another reality check): the US has Indy Cars, NASCAR, and drag racing – all reflecting the true US culture. But ultimately they still look to the Formula 1 GP Championship as the auto-sport pinnacle and plead for more F1 races to take place in the US. Likewise they look to – and emulate - the World Endurance Sportscars, ultimately aspiring to the sportscar pinnacle, the Le Mans 24Hr.

Those pioneering offshore races, particulalrly the UK Cowes-Torquay-Cowes, were the Le Mans 24Hr/Indy 500/Monaco Grand Prix of offshore powerboat racing!

Before I go any further I will repeat an extract from a blog post I published after the 2016 C-T-C illustrating the frustration at what I am seeing!

“How about some ridiculous statistics: 14 boats entered the Cowes-Torquay-Cowes race in 2016 in five different UIM Marathon classes, ranging in capacity from 13ltr, to a ludicrous 27ltr. But in fact if you had entered a 37ft sportscruiser with two modern 6.2ltr petrol or 5ltr diesel engines – and finished - you could have been first or second in any of the four main classes, and if the hull was over 25 years old you could be in all five – and there were still another five marathon classes with no entries!

Tell me that’s not totally absurd!

The Cowes-Cowes ‘club’ race around the Solent, had 20 entries, only 4 of which were in recognised UIM classes – two in 3B and two in V24. The rest were spread over five loosely defined ‘club’ classes with no engine rules beyond declared horsepower – or as the Yanks would say “run what you brung”. So there appears to be plenty of people wanting to ‘be there’ but only 4 were prepared to comply with any legitimate class structure.

For reference: That makes a total of 24 available classes you can race in - if you like farce!! Actually, if you included all the available UIM classes and specific classes for cats the number would be – God knows?”

Sorry to bang on – but this is what followed:

Ultimately, just as in the main race, the boat that should have won; won - surprise, surprise! But in fact, a 12mtr (39+ft) Cigarette with two 8ltr+ Big-Block Chevrolets, boasting a total of 1,300hp, was a somewhat obscene ‘pose’ in this company and should obviously have been in the main race – were it to have shown a shred of professionalism and be prepared to fit an actual rule structure.

But let’s put this fabulous win in perspective! Its average speed was 75.72mph (65.79kn). Second place – less than two minutes later, was a V24 with just a single 5.3ltr 350hp, direct injection ‘small-block’ – average speed 72.59mph (63.08kn)!

Emphasising the imminent extinction of dinosaurs, third place just 12 seconds later was a 9m (30ft) Technohull RIB with two 250 Merc Verados. If there was ever any doubt that offshore powerboat racing needs a new-generation rule structure – just get that result! I should mention that further down the field the two UIM 3B 1.3lt boats finished within .07 of a second of each other – reflecting good, level, economic, competitive racing within a proper rule structure.

I feel really sad and frustrated to see the sport reduced to such an unprofessional, chaotic shambles – especially at Cowes, the place once heralded as the pinnacle of the sport and ‘the classiest offshore powerboat race in the world’!

To be fair and keep the balance, this is what I wrote about the Australian ‘Superboat’ series at the same time:

“True Aussie sport has a macho image to live up to. So it has to present the biggest, fastest, greatest spectacle. There’s no ‘offshore’ powerboat racing anymore, you just get a handful of fast and faster rocket-ship cats going round in circles – trying to survive for just half an hour – although they do get two goes at it! As someone suggested: “it’s about as relevant to boating, as a North Korean missile test is to air-travel!”

And the USA:

“As I have said many times before, following the USA model is fatal. The US is a parallel universe, addicted to ‘unlimited’ excess. For them, offshore powerboat racing has become a place where very wealthy egos indulge – and hope to survive.

Yes, there are still production based mono classes but only if you consider an 8.2ltr ‘Mercury Racing’ engine to be ‘production’ – and again, if you don’t mind going round in circles.”

Sport is not about having the biggest gun, it’s about being the sharpest shooter!

I’ll trust that if you have read this far you may understand where I’m coming from. The bottom line is ‘amateur’ just isn’t good enough. The sport must be seen to be ‘professional’ in attitude if it’s ever to regain credibility.

Yes, there’s more to come, stay tuned!