The history of tunnel boat series, put together by Mike Wienandt
History contributors Fred Hauenstein, Duke Waldrop and Charlie Strang
It all started when the big business turn-down of 1980 ended the factory team racing efforts on both sides (Merc and OMC). The last head-to-head factory race was at Bristol, England in June of 1980. After that Mercury put away the T-4s but OMC kept sending out their 3 liter V-6s to the former factory drivers. Merc loaned out some good 2.4 Mercs to the former Mercury factory drivers. These continuing efforts were based on the drivers' sponsor contracts with outside companies which would have cost them severe penalties if they did not finish the 1980 season.
AMRA, American Motorboat Racing Association. Rick Keller started the first series with paid officials and a floating dock he transported to events. He had mandatory pit stops and a driver had to take on 5 gallons of fuel. I think it was Gene Thibodeaux that caught on fire at Long Beach Marine Stadium that stopped the fueling.
Keller's rules had all engines running in a single class, using some restrictors at first, and then just fuel loads. He had pit stops and maximum fuel tank sizes. He ran six events over two years - three each year. The mix of Mercury v. OMC was about 5 to 1 and of the 6 races, Merc won five and OMC won one. You could run a two liter (6-carb) or 2.4 Merc (three carb) (the 2.5 hadn't been invented yet) or a 2.5 cross-flow OMC.
The OMCs had a bit larger tank but still had to make two pit stops for fuel. I think the tanks were 14 gallons and 18 gallons. Mercs could make a whole race on one fuel stop.
AMRA had the race at Oglalla, Nebraska, where Jimbo won in August, 1981. That was the last year - AMRA ran 1980 and 1981. I remember that the last factory team race at St. Louis had 6 entries in the feature race - Mod U - in 1979. Three Mercury factory boats and Johnnie Sanders and Bob Larson with OMC 2.5 CCCs and Lee Sutter with a 2.4 Merc. Reggie ran into two of the independent boats during the various heats. In 1980, it was AMRA and they had 31 boats in the feature race at St. Louis and 32 in 1981.
NPA, was next, started by Ron Coleman, George Mills, Jim Foreman, and Ken Hudnall. The first NPA race was cancelled a month or so before it was to happen, so Duke and Fay Waldrop hosted the first NPA race in Palestine, TX, I think 1982 or 1983.. NPA ran 3 classes, Champ, $25,000, SE $7,500, VP $7,500 prize money. The next year, Duke & Fay Waldrop tried to buy NPA, and they would not sell it.
Ron Coleman was the "father" of NPA. Fred H found a note from 1985 where Duke was appointed race director for NPA that year, with Ken Hudnall and Terry Phipps doing promotions and TV production and Ron Coleman was still the President of NPA.
Ken Hudnall inserted himself in these organizations and tried to do promotions. He had a boat team sponsorship from Valvoline Oil in Kentucky and worked the Valvoline guy into series sponsorship in a minor role.
IOGP, International Outboard Grand Prix ran three classes featuring Mercury Racing equipment. Classes were: Champ, $25,000, SST-120, $7,500, Mod VP, $7,500. SST-120 then became SST-140, VP became ModVP. The APBA Special Event rule was re-written so the IOGP series could run under OPC. The assets of NPA were purchased, including the headsets, timing equipment, and the heavy, floating dock and trailer. Later sold the trailer and dock to the St. Louis Lions Club, which they still use today. Duke Waldrop was contracted to Mercury Marine, reporting to Dick Snyder, and raced in conjunction with David Parkinson in Europe with his FONDA series. There were a number of international drivers to come to the states to race and several US drivers went to Europe to race, during this time. Also raced for the Harmsworth Trophy twice in IOGP. IOGP had the drivers change to 2 digit numbers to make it easier to score. Most drivers from the factory racing days had 3 digit numbers. This could have been considered the best racing in tunnel boat history.
1986-1990 By Charlie Strang
USF1 United States Formula One
The when, where, who and why of the V-8 racing circuit will all be found in the following story.
