Gambling on Poker Runs
Nothing could be further from the truth, though. Builders like Fountain, Formula, Baja and Donzi kept performance racing alive while bringing the recreational end to new heights in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Poker runs replaced racing as the focal point of the scene and represented a sea change in performance boating from the early years. While some old racers decry this development, poker runs may save the go-fast boat.
Most races field about 20 to 25 entrants; a major poker run will get 150 to 200 boats. Participants run — not race — to five different checkpoints and draw a playing card at each one. The person with the best hand at the end wins. “It’s the same type of thrill,” Lipschutz says, “but nobody argues over who wins.”
In the old days, you had to rebuild everything after every race, and a typical recreational performance stern-drive lasted 20 or 30 hours before breaking down. But today’s engines hold up, and the boats are built with lighter cored construction.
Indeed, Cigarette, Formula, Sunsation, Outer Limits and others all survived the recession. Baja, Donzi and Fountain have been resurrected under American Marine Holdings. and Reggie Fountain started a new company, RF Boats (which stands for “real fast,” not Reggie Fountain). Building is a different game. Of production go-fasts, Sunsation’s Schaldenbrand says, “Those days are about 80 percent gone.”
Schaldenbrand estimates he will build 12 36 XRTs this year. Overall, his company will build about 45 boats, down from around 80 in the early 2000s.
With or without poker runs, performance boats will always be around. Someone is going to get behind the wheel of a boat and make it run as fast as possible. As Schaldenbrand explains, “I was born with it. It’s in my blood somehow.”
Or, as Reggie Fountain once said, “It takes a lot of money to win offshore races, but as long as there’s somebody out there racing, I’m going to be out there kicking their asses.”
The biggest change in fast, deep-V hulls in the past 20 years has been the popularization of stepped hulls. Steps date back to the early days of powerboats in the 1900s, but they didn’t start to gain mainstream acceptance until builders like Reggie Fountain popularized them in the 1990s.
Phil Lipschutz, a cigarette dealer in Miami and a veteran racer, explains the allure of stepped hulls: “You can’t go if your propellers are in the air. With twin steps, a boat will lie in the water and hook up so much better. It’s faster and easier on the engines.”
Stepped-hull boats go 10 mph faster than a conventional V-hull with the same power, and they ride level. Early designs with large 21/2 -inch steps proved unpredictable and could catch and spin bow to stern. But most builders have honed the steps down to 11/4 inches, getting the same performance results with more stability.
The twin-stepped hull is now the dominant form in modern performance boats, such as the Sunsation 36 XRT. “We siphoned everything we could from high-end catamarans and aviation,” Wayne Schaldenbrand says. With twin 525s, the 36 XRT hits around 95.5 mph.
Carl Kiekhaefer & Mercury Racing
One of the great ironies in boating is that Carl Kiekhaefer, the man who dismissed the idea of a stern-drive in the 1950s, became one of its biggest proponents in the 1970s. Kiekhaefer is famous for his revolutionary Mercury outboards, always pushing them to go faster at his mysterious testing center in Florida known as Lake X.
Kiekhaefer sold his outboard business to Brunswick in the 1960s and left the company in 1969. In the early 1970s, he went on to form Kiekhaefer Aeromarine Motors, which specialized in marine racing sterndrives. He applied the same demand for excellence there.
“One of the key guys he had was a kid named Richie Powers,” recalls Charlie McCarthy of the Historic Offshore Race Boat Association. “They’d go through engine after engine, blowing them out and tweaking them until they got 625 hp out of a 496 block.” When they finally got it, Powers asked Kiekhaefer, “Can I go home now? It’s Christmas.”
When Carl passed away, his son Fred took on the company and eventually sold it to Brunswick, which renamed it Mercury Racing. Fred Kiekhaefer is still very much involved as president of Mercury Marine.