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Can Offshore Racing Survive Without John Haggin?

Of course it can, but now that I have your attention …

John Haggin’s withdrawal from the offshore racing scene has the sport’s insiders and observers buzzing. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Haggin, he was the man—and the money—behind AMF Racing, which currently is sponsored by Geico.

On the “micro” level, Haggin’s leaving the sport means AMF will have to survive on Geico sponsorship funds, according to sources within the team. Until Haggin decided he was done, the team’s budget came from Haggin himself and Geico—and the lion’s share over the years was most definitely from Haggin.

With its benefactor gone, the shape and direction of AMF Racing may change. Right now, the people inside the AMF camp are playing their long-term plan cards close to the vest. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the plan going forward is not yet fully formed.

But what does Haggin’s departure mean on the “macro” level? In the near future, meaning next season, probably not as much as you might think—as long as the AMF Racing team continues to bring Miss Geico to the party. It is fair and reasonable to say that Miss Geico has had little to no competition, so the boat presented very little value in terms of “racing action.” It also is fair and reasonable to say the Miss Geico never failed to put on a show—unless it broke—and often was the show in last few seasons of diminished boat counts in the upper-end classes. I would argue that if Miss Geico suddenly vanished, and again I don’t see that happening next season, the sport’s visibility would take a serious hit.

The question really isn’t whether the sport can survive without John Haggin, it’s whether the sport can survive, period. And the answer, as I said above, is yes. But like AMF Racing, its form going forward has yet to be determined.

On the plus side, there is the Offshore Powerboat Association, which has taken “club racing” to a higher level. I wouldn’t call it a national level quite yet, but after covering the OPA Worlds this month and getting to know some of the outfit’s principals and teams, I do think that’s possible. Make that likely.

On the negative side—and I know a lot of folks won’t like me saying this—the entire sport has been in steady decline since the demise of APBA Offshore LLC in 2002-2003. What arose from those ashes, the Offshore Super Series, was well-intended (and I’m sure there are folks who won’t like me saying that either), but inherently flawed. The notion of team owners leading an offshore racing circuit assumed they could reach consensus, something that has been incredibly rare—if not nonexistent—in the history of the offshore racing. So while OSS still exists and I respect a lot of the people still trying to make it work, it’s hard to call it a success.

Super Boat International continues to hold races, but its boat counts were generally off this season. Not all of the responsibility for that is SBI’s—the economy has slammed everyone in powerboat racing—but, and I know some people won’t like me for saying this, but some of it is. Without its annual world championships in Key West, Fla., I don’t know that the organization would still exist. And once again, I respect a lot of the people still trying to make it work.

So now that I’ve offended just about everyone … Where do we go from here? Ladies and gentlemen, I do not have a solution—but I do see a few bright spots and some cause for guarded optimism.

Let’s start with the annual race on Michigan’s St. Clair. River Unlikely as it may be as a venue for “offshore racing,” it has become the don’t-miss event of the season for many teams. Why? Quite simple—it attracts thousands of real fans. Racers like fans—kind of makes sense when you think about it. Sponsors like them, too. Organizers would do well to study that venue, and I’m sure many of them already have, to figure out exactly why it works so well, and then find venues that replicate it.

Another bright spot? Super V Light. No, I haven’t lost my mind and, yes, I am well aware of the soap opera that the class became this season. But I am confident based on discussions with several reasonable SVL competitors that the class will find resolution on the issue of parity. It would be a shame if SVL doesn’t thrive next season, because let me tell you, even with just four boats it was the hottest class in the OPA Worlds.

No one in his or her right mind expects offshore racing to reach NASCAR-like proportions—that acronym and “offshore racing” probably never should be used in the same sentence. But we all want it to survive and maybe even grow. The “big shows” of the likes of Miss Geico remain crucial for visibility. Smaller classes such as Super V Light and smaller venues such as Lake St. Clair and Solomons, Md., remain crucial for growth.

Despite a season that was sometimes disappointing and often frustrating, I have hope. I believe next season will be better, meaning bigger fleets and larger crowds, than this one. And I know that the sport will survive. I just wish Mr. Haggin were going to be around for it.