Sarasota Bay — In the old days, powerboat racers ran across blue water in open-cockpit boats. There were no helmets. No radios. You would be lucky to get a hard-core racer in a life jacket.
However, with technology and innovation came increases in speed. Racers put on flak jackets and hunkered down behind windshields borrowed from jet fighters. Anything seemed possible … 100, 150, even 200 mph.
But inside the cockpit of a high-tech catamaran, you don't feel the wind. Strapped into your seat, an air tank hanging behind your head, you don't need to fight to hang on to stay inside the boat.
That's why Steve Kildahl likes his 28-foot, "old-school" Velocity vee-bottom.
"When you are in an open-cockpit boat, you have no room to play around," said Kildahl, who has been racing powerboats for more than 20 years. "You are really in touch with the water."
The 53-year-old Kildahl, the throttleman, will be racing with his 20-year-old son, Stephen, this weekend at the Clearwater Super Boat National/Florida Championship. The boat, made in Sanford and powered by a single, 500-horsepower Innovation Marine engine, will hit a top speed of around 80 mph when the green flag drops Sunday.
"You feel like you are going a lot faster," the elder Kildahl said. "See for yourself."
A Florida sport
Offshore powerboat racing came of age in Florida. During its heyday in the mid 1980s, big names such as actors Don Johnson, Kurt Russell and Chuck Norris often went deck-to-deck in the waters off South Florida.
In the 1950s and '60s, racers usually took off from the beach, ran all-out far from land, returned a few hours later and called it a race. But John Carbonell, and Super Boat International, brought the racing closer to shore where the fans could see what was happening.
The sport suffered for a while when millionaires in expensive boats dominated the circuit. During the era of "checkbook racing," the team with the deepest pockets, not the best driver and throttleman, usually won the race.
But in the smaller production classes, where boats were ranked by speed, not make or manufacturer, the competition remained fierce. That's why Kildahl and his son still run Velocity.
Offshore powerboat racing has often been likened to NASCAR on the water. But unlike auto racing, where the course remains set, the surface in powerboat racing is constantly changing.
"You never know what you are going to get," said Stephen Kildahl, the driver. "Every day it is something different. Conditions can change from the beginning to the end of the race."
Powerboat racing can be a little confusing because it features boats of different lengths, manufacturers and power, all running at various speeds on the same course. Even educated fans can have a hard time following the action.
It's the driver's job to keep the boat on track. A course such as the one in Clearwater, with long straightaways, is relatively easy to run. But unlike auto racing, where one person controls both speed and steering, powerboat racing is a team effort.
The throttleman controls both the speed and position, or trim, of the boat in the water. The "stickman" is usually the more experienced racer because he has to know how to speed up on the straightaways and back off in the turns. That's why I didn't think twice about taking the elder Kildahl up on his offer.
"In all these years I've never gone for a swim," the Sarasota resident said. "I guess I should knock on wood."
Stephen Kildahl offered me his helmet and life jacket and led me to the wheel. "Good luck," he said.
His father told me that we would run a couple of laps at half speed so I could get a feel for the boat.
"We'll start off slow," Kildahl said, cruising at 50 mph. "Then we'll open it up."
I was fine at 50 mph, but when we hit 80 mph and the boat rocked side to side, I felt it was little beyond my skill set.
"Maybe you should back off a little," I told Kildahl. He smiled.
I think next time, I'll leave the offshore racing to the professionals.