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Sandy Satullo 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.
"Being from 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.
Erie's squalls 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.
Bearing a 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.
"The boat's 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."