The Amazing Expertise of a Typical Grand Prix Boat Crew

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By Bob Schellhase – Owner of GP-12

Other than the Unlimited class in the American Power Boat Association (APBA), the Grand Prix class represents one of the most expensive classes to own and operate in the boat racing theater.  With that said, much of the glory goes to the Unlimited class making it hard for the typical Grand Prix (GP) team to acquire adequate sponsorship to participate at the high level required to maintain a consistent level of performance.  In my case, my 401(k) has shrunk considerably since I formed my own team and started racing in the GP class back in 2006.

I could not do it without the help and dedication of my all volunteer boat crew.  These men and women are not just hacks looking for a way to get into the pits for free.  They bring a wide variety of skills not normally seen in just backyard mechanics which might be adding headers to a ’55 Chevy or wiring in an earthquake producing stereo system.  And, they are not unique to just my crew although I am a little bit prejudiced and think my people are just a little bit better than the other boat crews out there.  Three National Championships in the last four years might add a little credibility to that statement.  But, the intent of this article to show off the skills of all the boat crews, not just mine.

Let’s start with the engines.  The typical GP engine is a supercharged, methanol burning, 468 cubic inch Chevrolet which may produce in excess of 1500 horsepower even with the restrictions imposed on them.  In an effort to keep the costs within reason, the blowers are restricted both by size and drive speed with relation to the RPM’s of the motors.  They can cost in excess of $50,000.  The tuners and mechanics must check them before, during and after every heat.  Air samples are taken often so the fuel/air ratios can be constantly adjusted.  Valves are checked after every run, both for clearance and broken springs.  Headers are checked along with an inspection for any loose screws or bolts.  FOD (foreign object damage) is just as critical to a racing machine as it is to an airplane and many of the boat crewmembers in the Northwest also work and design airplanes in their “real” jobs.  All aspects of the drive train are also inspected after every run.  Ed Trihey of Ed’s Automotive in Mukilteo, WA builds motors for many of the GP teams.  I am fortunate to also have him on my team although he helps anyone at the races that needs it.  We have a person assigned to help Ed with the motors named Darrin Mannie.  Darrin also is in charge of fueling the boat and being an extra pair of eyes looking for anything that might be or become a problem.  Because we do not use nitro, our motors do not produce the horsepower one might see at the drag strip but they have to last for a typical heat which may require them to be producing close to full power for seven to eight minutes.  Teams without good tuners and mechanics are called spectators.

Most of our boats are made of exotic materials such as carbon fiber and fiberglass although some are made of wood.  They get damaged during the rigors of racing.  Our fiberglass experts can rebuild and/or repair most damage on the spot.  Often, a boat even with rather severe damage is back on the water the next day.  This requires skills in wood and fiberglass repair whether the repair is a wet lay up or vacuum bagged.  When we break the boat, and it happens more often than we would like, our people dive in, assess the damage, form a plan and get to work.  I just stand back out of the way and am amazed at the speed and quality of the repairs being made.  My team’s fiberglass expert is Ben Rice, along with help from the driver, Greg Hopp.  Our team has also been assisted in the past by Ron Jones Jr., a pretty famous name in boat racing and Ed Preston of Black Lake Fiberglass, LLC.  Our fiberglass expert also helps plan and supervise the winter repairs and upgrades.

When you repair it, you have to paint it.  Most of the crew’s have an expert painter on them.  Mine is a wizard at matching and blending colors and my painter, Kevin Eacret, is also my backup driver as well as an experienced driver in other classes.  Rumor has it that he might even try out an Unlimited this year, but I digress.  Paint is expensive, especially the top coat/base coat systems that many of our boats use.  Unlike a show car with a beautiful paint job, we have to walk on our decks.  They get scratched, scuffed and abused.  Keeping a boat looking good is part of the show and also helps attract sponsors.  You can’t see it when the boat is out on the race course but we are also expected to do displays and no sponsor wants a shabby looking boat with his name on it sitting out in front of his place of business.

Boats are driven by “wheels”; at least that is what we call our propellers.  Our team has been very fortunate to have a couple of experts supplying us with propellers over the last few years.  Many of our propellers or props as we call them come from Jeff Titus of Performance Propellers out of Lake Placid, FL.  However, once we get to racing, Jeff is clear across the country and we have a local person named Scott Baker of Scott Baker Racing Propellers both tuning our props as well as building some of them.  Scott also builds props for many of the other Inboard classes as well as many of the Outboard classes.  He is pretty famous in the Offshore category as well.  Although Scott helps all of the other teams, we are fortunate enough to get a little extra special attention from him in our efforts.  We also check the propellers after every heat.  Darren Bartels is my propeller person and does the checking.  With the horsepower we are running, we lose a couple of props a year but Darren has always found the damage in the form of cracks or some other aberration before they have become catastrophic causing us to lose a blade.  When you are spinning a prop at over 8000 RPM and a blade comes off, it can tear off the whole back of the boat.  We have been fortunate in that we have not had a catastrophic failure since 2008.  That is probably due to the attention we now pay to our propellers.