When we at OMC were developing a V-8 "fishing motor", circa 1980, we decided to build a racing version of it to replace our Wankel outboards which had been barred from most European races.
Since there were few places to race a 3-1/2 liter outboard in the USA at that time (other than enduros) we decided to race them primarily in Europe. In UIM, the 3-1/2 liters put the V-8 into class OZ (unlimited displacement). At a meeting in Europe the UIM decided OZ would henceforth be known as Formula One. In 1981 the John Player tobacco company of England sponsored the John Player World Championship series for Formula One. There were 10 V-8s running there in 1981, plus a number of Merc V-6 engines.
In the fall of 1982 Bob Spalding realized that the V-8s were running faster in competition than the Class X outboard hydro record---so he ran a Kilo on Lake Windermere in his tunnel boat at 139.66 mph. Not long after, Rick Frost---also of England---ran a Kilo in his F-1 tunnel boat at 144.16.
In those days tunnel boat design had not kept up with the available power and we had 4 deaths in 4 months. This led to the development of the safety cockpit---financially sponsored by both OMC and Mercury---which did a fantastic job of reducing risk.
During 1985 OMC's European operation had a problem with a race promoter who spent ridiculous sums on F-1---about 3.2 million in one summer! As a result, I pulled the plug on F-1 in Europe for 1986.
This incident, plus all we had spent on racing in the factory battles of the 1970s and early 1980s, convinced me we were not getting our money's worth out of the sport---with top-notch factory teams holding great races in remote locations---and the publicity was zilch.
We then decided to concentrate on racing the V-8s in the USA---where most large outboards were sold---and to try to fund it with sponsor money. In other words, to use other companies' money to promote our product through racing.
We hired the top sports promotion company in the USA---or maybe the world---to find sponsors for outboard racing. Four months and $600,000 in fees later they told us that outboard racing was of no interest to the public and sponsorship was not to be had.
We decided to try it anyway, following where possible the example set by car racing. OMC's VP for Marketing, Ron Ingram, and I decided on a USA Formula One circuit with the following points in mind:
1. We would have a series of 6 to 8 races in the USA, open to drivers from all over the world.
2. It would be an F-1 series with the only limitation being that the engines must be available to anyone on the open market---to avoid the expensive and promotionally useless factory competition of the past. I think we set the required number of engines produced at 50. (This led to an interesting and even amusing lawsuit with Mercury.)
3. Our races would only be held at metropolitan locations with good press facilities.
4. The race would always be held in conjunction with existing major waterfront shows or events to insure a maximum crowd on race days.
5. We would have large prize purses, never before seen in boat racing, to excite the media---and the teams.
We then met with representatives of ABC, NBC and CBS to determine the ideal format. The networks designed a one-hour format for ideal TV coverage. This was the source of the 45 minute feature event---still used today at times.
We found a great series sponsor in Champion Spark Plug who regularly brought their distributors and dealers to the races and who also promoted the F-1 races in their ads. OMC also put much money into each race to make it a top-notch event worthy of media attention.
If I remember rightly, we started the US F-1 series in 1986---with over $600,000 in prize money for 7 races. We had plenty of European teams and plenty of US entrants. Probably the top event each year was Pittsburgh---where the police had a real job keeping the huge crowds in safe viewing areas.
The US F-1 series went on for about 4 years with all the top US and European F-1 drivers involved. There were always a few Mercs in the field, but only Bill Seebold was ever competitive---particularly on the shorter courses where the big V-8 boats had a bit more difficulty on the turns. The speeds were high---on the 1-1/2 mile course at Beaumont, Texas, Ben Robertson set a lap speed record of 141.33 mph. They were great races.
We thought it was a great series---as did the teams and the boating press---but the public interest did not warrant the cost. The TV networks finally told us that the F-1 events were great---but that boat racing simply could not draw enough attention to create adequate advertising income for the networks. As I recall, they commented that car racing could attract huge followings because, at that time, about 150 million Americans had cars and could relate to them---while only about 10 million Americans had boats.
