SI Vault
Hugh D. Whall
November 20, 1972
A new season begins and the man who rules U.S. powerboat racing receives a rare vessel. He says thanks by winning a Key West thriller
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November 20, 1972

Wet, Racy And Royal

A new season begins and the man who rules U.S. powerboat racing receives a rare vessel. He says thanks by winning a Key West thriller

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Four-foot seas were running off Key West on Friday, but in the night the waves subsided and next morning the water was freeway-smooth. "We're going to have a fast one today," prophesied Bill Wishnick, a former champion.

Ahead lay an oval course past nine checkpoints, including the turning mark at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, 65 miles out from Key West. Fort Jefferson is that gloomy old edifice where Dr. Samuel Mudd was imprisoned for setting John Wilkes Booth's leg after the assassination in Ford's Theater.

Sixteen boats bolted across the starting line, beneath a brassy sun. In the lead came Rautbord's Fino, but not for long. Within a minute or two Magoon raced through the fleet to assume his customary position up front. In the cockpit with him rode his sidekick and mechanic, Gene Lanham. Along for his first ride in a race boat but no stranger to four-wheeled racers was Peter Gregg, a driver in the Can-Am series.

In any ocean race keeping the engines running is just as important as speed, so as soon as Magoon's Aero-marine III asserted herself the question arose: would the new Kiekhaefer engines endure or would they break? Barreling toward Fort Jefferson, her exhaust a musical bellow, Aeromarine III withstood every challenge.

A ferocious one came from Blonde IV. Hanks had stayed off the pace in the early going but now he made a run at Magoon like a bull going for a matador. Nearly caught him, too. But suddenly his boat went dead, leaving him stranded but defiant as the rest of the boats roared by. Later he got Blonde going again and limped back in to Key West.

A boat called Popeye had made a charge at Aeromarine earlier, only to get a flying nudge in the stern from American Eagle. That put Popeye out. A blue beauty owned by Tom Gentry of Hawaii, Eagle is another 36-foot Cigarette (there were nine in the race) powered by twin 525-hp MerCruisers that, according to at least one expert, were the best-prepared engines of their ilk. Approaching the Fort Jefferson turn, American Eagle impertinently caught up with and stayed glued to Aeromarine III.

Now a new flurry of questions came: which engines would go first—the new Aeromarines or those glistening MerCruisers? Did Magoon have enough speed in hand to outrace American Eagle! Was Gentry trying to press Magoon into breaking by shadowing him so closely? Was it Gentry who had the faster boat? Said Peter Gregg afterward: "We had the boat trimmed flat-out, but we weren't nervous about Gentry."

They should have been. As other boats dropped out, one by one, the two leaders played cat-and-mouse past the fort. Then Gentry moved. He passed Magoon and stretched out ahead to what the latter estimated as a 10-second lead. Both boats were flying perilously fast now, both drivers suppressing thoughts of swapping ends and snapping bones. The race became a thrilling sprint for the finish. Mile after mile it blazed and then, just 15 miles from home, all at once it ended. Not with the blast of a broken engine, nor did anyone crack up. Instead, American Eagle flew onto a rocky shoal she should have skirted and shuddered to a halt—hard aground. One could almost hear the sigh of relief aboard Aeromarine. Not that Magoon let up on the pace. Instead of American Eagle, he now had a speed record to beat—the-average of 74.3 miles an hour set by Aronow in 1967.

That he failed by approximately one mph did not diminish the power and glory of the kingdom of Magoonia. Robert I rules on.

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