Of all the boisterous weekends at notoriously boisterous Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri, this one out-louds them all. Rumbles bounce off the high rock walls on both sides of the water, emanating from Bajas and Fountains and Checkmates and Eliminators muscling one at a time down a straight-line race course. It’s as if they’re pleading for attention from the 30,000 spectators at the annual Lake of the Ozarks Shootout, billed as the largest unsanctioned boat race in the United States. Then the noise softens. A 28-foot Powertoon Xtreme with a 430-horse MerCruiser 8.2-liter Magnum HO eases toward the course’s threshold, not exactly a greyhound behind the gate, but more of an unusually athletic Saint Bernard. A pontoon! Instead of performance-style bolsters and chicken straps on board, there are couches and drink holders — lots of them. At the helm, 60-year-old Carolyn Dorris, wife of PlayCraft founder Jim Dorris, massages the throttle. The spectators have turned their eyes in unison to watch. This is what they’ve been waiting for.
Go ahead and laugh. Just don’t roll your eyes or you might lose sight of the reasons why this year’s Ozarks Shootout caps what could arguably be called “the decade of the pontoon.”
“We’ve moved so fast the past 10 years that some people still don’t understand the ‘wow’ factor that’s going on,” says JC Manufacturing president Kim Cripe.
Carolyn Dorris’ boat was rigged to run 60 to 65 mph, which nowadays is just a tad faster than pedestrian for pontoons. There’s no rub to that top-end number either. The boat came out of production to be sold at retail. It just happened to get a pretty cool trial run along the way. For sheer speed, consider the 2009 Shootout, where an older-model Odyssey with twin 300XS outboards and a PlayCraft with a blown 540 pumping 950 horsepower raised each other all afternoon until they both showed their final hands at 91 mph. Pontoons! In the fall of 2004, this magazine’s test team clocked a 32-foot, 10-foot-wide, 7,800-pound PlayCraft Megatoon powered with twin MerCruiser 496 Mag HOs at 67.1 mph. This on a boat with a 146-gallon fuel capacity and seating for 20.
“What I like is to cruise down the lake and have a guy in a big powerboat come alongside,” Jim Dorris says. “He starts pulling away; I stay with him. He pushes the throttle; I push down a little. He doesn’t want to be shown up, so now he crams it down hard, and I blow by him. He’s working it. I’m just relaxing and waving.”
Dorris triggered the concept of performance pontoons for the masses when he first entered the Shootout in 1995 with a newly engineered Hydrotoon (later to be called Powertoon) carrying a small-block 350, extra cross members for rigidity in the deck and, more importantly, mysterious Rac-R-Fins welded to the tubes to help them lift and go. The boat went 46.8 mph.
“It wasn’t real fast by today’s standards,” Dorris says, “but we got front page coverage in the local paper even though there were million-dollar boats and speeds well over 100 miles per hour. People said, ‘What’s a pontoon doing out here?’ Look what it’s developed into.”
Dorris says at least 50 percent of the PlayCrafts built now are performance-oriented Powertoons, with their long center tubes, splash fins forward, double-plated aluminum in high-stress areas and those Rac-R-Fins. Manitou Boats gives credit to its sport handling package (SHP) for a recent run of customer satisfaction awards from J.D. Power. Most of the top builders, including Premier, Manitou and South Bay (formerly Odyssey), say 30 to 40 percent of their boat buyers are using pontoons as their primary do-everything performance rides instead of as second boats for puttering and cocktail houring.