cocked his artfully trimmed goatee into the rain blustering out of the
southwest and smiled. "Good Lake Erie weather," he said, letting the
drops spatter against his driving suit. "This might slow down those fast
guys a little. Maybe teach 'em a little respect."
With a matter of
hours to the start of the Cedar Point Grand National Offshore Powerboat
Race—and with the western end of Lake Erie being scrambled by a fledgling
gale—the last thing Satullo's rivals lacked was respect. As they snuggled into
the cushioned cockpits of their 1,200-hp Cigarette, Gara, Bertram and Magnum
ocean racers, nightmare recollections of last year's inaugural event on Erie
swirled around them like the wind and rain. The men on the offshore circuit
recall that day with much the same warm good humor that Japanese Imperial Navy
veterans reserve for the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The 1973 race, run off
Cleveland, had caught Erie in another of her frequent foul moods. After only
five boats had staggered home through an eight-foot sawtooth chop, the winner
recording the slowest average speed (59 mph) in recent years, the racers toted
up an estimated $400,000 damage to their boats. Now, respect was hardly a
factor; the feeling was more one of outright fear.
an inland sort of place like Cleveland, I used to take a lot of ribbing about
the Great Lakes when I first started racing," says Satullo, the cheerful
campaigner of a dazzling burnished brown Gara called Copper Kettle after his
popular suburban restaurant. "When we finally got our first race scheduled
here, the guys really hooted. They just couldn't imagine how running ocean
racers around on a dinky little lake could be very much of a challenge. I think
it was Sammy James who called it a 'Midwestern mud puddle.' Funny, nobody seems
to be calling it that this year."
"I guess I
was lucky," says James, laughing. "I busted a stern drive right at the
start and missed all the terrible stuff. We just never imagined fresh water
could whip up like that."
Lake Erie, fourth
largest of the Great Lakes, is not the everyday body of fresh water. More than
200 miles long and nearly 60 miles wide, its average depth is a piddling 62
feet. This shallowness makes it extremely sensitive to winds, which can boil up
steep-sided waves in a matter of minutes. "The seas are almost impossible
to read," says 23-year-old Art (Snapper) Norris, a member of the hockey
family and an executive in the Detroit Red Wing organization. "Last year
they seemed to come at you from all directions at once. You can see a pattern
with long ocean swells, but that's impossible in these lake waves. We tore one
of our stern drives clean out of the transom."
But the prospect
of jackhammer seas wasn't the only unconventional aspect of this year's Cedar
Point race. Where most offshore events are run by patrician yacht clubs, this
one was sponsored by an amusement park. Not just any amusement park; Cedar
Point, located on a wooded hook of land near Sandusky, Ohio, has the largest
and perhaps wildest collection of rides in the world and attracted 2.6 million
people and grossed nearly $30 million during its 110-day 1973 season. It was in
the massive marina run by the park—in the shadow of its 15-story ferris wheel
and the classic Blue Streak roller coaster—that the racers braced themselves
for another buffeting by the old mud pond.
delayed the race an hour, then mercifully subsided enough to permit a start.
While smaller craft filled the field to more than 50, only 10 racers were
full-bore offshore boats that can touch nearly 90 mph in optimum conditions.
Among these, four seemed to have a clear chance for victory. Satullo's
knowledge of the lake was certainly a plus, while Snapper Norris was on a hot
streak, his 36-foot Cigarette Slap Shot having taken five of the past seven
races. A win at Cedar Point would clinch the American championship for him.
Billy Martin, a
friendly, cherubic chap from Clark, N.J., had compiled an excellent finishing
record with his 40-foot Bounty Hunter over the past several races and seemed to
be on the verge of an outright victory. Surely the fastest boat belonged to
Sammy James, or more correctly, his employer, the much-respected Miami firm of
Bertram Yacht. Long a power and a pioneer in offshore racing, Bertram started
campaigning in 1973 with a new generation of 38-footers piloted by James.
striking resemblance to the Unser brothers of Indianapolis car fame, James
generally clomps around the docks in high-heeled cowboy boots, directing an
endless drawling volley of jibes and wisecracks at his rivals. Unashamed of his
reputation for being rocket-fast but rough on equipment, James usually leads
every race he enters, but only sporadically finishes. Twice this season the
Bertram has held up under his rugged throttling and won. "She's my
seven-day wonder," he said from somewhere deep inside the engine bay of the
rakish red-and-white craft. Narrower of beam and thousands of pounds lighter
than her competitors, the Bertram's wind-tunnel-developed hull appeared to have
a decided edge in speed. Still, some experts doubted that she could resist the
pounding of the lake.
plenty strong," snorted James. "It's just that we had to build her so
fast. Me and Jack [fellow crewman and expert Miami boat mechanic Jack
Stuteville] worked around the clock to get her done. You've gotta wonder if we
bolted everything together right."