Shootout In The Ozarks
By Chris Landers
It starts out as a low rumble, a single boat making its way across the still lake at the break of day, like an alarm clock for the crowds that will gather later, in the water and ashore. Elsewhere in the Ozarks, people are playing golf and going on wine tastings, but for the thousands of boaters who turn out, this weekend is dedicated to having fun, and about things that go very quickly through the water. As the TV announcer will later say, over and over again on the big screens outside Captain Ron's Bar and Grill, "It's the Shootout!"
Over the years, the Shootout has grown from a weekend event to a full week of boating festivities. But the signature event is racing down two dead-straight miles that have been cleaned of debris by crews who've been working to make it safe since before dawn. The object is to go as fast as you can past the radar gun, which is stationed halfway down the closed two-mile course. The fastest of the fast takes home the Top Gun trophy. Ask any racer what brings them to the Lake of the Ozarks Shootout, what causes them to drive across the country to a lake in the middle of Missouri, with million-dollar machines strapped to boat trailers the size of semi trucks, to compete in a two-mile race that offers no prize money, and they will all tell you they do it for charity.
There is some truth to this. The event started out, 25 years ago, as a small fund-raiser for the local fire departments and has grown to the point that this year they raised $115,000 for two dozen charities. Charity isn't the whole story, though. If it were, they could all stay home and write a check. Something Dorsey Schroeder said, when he was emceeing the first inductions into the new Shootout Hall of Fame, rings closer to the truth: "To break that barrier, to push it further down the road, that's what we do. Racers like two things: They like fast and they like loud. And if you don't like fast and loud, you're in the wrong room.
The "fast and loud" theory explains some otherwise inexplicable things, like the remote-controlled boat race, the "mini-shootout," where the winner's speed was 119.4 mph. It explains why I saw a Shootout racer go 114 mph in a pontoon boat. It explains why visiting boaters created a raft-up three miles long. And that was only the first row. It even explains how I came to love the paint job on Mike Maasen's cigarette boat. But more of that later.
A Poker Run Is Not A Race
The poker run, one of the main side events to the Shootout, kicks off the week's on-the-water action. I hesitate to explain what a poker run is because the world, it seems, can be divided into those who already know and those who never will. But the rules are simple. Starting at Captain Ron's Grill, the participants travel to six other places, picking up some token at each. At the end of the day, the tokens are exchanged for seven playing cards, and the best poker hand wins the money. A popular T-shirt at the shootout features a kid writing on the blackboard over and over, "A poker run is not a race," and it isn't, officially. But if a little spirited competition breaks out along the way, well, no one seems to mind.
The start of the poker run is signaled by a helicopter passing overhead, and when it passes over Mike Maasen's 42-X cigarette, Just One More, we take off with a sound that renders all other sounds obsolete. Mike is at the controls, his wife Karie and friend Donnie Simpson next to him in front. Donnie's wife Jessica and yours truly hang on in back. At least one of us is grinning like a maniac as the three Mercury Racing 525-horse engines propel us at speeds I hadn't thought possible. I can't say for certain how fast we go, partly because of the wind in my eyes after my sunglasses flew off, but mostly because of the bewildering collection of dials, gauges, and readouts covering the boat's dash.
Later, after long hours in the Missouri sun, most participants park their boats and head to the last stop, Shady Gators, for the drawing and general sharing of stories at the packed bar. By that time we're all old friends.
Fast, Loud, & Rock 'N' Roll
A note on the paint schemes of speedboats: They are garish. Loud enough to give the engines a run for their money. There are flames and stripes; stripes that turn into flames at the end; flames that fade from yellow to orange; white leather seats with blue and orange trim; lime-green dashboards with blue gauges; and hulls striped with every color of the rainbow. And that's just Mike's boat. Others are decorated in the rest of the human-visible spectrum, or themed, like the Batman boat with bat-fins and an airbrushed city of Gotham on the front. Brett Wagner shows up at the helm of a 2005 46-foot Black Thunder, painted with a Monopoly theme by a former owner (a mortgage broker). Others are subtle, with the addition of skulls. Still others, the purpose-built race boats that are here to compete for the title of Top Gun, look like they flew here from a distant planet where light reflects in strange new ways, or where neon is an effective camouflage. After a while, you begin to appreciate the violent clash of colors. Like the boats, and the event itself, quiet cocktails on the deck of a yacht club it ain't. It's loud, fast, and rock 'n' roll. It's the Shootout!
A Homegrown Event
Mike's company, Poly-Lift, makes boat lifts and sponsors the poker run. Donnie has a company that builds bars and houses on docks. Most of the people involved in the race, whether as racers or organizers, seem to be small-business men and women. Connie Weyer, who's been rushing around with a walkie-talkie organizing events, owns Advantage Marine, a chandlery and repair center, with her husband Dave.