At any rate, it became very clear that what was probably the best outboard racing circuit of all time could not justify its cost in terms of promotion, publicity and sales.
So - in 1990 I pulled the plug on the OMC F-1 circuit and we went to putting the money into grass-roots racing by producing the 2, 3 and 4 cylinder engines for OPC and sponsoring activity for those classes.
Now you know why I smile sadly when I hear a would-be promoter telling how he will make millions by turning some boat-racing class into the "next NASCAR"!
The V-8 Johnsons and Evinrudes are long gone. About all that remains on the record books is Bob Wartinger's 176.586 mph speed record of 1989---with a V-8 on a three-point hydro.
So who did all this? As I recall, from the technical side, Jim Nerstrom handled the racing version of the V-8 in OMC Marine Engineering, where Edgar Rose was OMC's VP. Gary Garbrecht and Les Calhoun did a great deal of development work and boat testing at Gary's Second Effort operation in Florida. Jack Leek, OMC's race boss had a finger in everything every where.
Bob DeGrenier was the guy who actually set up and ran the events. OMC Marketing guy, Barry Caris, oversaw OMC's PR and promotional activity and co-ordinated the race setup with DeGrenier.
Duke sold the IOGP to Terry Phipps about 1988 and he continued with it for several more years. Jeff Titus was the Race Director beginning approximately 1991.
Racing the 2.0L Mercury Champ engine and SST 140 along with Mod VP until it died. The 2.0L champ drivers no longer supported IOGP and went to PROP. IOGP ran Mod U until it ended.
1987 – and continues today and forward:
APR Super league, American Performance Racing Super League owner by Sam and Sherron Winer, which has been the most successful and longest running series in tunnel boating history. They host 5 to 9 Premier races a year and have signed sponsor contracts through 2014. Their focus is SST 60 and SST 120.
The first race was July 4, 1987 in New Martinsville, WV and the race card was SST-140, Mod VP, Sport E and SST-45. At that time it was the AMERICAN PERFORMANCE SPEED SERIES and didn't change to APR Events Group dba POWERBOAT SUPERLEAGUE until the early 90s.
The first tour race for the SST-60 in 1989 and later dropped the Sport E (since most of the Sport E drivers were getting SST-60 equipment).
The first tour race for the new SST-120 was in 1991 which effectively replaced the SST-140.
They have conducted races for both classes plus other invitational classes since that time. Sam and Sherron conducted the Marathon Nationals as part of our series for four years (1989-1992) and have done a minimum of eight World Championships.
Going into 2009, they have conducted 135 races in 39 different locations in the 22 years making them the oldest continuous tunnel boat series. Most of the staff have been with them for at least 10 years. Our longest existing continuous races are:
Aurora, IN 10 years
Peoria, IL 8 years
Marietta, OH 8 years
1989 - 1993
Pro Tunnel Tour was started by then OMC to promote the SST 45, SST 60 and SST 100.
The OMC 2, 3 and 4 cylinder engines brought affordable tunnel boat racing to OPC and promoted large fields of boats as the SST classes are the main stay of OPC yet today.
1994 - 2009
Pro Tunnel Tour was taken over by when OMC dropped out of racing and it became a SST 45 Series and is now owned Fred Miller. This series links with other larger events to bring small affordable tunnel boats on a small race courses in front of large crowds.
1992 - 2001
PROP owned by the late Gary Garbrecht took over the high stress 2.0L Champ class and evolved it to 2.5L restricted engines that were easier to maintain. That same engine package races today. Gary went on to own and manage Hydro-Prop which handled Unlimited Hydros.
2002 - 2004
ChampBoat Series was formed by Bob Schubert, Greg Jacobsen and Bill Seebold. The focus was on the Champ class and other OPC support classes filled the day. After about a year Wayne Worthy took over as executive director.
2005 - 2009
The ChampBoat Series was turned over to marketeer Mike Schriefer. He later changed the name to F1 ChampBoat which focuses on the Champ class only.
History needs to be reviewed every now and then.