Racing boat that roughed up Beatles is restored

Published February 21 2014

Fifty years ago this week four boys from Britain took a boat ride in Miami. They had appeared on television the night before, a program called The Ed Sullivan Show, and they wanted to cut loose.

So they hopped into the prototype of a new offshore race boat named The Cigarette. The boat's builder, a man whose company would later become synonymous with go-fast boats, fired up the 435-horsepower engine, and hit the throttle.

"I don't think the Beatles knew what they were in for," said Tampa's Bob DiNesco, who now owns the refurbished 233 Formula along with his brother and father. "John, Paul and George got a little seasick. But Ringo, he had the time of his life."

The "Fab Four" made their second appearance on the popular variety show on Feb. 16, 1964. The next morning, the Beatles met Don Aronow to check out his 23-foot speedboat that he had named after a legendary style of smuggling craft.

"Formula was his first race boat," said DiNesco, 57. "He went on to be associated with so many other famous boats: Magnum, Donzi and, of course, Cigarette."

The Cigarette Racing Team brand, popularized by the 1980s television series Miami Vice, eventually became associated with all performance boats, regardless of the manufacturer.

The DiNescos said they have invested about $100,000 in the boat and its restoration. The engine, a 1963 Kiekhaefer 409, was originally developed for NASCAR to run with the legendary Chevrolet 409.

Innovation Marine of Sarasota updated the engine, the only one of its kind in existence, to 2014 specifications. The company kept the original block, crankshaft, rods and intake manifold but added new roller rockers, ignition, dual quad carburetors and headers. For authenticity, the owners also kept the original cast Kiekhaefer one-off valve covers.

With a top speed of 60 mph, the restored Formula has stayed true to its original racing tradition. There are no seats. Pilot and passengers must stand — the best way to handle big waves at high speed — just like the old-school offshore racers.

"We tried to stay true to tradition," said DiNesco, who owns the boat with his brother, Scott, 50, and father, Robert, 84. "This boat was a legend in offshore racing."

It was Aronow's first production race boat, hull No. 1. Bob DiNesco said he often gets odd looks from other performance-boat enthusiasts when he pulls into a marina. The hull is obviously a Formula, but the name says The Cigarette.

"One guy told me I had a lot of nerve naming the boat Cigarette," DiNesco said. "When I told him who did name it, that shut him up."

Aronow piloted The Cigarette in its inaugural race, from Miami to Key West. George Peroni bought the boat from Aronow in 1964 and renamed it Empirical. Peroni campaigned the boat for eight seasons, winning the Miami-to-Nassau race and the Bahamas 500.

The DiNescos later bought the boat, which had fallen into disrepair, from the Peroni family and began the long, multiyear process of restoring the boat to its former glory.

On Sunday, 50 years from the day the Beatles took to the stage in Miami, the DiNescos dropped the boat, which they returned to its original name, into the water at the Tampa Harbour Marina.

The boat handled well at top speed. The steering was tight, and overall, it felt solid and sound, more so than most boats made with modern materials and building techniques. But I must confess I felt a little nervous, like a teenager who has been handed the keys to his dad's new car, and relinquished the wheel after a matter of minutes.

"I'm afraid I'll break it," I told DiNesco.

He laughed. "This boat has been through a lot over the years," he said. "It's still running."

Take a ride on the Formula with Terry Tomalin by tuning into WFTS-ABC Action News Sunday morning from 6-7 a.m. and 8-9 a.m.