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Racing: What Does The Future Hold?

Speed, money, politics, powerful people and engines—from its beginning at the turn of the century, powerboat racing has careened on a rollercoaster ride of international prominence. Today, the sport continues under the direction of the Union Internationale Motonautique. From its seat in Monaco, the governing body intends to play a significant role in racing’s future.

Photos provided courtesy of the UIM

Speed, money, politics, powerful people and engines—from its beginning at the turn of the century, powerboat racing has careened on a rollercoaster ride of international prominence. Today, the sport continues under the direction of the Union Internationale Motonautique. From its seat in Monaco, the governing body intends to play a significant role in racing’s future.

A colorful past

Historically, a cast of characters infatuated with speed and competition has piloted the sport of powerboat racing. It was an Englishman and newspaper magnate, Sir Alfred Harmsworth, who in 1902 created the first powerboat-racing trophy to pit nation against nation. The trophy was hotly disputed between France and the UK for years. But the United States soon became a hotbed of power racing and remained so for decades. Racing boomed in the Roaring ’20s after boatbuilder and inventor “Gar” Wood (who enjoyed endurance runs from New York to Miami and even made a name for himself by racing a train) went to England to compete for the Harmsworth Trophy and won.


Influential characters on this side of the Atlantic included Charles F. Chapman, the editor of Hearst’s MotorBoating magazine and author of the first Chapman Piloting & Seamanship; boatbuilder Chris Smith (of Chris-Craft fame); Mercury engine-builder Carl Kiekhaefer and Edsel Ford (son of Henry) who, the rumors said, used the vast resources of the Ford Motor Company to build boats and engines for his racing pleasure.

In 1904, the United States introduced another traveling trophy, the Gold Cup. The initial race was run on New York’s Hudson River but the event eventually moved to Detroit where it still is run today. It was a popular contest, attracting thousands of spectators. A Time magazine article described the scene in 1929: “Many a race between shadowy contraband–carrying rumrunners and swift, searchlight playing patrol boats has been run on the narrow Detroit River. Last week, 400,000 persons lined the river’s edge to watch millionaires race millionaires.”

There were early attempts to organize powerboat racing and encourage the many rascals and rogues involved to conform to rules established by the likes of the American Powerboat Association (APBA), which was established in 1903, and later the Union Internationale Motonautique (or UIM), established in 1922. Having an organization regrouping fans of the sports had other advantages. During World War II, the US Transportation Corps sent a memo to the APBA calling for “boat wise” men to sign up for non-combat jobs for at least 12 months to “make a significant contribution” to the war effort. A number of racers who took the highly paid civilian positions were assigned to the South Pacific, becoming the first military contractors. After World War II, both European and American racers wanted a true “world champion,” and competitors traveled across the pond in search of dominance. But powerful men seem to have problems playing well together and after years of fluctuation, the APBA somewhat reluctantly joined together with the then Belgium-based UIM, which eventually became the sport’s international governing body.

Among the interesting characters that have presided over the UIM is Charlie Strang. A young American and former Army Air Corp engine specialist and MIT researcher and teacher, he appeared on the racing scene after a stint at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (which became the NASA space program). He then became an engine builder with the “Iron Fist,” Carl Kiekhaefer of Mercury and then the Outboard Marine Corporation. His expertise in engine building made Strang an integral part of boat racing’s governing bodies, including the UIM. Strang, fond of stories, recounts a tale dating back to the days when the Soviet Union wielded its influence at the UIM. Officials (presumed to be KGB agents) accompanied the Russian racers, carrying cases of vodka. Strang decided to introduce them to American bourbon. It took many water-size glasses full of bourbon before the Russian representatives gave their verdict: “Mr. Charlie,” they said, “your whiskey is worse than your atom bomb!”

A Kinder, Gentler Sport

Losing ground in Europe and even in the United States after decades of prominence, the sport of motorboat racing and its bad-boy image were in need of a makeover.

When Raffaele Chiulli, the current president of the UIM, took the helm in 2007, he made it one of his goals to bring credibility to the sport. It was his opinion that the motorsports’ gas-guzzling image was out of tune with the times, and he encouraged motorcycle, automotive and aircraft racing to work together to make their sports more energy aware and efficient. He earned the support of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and added a program to train young racers in safe boating and racing to ensure the sport’s future. At its annual red carpet event in Monaco earlier this year, the UIM not only celebrated 55 world champions (from 20 countries) but also announced its Youth Development Program and gave out several environmental awards. There was another significant award, given to Saeed Hareb, the president of the UAE Marine Sports Federation. A new chapter in the history of the sport of motorboating is being written with the emergence of the Middle East, where the noted Victory team of Dubai, the Abu Dhabi International Marine Sports Club (ADIMSC) and the Qatar Marine Sports Federation (QMSF) have hotly competed for leadership. “The Middle East is putting money into the sport after US engine builders and boatbuilders pulled the plug,” Strang said. The whole region is staging prestigious races and investing in infrastructure. Outside of the UAE, Qatar’s team benefits from Sheikh Hassan bin Jabor Al-Thani’s interest in the sport. The Miami-educated businessman is pushing hard for his Spirit of Qatar team to overtake the leading Victory team in Class 1 racing.

While it still is the playground of wealthy business moguls, the sport is evolving. What does the future hold? Will racing become ecological? Will people care who wins? We invite you to share your thoughts with us below. ■

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UIM Environmental Awardees

Azimut-Benetti Group won with the Magellano 50. The jury noted the boat’s low-emission engines and electronic fuel-consumption management, high-performance hull and propellers, and anti-UV film used to reduce heat exchange through glass surfaces.

Special Mention: Economic Feasibility
Mercury Racing, a Brunswick Corporation and longtime leader and innovator in power racing, won for its low-emission 60 EFI and OptiMax 200XS engines. The engines are used internationally for entry-level UIM F-4S outboard racing series as well as the UIM F1H2O Nations Cup series.

Special Mention: Environmental Benefit
PlanetSolar won with its solar-powered catamaran. Designed by Craig Loomes of New Zealand, the craft, using solar power only, completed an educational circumnavigation; Over two years, the crew and craft made stops in various ports to share PlanetSolar’s vision of the future of power.

Special Mention: Innovation
Frauscher Shipyard, a small but influential Austrian builder, was awarded for its electric-powered boats. The family business started in 1927 and since 1955 has built electric boats. Frauscher created the first serial hybrid propulsion system and boats using hydrogen fuel cells and lithium-ion phosphate batteries as auxiliary power.

For information on next UIM environmental awards, see