Every team has a crew chief and he is the “boss”.  Ours is Dale Huston.  Dale has been a fan of boat racing for probably over forty years but joined out team back in 2008.  Dale is our wiring and radio expert.  He became the crew chief midway through the 2011 season.  That year brought us our first National Championship.  Dale is an engineer at the Boeing Company and brings great organizational skills to our team.  He produces the work lists and keeps tabs on everything that has to be done.  We share the duties of team manager and he is always suggesting things to me that we should try or need to do.  Without the crew chiefs, most of our teams would never be organized enough to be able to go racing.

Our team has three truck drivers.  Although our hauler is a 28 foot Kenworth that is licensed as a motor home and therefore does not need to have a driver with a CDL, it brings me great peace of mind knowing that all of our drivers are professionals with CDL’s.  I have driven the truck but find the experience somewhat intimidating.  Howie and Deb Blakney are a retired couple that take the boat on the long hauls such as to Madison, IN or San Diego, CA.  They also help with the many odd jobs once they are on site such as getting the boat to displays or just helping in the pits.  My other driver is Rob Chapman.  He hauls the boat to the “in state” or local races and also helps in the pits.  Rob also helps the race committee’s with the cranes once he gets there as all of our boats have to be picked by the crane both going to and coming from the water.  With his expertise working with the crane operators, we have never damaged a boat under his care.  The team members that drive the trucks or haulers spend a lot of time out on the road.  They don’t get to fly to events as the boat has to get there.  The truck drivers have to allow time to do the displays often showing up one to two days before everyone else.  It is a thankless job with a tremendous amount of responsibility.

In addition to being one of my truck drivers, Rob Chapman is also my marketing person.  As I said earlier, sponsorship is a necessity at this level of racing and Rob has arranged sponsorship at many of our races whether it is just food, lodging or even money.  All of the teams have a marketing expert and none of them would be racing without the dollars to make it possible.  Although the Unlimiteds have a bigger initial expense, once we go on the road, our expenses are just as much as theirs as our crew still has to eat, sleep and then work on the boat.

Then there are the odd jobs that must be done such as selling T‑shirts, running for parts, making sandwiches or serving food just to name a few jobs.  Cleaning the boat is a major job.  After every heat, the engine compartment has a certain amount of oil whether it is a little bit or a lot.  Oil may even cover part of the decks after a hard run.  This has to be cleaned up without allowing it to become part of the landscape.  There is a major effort on the parts of all of the boat teams to keep the environment as clean as possible.  This not only helps keep the water and surrounding environment clean but also minimized the chances of a fire in the event there is an ignition source.  Accidents happen but a clean boat is much less likely to go up in flames than a messy one.  And, the fish and wildlife really appreciate our efforts.  Our boat teams try to leave a race site at the end of an event looking like no one was even there.

Our team has two drivers.  Greg Hopp is the main driver and gets most of the glory.  Kevin Eacret is our second driver and we try to let him drive the boat as often as possible.  Last year, the bottom hatch came open and was damaged at our last race.  Imagine sitting on a toilet and getting hit by a blast of water at about 150 mile per hour.  Although Kevin was in a great amount of “distress”, he finished the heat and sewed up the National Championship for us for 2014.  That is real dedication.  Everyone thinks they have the best drivers.  In our case, we have two of them and the results speak for themselves.

That’s our crew.  Many of them are unnamed but that doesn’t mean they are not appreciated.  The crew’s make the difference in boat racing.  All of the boats have crews and none of the teams could race without them.  Some of the jobs may not seem as important as others but without any specific job getting done, the overall job would not get done.  These people are amazing.  They do it because they love the sport of boat racing.  They take their personal time to help out.  They put in hundreds of hours for every few minutes on the water.  AND, they are all volunteers, using their personal time and vacation time to make the boats run.

Now you might ask, “What do the owners do”?  We all just worry a lot, spend money and get the glory.  I’m a pretty “hands on” type of person so I get my hand dirty at the races.  Others, not so much.  But the thing we all have in common is having a great crew with the expertise to make it all happen.  Without them, I would also be just another spectator.