Some plan to throttle up, make waves

On The Outdoors

July 25, 1999|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

The temperature already was in the low 90s and the humidity was extreme, but Mike Allweiss was smiling Friday afternoon as he walked the asphalt lots off Boston Street.

In less than 24 hours, the Baltimore Marine Center had been transformed from a working urban boatyard to race central for the Chesapeake Challenge. The lots were filling with brightly painted race boats, uniformly dressed crews and camera-toting spectators.

Hooters and Drambuie girls passed through the crowds promoting their sponsors, and boat crews prepared catamarans, vee hulls and engines for two days of intense racing on the Patapsco River.

And Allweiss of St. Petersburg, Fla., offshore chairman of the American Power Boat Association, was pleased with the present and optimistic about the future.

The APBA, the mainstay of U.S. powerboat racing for decades, is entering a time of change, and Allweiss, in his first year as offshore chairman, is the primary architect of competition and marketing plans designed to carry the APBA into the next millennium.

"We want to bring power-boat racing into the mainstream of sports, it's as simple as that," said Allweiss, a 36-year-old trial lawyer and father of three children under age 6. "But in its current state, the biggest criticism we hear of our sport is that the fans can't understand it.

"And what makes it confusing is that we run all the classes together at the same events and it becomes a mish-mash that really can be hard to follow and is difficult to market to the general consumer."

In a nutshell, Allweiss and the competition committee propose to limit the number of racing classes, reduce costs for boat owners, make the sport more spectator friendly and, in the longer term, make it more profitable.

Rather than 12 racing classes, it is possible that by next season national competition will be limited to three series of races for super catamarans, premium vee hulls and factory-class boats.

The super catamarans would have nearly identical, twin-inboard engines producing a total of perhaps 1,500 horsepower and be capable of top speeds between 120 and 130 miles per hour.

The premium vee hulls would have very similar, supercharged, twin-inboard engines producing about 1,900 total horsepower and slightly slower speeds than the big catamarans.

Factory classes might remain largely unchanged.

In the two top classes, the cost of campaigning somewhat standardized boats through regional and national race events could be reduced by as much as 60 percent, Allweiss said -- from $1.3 million a year or more to a more manageable half-million or so.

"There are people out there who question whether we are taking away the traditional sex appeal of wild motors and outlandish power, and maybe we are to some degree," said Allweiss, who believes the best competition is between crews on the water rather than between rich guys at the bank window.

"In the past, having a big checkbook has at times guaranteed a win in this sport," said Allweiss, who competes in the fast-growing Factory 2 class. "We now have some very rich guys racing the back of F-2."

The plight of the top levels of power-boat racing will be starkly demonstrated this weekend in the Open Class, in which the largest, fastest catamarans race. Only two Open cats are racing regularly this season, world champion Drambuie On Ice and Alcone Motorsports. Only Drambuie On Ice, which has a fully funded, $1 million campaign, is in town for the Challenge.

"I feel foolish being here racing against nobody," said John Tomlinson, who works the throttles on Drambuie. "But we need to show up to support the sport. People have always come out to see the big boats, and we'll give them a show."

Although the creation of a single super-catamaran class would make Drambuie On Ice and its engines obsolete and send owner/driver Forest Barber's team back to the drawing board looking for a new, competitive design, the semi-retired rancher from Texas, backs the changes.

"Philosophically, I'm behind it," said Barber, a member of the competition committee. "But the jury is still out on how it fits with our program."

Tomlinson also owns TNT Racing in Miami, and much of his business comes from rigging race boats and converting older racers to recreational use.

"These changes are something that needs to be done so that people who don't have tremendous amounts of money or corporate sponsorship can race," said Tomlinson. "It's going to cost everybody about the same amount to get started, but engines will cost about $35,000 apiece rather than $130,000."

Which is important in a sport that draws part of its crowd from those just waiting to hear an engine blow or see a racer flip.

"I still think you will see boats that will do that, because there are guys out there who will still run their boats to death," said Tomlinson, shortly after filming an instructional film about safety aboard the 160-mph-plus Drambuie On Ice.

"But you won't see the really big boats anymore -- not with the high speeds like this one."

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