Old Outboard Racers Never Die

They Just Run Slower

Story And Photos By John Tiger

Running and displaying these vintage hydroplanes makes restoring old outboard race boats the most fun these enthusiasts can imagine.

Photo of Bill Edwards and his vintage outboardVintage Outboarding makes for smiles and thrills; just ask Maryland's Bill Edwards, who's Chrysler-powered racing tunnel tops 90-mph speeds around the course.

The pit boss gives the Saturday-morning signal. The lake is flat. It's time to suit up. You don your mandatory driving uniform and Lifeline racing life jacket, slip on your approved helmet with eye protection, and settle in front of the helm. When it's your turn, the pit crews swing by on 4x4 tractors to hook up your boat and put you in the water. As the tractor backs you down the ramp, young volunteers in T-shirts and shorts guide your boat and hold it away from the dock as you fire up that old racing engine. The course marshal displays the black flag, ready to release the fleet. The volunteers hold you steady in the wet pits. The adrenaline builds. The green flag is raised, you fire your engine, then fast-idle out onto the course. Trim the engine in, stomp the foot-throttle, and away you go!

Photo of Steve Larkin readying his Johnson StingerFlorida's Steve Larkin readies his Johnson Stinger-powered Velden tunnel for a run. Steve raced this boat in the '80s and found it sitting in a warehouse in Washington, D.C.,in 2011. He bought it back, restored it, and now runs it.

A few parade laps let everyone blow out the cobwebs, then the real fun begins. Checking the wind and waves ahead, you fly around the course at full throttle, giving the crowd — and yourself! — a huge thrill. Your engine pulls hard through the corners and winds out to top RPM down the straights while the hull flies free and clear. It's a feeling like no other. There's just you, and the engine, and the water. All too soon, the morning's eight laps are over, and it's time to come back to the dock for relaxation and rave reviews. One after another, spectators and fellow drivers clap you on the back. "Boy, you looked great out there. Just like back in the day," they'll say. The only thing better is to do it again in the afternoon session, then again on Sunday.

Sweet Memories

Most of us in the 40- to 70-age group, who grew up around boats or eyed them from afar, have vivid memories of all things outboard since the 1960s, so it was only a matter of time before enthusiasts with time and money on their hands began seeking, finding, restoring, and running these race rigs. My 1972 Evinrude Super Strangler racing engine is 43 years old, yet 1970s and 1980s engines still seem relatively new to most baby boomers. Only the calendar argues otherwise, as many of these engines have surprisingly modern features and a (mostly) modern appearance.

Photo of a vintage inboard hydroInboard hydros like this one are what started APBA's Vintage and Historic division back in 1994.

Vintage and Historic (V&H) might sound old and slow to some boaters, but running a restored, outboard-powered hydroplane around an American Power Boat Association (APBA) course is anything but. Attending and participating in such events is a great mix of excitement, seeing old friends and meeting new ones, and even getting to meet famed racers from years past. Better yet, driving a vintage rig is an assault on the senses.

Photo of a v-bottom Allison race boatMaryland's Rayner Blair instructs his nephew John on the intricacies of flying a V-bottom Allison race boat.

To the APBA, the largest boat-racing organization in the world, this burgeoning interest is nothing new. Inboard-hydroplane enthusiasts already had a division just for them, the V&H class that allows old-school racers to display and (perhaps more importantly) run older, no-longer-competitive rigs at special events, and also as an intermission sideshow at regular APBA races throughout the country. With this already established APBA division, it was easy for the first outboarders to display and run their rigs with the inboarders, and since 2007 or so, outboard enthusiasts have been welcomed into the V&H ranks with open arms. And the outboarders have come out hard and strong; at the recent Tavares, Florida, event, outboards were the largest class.

Photo of a reproduction of a Raveau runabout This reproduction Raveau runabout is a lake cruiser when not on display at racing events.

"Run Whatcha Brung"

Perhaps what's best of all about this hobby and the events is what they're not. They're not Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance-style display shows, where your equipment must be top-notch, original, and flawless. Just the opposite. You're very welcome even if your rig doesn't have every nut and bolt oriented just so. At the Tavares Spring Thunder event in Florida last year, the outboard fleet included several true racing tunnel-hulls that were perfectly restored with factory Mercury, Johnson, Evinrude, and even Chrysler racing outboards. However, there were also several outboards that were clearly not racing craft, merely fast pleasure rigs brought out to enjoy the fun. For now, part of the charm is that a rig doesn't have to be a high-dollar historical former National Record holder to be enjoyed by all; it just needs to be safely drivable and from "back in the day." A big part of the fun is that the events are not static displays. Instead of sitting in a lawn chair answering questions about your rig, you're actually driving it the way it was meant to be driven!

Meet The Enthusiasts

While some Vintage and Historic participants are "retired" racers, just as many never sat in the cockpit of a raceboat. Roger and Margo Hinsdale, for example, who've retired to eastern Tennessee, began their involvement in V&H in 2008 and have never looked back, despite having never raced.

