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Commentary: The Lasting Importance Of Bracket-Class Racing

When Ed “Smitty” Smith took over the Offshore Powerboat Association about 20 years ago, he did more than secure a place to race his Wazzup Viper. He helped secure the future of offshore racing. Throughout the years, the Bracket classes have filled a huge void in the world of offshore racing.

Bracket-class racing levels the playing field for different hulls from different eras. Photos by Pete Boden copyright Shoot 2 Thrill Pix.

History ignored is history repeated. The big classes are always cyclical. When they’re on a down year, something needs to keep the sport afloat. It is hard, if not impossible, to get a race site to commit to a 15-boat count and a 1-1/2-hour show. The Bracket classes are the cavalry.

Although they take a lot of flak—mostly from people who’ve never raced—Bracket classes have become the bread and butter of most offshore racing events in the United States. Huge class turnouts in Bracket classes 700 to 300 have done more than just fill in the gaps of the spec classes—they sometimes outnumber them.

Part of the Bracket equation is the ability to run older equipment in a competitive format. For example, we all reminisce about the “good old days” of Factory 1 and Factory 2. Think about hull technology for a moment. Our 32-foot Cobra would have been a great Factory 2 boat in theory. But in reality, it would be all of 10- to 15-mph slower than your typical Phantom, Fountain and so on.

We can talk about weight parity all day, but at a certain point we’d have to build a new boat. So just like that, we’re $200,000 behind.

Currently, we campaign the same 40-year-old hull in OPA’s Bracket 400 class and feel it’s very competitive. Why? Because it’s a Bracket class. It may take more horsepower to get our resin bucket to run 85mph than it takes a Phantom or other stepped hull in the class, but it costs a lot less to add a little horsepower than it does to build a whole new boat.

The Bracket 700 class produces some of the wildest action in the entire sport.

We all love watching the spec classes duke it out. Most of us Bracket racers even aspire to climb into a Super Cat someday. But here’s the problem. Billy Mauff, Ryan Beckley and maybe a handful more are the only true lifetime members of the top classes. People come, they race for a year or two, usually until their equipment is obsolete or in need of major repair, and they vanish. It happens every time.

Do we need to attract more competition into the top classes? Absolutely. This article is in no way trying to deter that, but we need to educate the public on why the affordable classes are necessary. There will come a time when Super Cat and Class 1 dwindle again, and when that happens Bracket boats will be there to save the day.

Simply put? No racers means no races. And no races means no sport.

What do “affordable classes” mean? Certainly it’s different to everybody but here is the major Bracket financial advantage. Build an engine package that works for you. Already have a set of aluminum heads laying around? Great, use them. Already have an EFI engine in your boat? Great, use it. Boat old and heavy? No problem, power it accordingly.

The chances of technology advancing without you requiring a complete re-rig of your boat are very slim. Whether it’s Mercury Racing power or a Super Cat-class spec engine, eventually the rules change. Eventually you’re on the losing side of the “newer and better” package.

That goes for all spec racing. Brent Appiarius—the owner of the Shoreline Plumbing Bracket 500 team—is in the process of putting together a new Mod V or Stock V package. He has been racing Bracket 500 class (limited to a top speed of 75 mph) in his 30-foot Superboat very competitively for a few years and wants to move up.

Bracket-class racing is a balancing act held together by a top-speed limit for each class.

Here’s the problem though: It wasn’t lost on Brent that there were only three Mod Vs in Key West (Fla.) and two in Englewood Beach (Fla.) last month. Frankly, he isn’t sure which spec engine package to go with. It’s a massive investment to find out your 50-50 shot was wrong and you’re now racing against two boats.

The issue with Stock V? The class is based on the Mercury 525, which was discontinued years ago. This is where the Bracket equation comes into form.

The most common question Bracket racers get is: “If you’re all going the same speed, how do you win?” First, let me explain exactly how it works.

Each boat is fitted with a RaceLogic VBox. This onboard GPS unit tracks every move the boat makes, where it made it and when it made it. The rules for breaking out are simple. You’re allowed a three-second period over your maximum speed. Surpass it for four seconds and you’re disqualified. A good Bracket throttleman will keep the boat as close to the allowed maximum as possible, banging the number numerous times and hopefully never for more than three seconds. The winner will be the team that consistently found the fastest way around the course.

Sounds easy, right? It’s not. Consider different hulls handle different ways. An old school straight bottom boat will require a much different line than a newer stepped hull, and that’s only if you’ve made it to the turn first and can use the lane you want.

Micheal Stancombe, throttleman of the Bracket 500 Team Woody Phantom and the Class 1 JBS MTI, said Bracket-class racing is one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do.

“It takes intense focus to run on the ragged line to win,” Stancombe told me. “The best part is, there is no way to cheat. No teardown at the end of the race. Just great racing. I just focus on each race and try not to break out.”

In essence, it takes a lot of finesse, skill and experience to make your 75 mph faster than somebody else’s. If you find yourself at an ocean race, the chances of breaking out are slim.

A lot of people don’t feel Bracket racing is “on the edge” or extreme enough. Again, consider this: The goal of a good spec class is to keep all the boats going approximately the same speed. Bracket racing solved that issue. If it weren’t on the edge, I wouldn’t have spent my Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks ago watching the boat I was throttling sink after we rolled it over fighting for the lead in Englewood.

Bottom line: Bracket class racing is very intense and I consider it to be the backbone of the sport. And thanks to class numbers that continue to rise, it will stay that way through offshore racing’s next cycle.

Editor’s note: A veteran offshore powerboat racer and longtime contributor to speedonthewater.com, Johnny Saris dedicates this piece to the Smith Brother’s Racing Team #611 and #601. Rich and Pete Smith are multi-time OPA/APBA national and world champions and members of the APBA Hall of Champions. “May retirement treat you well.”—J.S.

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