CLEARWATER — Some call it NASCAR on the water. But unlike auto racing, where the drivers know what the track will look like from lap to lap, offshore powerboat racers never know what to expect.
Dozens of high-powered watercraft, some costing more than $1 million each, ripping around a wavy race course at speeds in excess of 140 mph, could be the ultimate high-adrenaline sport.
"Everybody loves coming to Clearwater because this is our national championships, the final race of the season," said Roderick Cox, spokesman for Super Boat International. "This is the place where the only way to win is to win it. There will be a lot of pressure on these guys."
Since the spring, the offshore teams have been traveling the country, racking up points, but the title in most of the classifications will be decided in the final race on Sunday afternoon.
Teams to watch include, STIHL, WHM, JD Byrider, Spirit of Qatar and Red Hot Racing. When it comes to powerboat racing, there is no one boat for all seasons. Some teams do better in flat conditions; others in rough.
Sunday's weather report calls for calm seas, but nothing is ever certain in the unpredictable world of high-speed powerboating, a pastime that has claimed more than a dozen lives in the past decade.
The 2011 Super Boat World Championships in Key West saw three racers, including veteran Joey Gratton of Sarasota, killed in less than a week. Gratton, a fan favorite, had more than 2,000 people show up for his funeral.
Michael Allweiss, a St. Petersburg attorney who once led the rival American Power Boat Association's offshore racing series, is representing Gratton's widow in a wrongful death lawsuit that is set to go to trial next year in Broward County.
Fans who hit the beach on Sunday to watch the big boats will notice helicopters in the air circling the race course as well as a variety of safety craft stationed at each turn.
"The safety of the racers is something that we take very seriously," said Cox of SBI. "We have divers in helicopters ready to deploy at the first sign of trouble."
Powerboat racing may look simple, but it is a complicated and costly high-stakes game of risk. The top powerboat racers have good reflexes, lots of nerve and big bank accounts. Beyond the boats costing in excess of $1 million, there are hundreds of thousands more spent on repairs, parts and team expenses. Boats break, and break often. It is not always the fastest boat that wins, but the won that is still running out front when the race is over.
When it comes to the race, the driver must keep the boat on the right track. Some courses are easy; long straightaways with four turns. Others are more difficult; lefts, rights, rough and smooth water.
But unlike auto racing, where a single driver controls both speed and steering, offshore racing is a team effort.
Boats don't have brakes. That's where the throttleman comes in. Speed up on the straightaway. Back off in the turns. It is a delicate balance, but a good throttleman is often the difference between winning and losing. The boat's owner usually drives while the throttleman is often a paid professional.