• Dedicated To Growing Our Sport: The Upper Midwest Powerboat Association

    Powerboat Drag Racing With A Focus on Accessibility and Safety

    When I began Scream And Fly over 20 years ago, I knew nearly nothing about powerboat drag racing and most especially, outboard-powered drag boats. I thought it was essentially a powerboat version of car drag racing, and there might be little else to distinguish them in terms of the experience of seeing and racing in outboard powerboat drag races. That notion was abruptly put to rest when I attended my first organized drag boat races, which was the Outboard Drag Boat Association World Championship races at Jasper, Tennessee in 2002.

    I had been to many offshore powerboat races which were all incredible events, however the experience at Jasper was very unique in so many ways. With quarter-mile drag racing, the entirety of the battle between two boats takes place in mere seconds, and during those few seconds both driver and boat are pushing themselves fearlessly into a blistering sprint that condenses incredible power and skill into that single run.

    I am not sure I can properly describe that first-time experience of seeing this happen at a race because it was a new kind of excitement for me. The very best photos and videos could never capture that feeling. As soon as I entered the race site, I heard that glorious sound of V6 engines turning over 10,000 RPM on boats that are more of an aircraft at that brief moment than a boat. I remember how those crazy engine sounds just reverberated over the water and the opposite shore, making it sound so menacing and huge. I then understood why this sport is so addicting to speed freaks like us.

    Drag boat racing is a very unique type of motorsport in many ways, but one of the most important is that anybody can begin racing without spending a fortune. In many cases, the boat you already own will slot right into one of the many race classes based on weight, power, and engine modifications. Safety gear is of course mandatory, but not very expensive and often racers are glad to lend their Lifeline vest and helmet to a new racer. People tell me that the first time they lined up against another boat at the light tree, there was an incredible nervousness of intense excitement that cannot be compared to any other experience. And then, you cannot get enough of that feeling.

    Some of you might not know much about outboard drag boat racing, probably assuming it’s essentially the same affair as automotive drag racing, but with boats instead. In the most basic sense it is, with two opponents racing down a quarter-mile strip in a contest of acceleration and speed. And that is really where the similarity to automotive drag racing ends.

    Most performance-oriented boaters understand the effects of engine trim, counter-steering chine walk, and the effects weight has on all hull designs. In outboard drag racing, the race is as much a test of your skill in handling a boat as it is the hull and engine. For example, the slightest changes in engine trim during a race can very easily determine the race. Understanding how your boat handles with its specific power, weight, center point of balance, propeller, and even the outside temperature and wind is a required skill set that is not only challenging, but it provides an extra layer of experience that pays off in really utilizing your boat’s full potential, both on the racecourse and off.

    The Upper Midwest Powerboat Association has been introducing people to the sport since 2005 with their philosophy that powerboat racing is a sport that anybody could get into, and it is their goal to present both fans and racers with an exciting, safe, and cohesive venue that brings more awareness to the sport of drag boat racing. Just as important as safety and fun is the friendships and sense of community that the UMPBA feels is a very big part of not only the sport, but the organization itself.

    The first time I spoke with UMPBA president Brett Seubert, it immediately became clear that he is extremely passionate about the sport and maintaining an organization that prioritizes both the thrill and safety of outboard drag racing in a venue that is accessible to just about anybody that wants to get into racing. This is really a defining characteristic of the UMPBA, allowing just about everybody the chance to either run a single race for the simple fun of it, or dedicate themselves to a full race career. I wanted Brett’s words in describing the mission and details of the UMPBA with an enthusiasm that is quite contagious.

    “The aspects that make our organization unique are infinite, but some of the top reasons why we are unique as a club are that our rules are simple "bracket by mph". V4 on nitrous? You bet. Big block jet boat? Sure. Carbon fiber STV? Yup. As long as you fit into the mph, you're good to go. The friendships and family are the building blocks of what made our organization what it is today, with people helping other racers in the pits regardless of class or race team. Everyone wants everyone else out there racing at the end of the day. “

    Rather than the traditional race classes defined by boat types, weights, and engine power, the UMPBA employs a bracket-racing class structure very similar to what we might find at local drag strips. For those unfamiliar, bracket racing defines race classes by the top-speed potential of their boat, regardless of what it is or the engine power output or modifications. This is very important, since it eschews the complexity and cost for those looking to get into the sport, while maintaining a real focus on the driver’s ability to seek gains primarily in their craft setup and driving. It might sound easy but squeezing extra gains from miniscule changes to engine trim or weight balance can very easily decide the race.

    “Normally new racers come in and get acquainted in our slower bracket classes 65mph and under and 65-75 mph class. You might find old HydroStreams, Checkmates, home-made boats with any make up of motors in this class. With limited rules this makes it easy as you don't have to worry about weights and engine rules. Just Speed.”

    You might ask how maintaining the integrity of race class is accomplished, which of course is a question I had as well. For example, if I am in a class of boats that can run a maximum speed of 80 MPH, and I happen to win a race going over that speed, how is that checked? Very easily and effectively, it turns out. Each race boat is provided with a GPS transponder that records the top speed of that race. If you exceed it, your opponent wins (assuming they didn’t go over the class speed either). That simple system keeps the races moving along, without the need for engine teardowns, weighing, and other verification measures. It’s a very fair system that removes a lot of potential for post-race conflicts.

    “All of our classes are bracketed by top speed in10 mph increments. As of two weeks ago we procured a fairly expensive GPS transponding system that will be in place by the beginning of 2023. So all racers will have a small GPS transponder in their boat that is zip-tied or bolted in place. These are the size of a pager or small cell phone, and directly tell our race command in real time what speed the boats are going down the course so we can monitor speeds and address any issues of breaking out of your mph bracket.”

    As you might expect, appropriate safety gear is required for every class, without exception. If you’re new to racing, fellow racers might be glad to lend you their Lifeline vest or a helmet until you purchase your own, however a proper-fitting vest and helmet should be obtained as a matter of course for owning any high-performance boat and may prove useful even outside of racing. If you own a fast boat, there is always a need for safety gear, whether racing or not. Once you have your safety gear, you’re essentially ready to try your hand at drag racing on the water.

    As with any sports event, the absolute top priority of the organization and the racers is safety. That goes without saying, and the measure of any motorsports organization’s dedication to safety is being prepared to immediately respond to any unexpected situation. While the mandatory safety gear will protect a driver in most accidents, the UMPBA takes that a step further with a dive crew and EMS on standby at races. Ideally, those emergency services will never be required, but they’re always present and ready just in case.

    UMPBA races all take place in Wisconsin, with the season generally running from June to September. Naturally, any boats registered to race must pass a safety inspection, which any properly maintained craft should easily do. To be able to race, the required fees are $50 for the yearly UMPBA membership and $60 for each class that you will race in.

    In the end, the spectator experience is extremely important, not only to provide a fun, family-friendly weekend of racing excitement, but to present to the organization and promote the sport so some of those spectators catch that racing fever that often begins a lifelong, rewarding motorsport career. As Brett explains, “People need to see it to believe it but our type of racing brings out a lot of photo finishes. It's not often you get so many different engine and boat combos competing in the same classes.”

    With the UMPBA removing most of the traditional entry barriers present in motorsports competition, they have become an ambassador to the great people and healthy fanaticism that makes up our performance boating community.

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    Comments 1 Comment
    1. rgsauger's Avatar
      rgsauger -
      Great rules! Sounds like a heckuvalot of fun
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