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Sam Moses
November 21, 1988
Life imitated TV as actor star Don Johnson won a world powerboat title
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November 21, 1988

Vice Into Virtue

Life imitated TV as actor star Don Johnson won a world powerboat title

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It looked like a scene out of Miami Vice. The hero, played by Don Johnson, was at the wheel of a pristine white speedboat, bouncing off the waves at 90 mph in a crowded Florida harbor. His jaw was firmly set and his gray eyes were as cold as steel as he closed in on a white futuristic-looking catamaran with twin bubble canopies hiding its crew. Close behind Johnson, driving an orange Vee-hull with a wing behind the cockpit, was the husband of a Princess of Monaco, who was...well, somehow involved in all this.

But this wasn't a TV show. It really happened on Saturday off Key West at the American Power Boat Association's Offshore World Cup, the glitziest and most prestigious race on the circuit. When it was over, Johnson, known to millions as TV cop Sonny Crockett, had won the World Cup title in the Super-boat class (boats of unrestricted engine size and specification).

Though offshore racing is a much bigger sport in Europe than in the U.S., the World Cup Championships, which have been held off Key West for the past few years, have served as center stage for some of the most improbable intrigues in the sport. For a couple of years the top two Superboat drivers were Al Copeland Sr., the Popeyes Fried Chicken tycoon, and George Morales, a convicted cocaine smuggler from Colombia. This time the showdown was between Johnson and Tom Gentry, a real estate magnate from Hawaii who beat Copeland for the 1987 title.

Nearly 110 boats were entered in the World Cup's nine classes, but most of the attention was focused on the seven entries in the Superboat category. Gentry was driving a 48-foot Cougar catamaran with four 850 hp turbocharged engines. At a time trial in March of '87, outside New Orleans, it was clocked at a world-record 148.238 mph. Johnson's boat, a Vee-hulled 46-foot Wellcraft Scarab powered by three 850 hp engines, is also owned by Gentry and had reached 107 mph earlier in the week.

Lately DJ, as Johnson's friends call him, has been on a roll. He has recorded Till I Love You with Barbra Streisand, whom he has also been dating for almost a year, and he has been getting glowing reviews for his role in the movie Sweet Hearts Dance. But for the moment anyway, those achievements must take a backseat to the powerboat title. "A lot of salty dogs wondered what I was doing here," he said when he picked up his trophy. "But, by god, I'm a world champion. It almost makes me legitimate."

Johnson began driving high-performance boats while filming Miami Vice and had gotten expert instruction in the handling of the show's 38-foot Scarab. As he improved, he began performing his own stunts, which sharpened his timing and control. Last year he was invited to drive in the Mississippi River Challenge, a race from New Orleans to St. Louis. With the help of throttleman Gus Anastasi and navigator Thomas George, he won in a record 19 hours 51 minutes. Since then Johnson has entered a number of APBA races, including three this year, using one of Gentry's boats.

Johnson is quick to acknowledge that his role in last week's victory was secondary to his crew's. This year Anastasi has been his navigator and coach, but the real secret to Johnson's success is throttleman Bill Sirois, who performed the same task for 1986 World Cup champion Copeland. "Those guys are the meat and potatoes of this crew, and the best in the business," says Johnson. "Without them, I'd be lost out there."

Even though the Superboats stole the spotlight in Key West, the fastest craft on the water all week was the open-class (restricted engines) winner, driven by Stefano Casiraghi, the husband of Princess Caroline of Monaco. Named Gancia dei Gancia for its sponsor, an Italian winemaker, Casiraghi's boat was a light, 44-foot Vee-hull with an overhead wing for stabilization. It was powered by four 600 hp turbocharged diesel engines developed by the boat's owner and throttleman, Fabio Buzzi, who has won 12 of 15 races in Europe this year, including the World Championship in England.

The third and final leg of the open-class competition began about five minutes after the start of the Superboat final. but Casiraghi, who averaged a high 89.073 mph. finished only six seconds behind Johnson. "Superboats, they are a joke," said Buzzi. "They are a contest over who can spend the most money."

That didn't seem to bother the fans, however. They cheered feverishly as Johnson's older and slower, but more reliable, Vee-hull took on the catamarans of Gentry and Copeland, the APBA National Superboat champion for the past five years. Copeland's boat, Popeyes/ diet Coke, failed to finish both the first and second legs of the race, held on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively. Gentry beat Johnson in the first leg by one minute and 39 seconds, but he broke a drive shaft coupler on Thursday, allowing Johnson to come in first. Because Saturday's 149-mile final was worth almost twice as many points as each of the two previous legs, Johnson knew a second-place finish would clinch the crown for him. For good luck in the final, he invited Mercedes Pe´┐Ża, a 100-year-old fan who had given him a kiss before his victory on Thursday, to the race.

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