Growing up on the water in central New York, Roger played with performance boats starting in his early teens. During his adult life, he collected and restored Corvettes and performance boats (both outboards and inboards). When he learned about APBA's V&H division, he knew he'd found an outlet for his desire to restore and drive fast boats. Since then, he's restored and driven a tiny kneel-down outboard runabout; big, blown V-8-powered inboard hydro; and helped with countless others, including two rare Switzer Wing twin-engine outboard catamarans. His current personal ride, an exquisitely restored wooden Molinari outboard racing tunnel hull complete with Johnson Racing Special V-6 engine.

This rig was a championship hull in it's heyday in the late 1970s, and it's truly capable of 120+ mph. Roger and Margo attend as many events as their time allows, and they work tirelessly to promote V&H by recruiting new members, rounding up members as events on the calendar approach, and even helping members get boats on the water after catastrophic events. Case in point: Fellow V&H enthusiast and famed Mercury driver Rich Luhrs of New Jersey suffered a devastating loss in 2012 when his restored twin Mercury-powered Switzer Wing was damaged almost beyond repair after being caught in massive flooding and building damage from Hurricane Sandy. The Hinsdale's and others have chipped in time and sweat effort to help Rich get the Wing back in working order in time for the Clayton regatta.

Another non-racer convert to V&H, Ken Fornwalt hails from the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, area and has never worked as a marine mechanic. You'd wonder, then, how his rigs are so perfectly restored. He does 100 percent of the work himself, from the boat reconstruction and body and paint finishing, to the decal-perfect Mercury outboard restorations.

Fornwalt grew up watching the outboard races on the nearby Susquehanna River in the 1970s and 1980s and lusted after the gleaming black Mercury "Tower of Power" inline-6 outboards. He began collecting them in the 1980s and today has a garage full of engines and parts that any marina would envy. With six boats in his stable, he's never at a loss for a rig to display at events. His latest creation is a 1974 Cobra tunnel hull with a perfectly restored 1974 Mercury 1500 outboard. It looks as if it were built yesterday. It's that perfect. A soft-spoken enthusiast, Fornwalt has only two rules for his rigs: They must be restored completely by him, and only Mercury power will grace his transoms. 

John Tiger, an outboard master technician, got his first outboard at age seven. He has owned more than 60 boats and outboards since.

— Published: April/May 2015

Photo of officiala in the pits

How To Get Involved

For First Timers: The best way to take in the hobby is to attend an event. Get a pit pass and check out the rigs up close; talk to the owners and drivers. Maybe there's a favorite boat/engine combo you remember from back then, and you can begin your search that way. Or, buy a rig that's been restored and is already running (although that's missing half the fun). Whichever way you choose to go, you'll have fun reliving the recent past with a fast rig, the way high-performance outboards looked and sounded in their prime.

Needed and Necessary: To participate in Vintage & Historic events, you must first be an APBA member and also a member of a local or regional APBA-affiliated club. Your rig must conform to the APBA rules for the V&H division, which means it must be able to pass a safety inspection when you arrive at the pits for an event. V&H inspectors and fellow enthusiasts are very willing to help if you're uncertain about what's legal and what's not and where to buy/find proper safety equipment, (such as an engine cutoff switch, or a good steering system).



Marquee Events Across The Country

The events list for V&H grows steadily. While there are dual events (APBA races where V&H is featured) held annually in California, Washington state, Idaho, West Virginia, Michigan, and Ohio, two of the best venues include Clayton, New York, and Tavares, Florida. The Clayton event is held every other year in mid-August; spectators and participants who travel to Clayton not only get to see these vintage boats run "in formation" at speed, but the towns of Clayton and nearby Alexandria Bay are meccas for boating history buffs as well as awesome summer vacation spots with plenty to do besides look at old race boats. For boating history buffs, the Antique Boat Museum at Clayton (where the V&H event is run) is a stunning all-weekend excursion into the history of boating and powerboat racing.

The Tavares V&H events are also special; they're so prolific, they're actually a circuit of events that include fun runs as well as regattas. The regattas are held three times annually, every March, November, and January. First and foremost, they're all held at great times for Northerners to dust off the boats and head South for an excursion, topped off by a weekend of classic boating events. Headed up by recent New Hampshire to Florida transplants Bill John and his energetic partner Gerri Prusko, these events are tightly run, well-organized and hugely popular. Tavares is located right smack in the middle of central Florida, close to Disney, Sea World, Universal, and the Daytona area. There's way too much to do even for a weeklong vacation.


BoatUS Magazine Is A Benefit Of BoatUS Membership

Membership Also Provides:

  • Subscription to the print version of BoatUS Magazine
  • 4% back on purchases from West Marine stores or online at WestMarine.com
  • Discounts on fuel, transient slips, repairs and more at over 1,000 businesses
  • Deals on cruises, charters, car rentals, hotel stays and more ...
  • All For Only $24 A Year!

Join Today!