This a homegrown event, and everyone here knows each other, even the out-of-towners who come annually. The area around Lake of the Ozarks swells with tourists every summer, and it's home to an infamous "party cove" that attracts hundreds of boats on summer weekends. At heart, though, it's a group of small towns that relies on tourism as its main industry. The lake was formed in 1931 by a dam across the Osage River. At the time, it was the largest man-made lake in the country, and it's been a magnet for vacationing boaters ever since, home to hundreds of resorts and beach-town attractions.
The meandering, snake-like lake makes boating the preferred way to get around, and the quickest. Its status as a man-made, privately owned lake (the power company Ameren owns and manages it) means that houses can be built close to the 1,150-mile shoreline. Docks, lit at night by blue lights to warn off passing boaters, dot the shoreline. It's where the central plains head to the ocean, and the thin, winding lake ensures seclusion for just about any activity, be it partying or a tour of the state park that takes up 17,400 acres on the east end. Locals divide the lake roughly into east and west sides, the St. Louis and Kansas City sides, or the quiet and the noisy side. During the Shootout, anyway, the quiet side gets a little loud, as it's home to Captain Ron's Bar and Grill on Buccaneer Bay, ground zero for the race.
Captain Ron himself is less piratical than you might expect. This may be because he's only Captain Ron part-time and has a title insurance and escrow business as his main job under the alias Ron Duggan. He raced in the first Shootout, but decided it wasn't for him. "I went 66 miles an hour and got tons of advice on how to go faster from the other guys, but I was like, 'That's all right, I just wanted to see what it was like.'" He'd rather be involved in hosting the event where, he says, it's like seeing old friends every year as the racers return to the lake.
The Shootout is a difficult event to spectate. The best seats are at the bar at Captain Ron's place, next to the beach volleyball court, with a cold beer and a good view of the screen. Meanwhile, along the shore, under the watchful eye of the Water Patrol, thousands of people anchor and swim, and listen to the radio for the speeds from the radar gun — the only number that matters.
The current Shootout record of 209 mph (no knots here) was set in 2007 by Dave Callan, racing on the old Shooters 21 course, after which he pretty much stopped racing. His coy responses to reporters have kept people guessing as to whether he will jump back into the fray this year to defend his title from Canadian Bill Tomlinson, who's made the trek from the Thousand Islands, trailering his 50-foot Mystic catamaran My Way and talking a big game about his boat's twin 3,000-horsepower turbine engines. In 2011, Tomlinson took issue with the radar speed, saying his GPS clocked faster than the 208 mph shown on the gun, although it was good enough to tie the course record with Hall of Fame inductee David Scott. Speculation around Captain Ron's is that if the Canadian makes a good showing, Callan will just have to come out of retirement. The first day of the race, Tomlinson ties the record, with 209 mph in My Way. Afterward, he tells a well-wisher, "We'll get serious tomorrow."
One of the distinctive things about the Shootout is that pretty much anyone can enter. You don't even have to be fast. At one point, the captain of Celebration, a large dinner boat, takes a shot with a speed of 6 mph. Racing the faster boats takes a two-man crew: usually a driver, who steers and operates the trim tabs, and a throttle man. The trim tabs seem to be the key part, getting the boat onto just the right plane to minimize the drag through the water. You can gauge how well they're doing on screen by how steady the nose of the boat is. Movement up and down or side to side causes friction, and friction costs speed.
Mike Maasen decides to take a shot and passes the radar gun at 91 mph. On another run, with Dave Weyer as copilot, he hits 92. Both times, he's beaming like a kid with a new toy when he gets back to the dock. It's Sunday morning, though, when the crowds are a little thinner, that Bill Tomlinson and Ken Kehoe make the run everyone will be talking about. My Way passes the gun at a blistering 224 mph, and after a second run of 216, the Canadians call it a day and load the boat onto the trailer for the long trip home. In the afternoon, the racers file out of the docks to the waterfront stage facing the beach to accept their awards, and as Tomlinson takes his, he utters the sentiment in the heart of every racer here, professional or amateur: "I think we could've gone a little faster."
— Published: December 2013
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A Note On Safety
Shootout organizers pride themselves on the event's safety record, and on the precautions they take to keep drivers and spectators protected. They've never had an accident in the Shootout's 25-year history.
- The closed racecourse is 400 feet wide. There's a safety zone 400 feet beyond that. So race boats remain at least 700 feet from spectators.
- A no-wake zone extends the length of the track.
- Boats in the Shootout always race one at a time, never against one another.
- Water-patrol personnel are everywhere, keeping spectators within the safety zone, and monitoring their activities.
- Life jackets and helmets are required for all racers in the Shootout.
- The U.S. Coast Guard is on the water in full force monitoring the event, as well as Homeland Security personnel, and six different fire departments and emergency crews. TowBoatU.S. Lake of the Ozarks is also on standby for all the events.
- Rescue divers from local fire departments also stand ready to jump in from helicopters; their demonstration dives were a real crowd pleaser.
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