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Commentary: The Price of What

Rich Luhrs interviews Billy Frenz.

Rich Luhrs interviews Billy Frenz.

Some years ago I wrote an article titled “Triumph and Tragedy at Key West” for a boating magazine. The subject was a tremendous racing show punctuated by the tragic accident which left Tom Gentry in a vegetative state ending in his death many months later. Maybe this one should be titled “Tragedy and Tragedy at Key West”.

First, let me start by saying that Joey Gratton was a respected friend of mine and I have great affection for his family. I admire only a handful of people and Joey was one of those, for he combined true racing skills with a friendly, classy, and professional point of view. He was also a wonderful family man and my prayers and condolences go out to Priscilla, Brock and Blake. I did not know Bob Morgan or J.T. Tillman nearly as well as Joey and my comments in no way are meant to single out his death over theirs. All three represent unspeakable losses and unending sadness for their loved ones.

That said, I am both saddened and wearily frustrated by the tragic week at the World Championships.

My frustration is born out of the realization that years of effort in cockpit safety development has seemingly been for naught. Yet I know better. I know, for instance, that as far back as the early 80’s the Unlimited Hydro racers under the leadership of Bernie Little and others initiated a successful, focused effort that has saved many lives in the decades since. I also know that Offshore racing, following a disastrous series of fatal incidents taking the lives Dave Albert, Chris Smith, Mike Poppa, Dick Fullam, Marc Lavin, and Didier Pironi coupled with the near loss of Bobby Saccenti, got focused and developed the Lavin Standards of cockpit design in an effort to create an ongoing data base for state of the art, life-saving technologies.

This was a period in which safety development crossed the seas and saw major budgets invested in both the United States and Europe to advance the bar. More was done to further safety in the 5 year period from 1986 to 1990 than had been done before—and that effort continues to this day,

So why then do these tragedies continue?

I believe the cause is not in the technology, but rather in the fundamental structure of the sport. While there are cockpit models that could have prevented this week’s massive losses, the sad fact is they are not widely accepted, researched—and mandated. Each racer can make his or her decision as to how much, or how little safety equipment, design, construction and updating is incorporated into their hulls. NASCAR has an almost bulletproof set of design standards that have been continuously upgraded to provide the outstanding results demonstrated weekly on their circuits. Why can’t Offshore follow their example and the Unlimited hydro model I mentioned earlier?

To answer this you have to know your history. In 1987 OPT (The Offshore Professional Tour) broke away from the APBA because that body was considered “too restrictive” by the more affluent owners who felt that their investments carried the show. This effectively divided the sport’s structure, assets, safety resources, and loyalties in half. It also split away from the World sanctioning body, the UIM, and, as a result, made the term “World Championships” meaningless.

This abandonment of the very foundation of the sport encouraged others to follow suit from the USPBA, to the NPBA, to US Offshore, to SBR. to SBI, to OPA and OSS, This alphabet soup, which exists to allow “individuality,” “cost effectiveness” and “fun,” which on first glance, are worthy goals, actually has devastated both the brand, the product, and most importantly the safety standards needed for a sport with 200 mph behemoths screaming around on the ocean.

Under the guise of “run watch ya brung” and putting “heads in beds” these various sanctioning bodies have fostered an atmosphere of freedom that allows 10, 20 and 30 year old technologies to race at basically any speeds—together. All of this is done simply to get a band of sometimes under informed but enthusiastic people to choose one group over another as their racing “home.”

The result of all this division is that no group has enough leverage to enforce any real safety improvements and standards lest their racers switch allegiances and jump ship. The Unlimited Hydro folks while staging there own separation some years ago never wavered from their loyalty to each other and made every move as a group—not as a splinter. They knew that divided you fall—and offshore racing has been falling for decades.

So what will solve this conundrum? A single word gets it done—unity. But again, history cannot be ignored. There have been earnest attempts by this or that group to try and remedy this problem, all with the same fruitless result.

Why can the Unlimited guys do it and the folks in offshore try and fail? The fundamental difference is that the Unlimited racers operate as racers—not promoters or “organizers—but racers. And as racers, they choose a single leadership group and stand behind it.

To succeed in the same way, all of the offshore racers need to drop their silly alphabet “loyalties,” stop blindly following their so-called “leaders” and get behind each other.

The first order of business is deciding how to unify all safety programs and agree to abide by an enforcement mechanism. From this will come other enforceable rules and regulations preferably aimed at simplicity, leveling the playing field and creating an affordable, sustainable structure of (very few) racing classes. After that you can choose your leaders and give them the responsibility, authority, and courage needed to keep you safe. With all due respect to the folks who have been in charge over these past years, the results have been unacceptable.

Over the decades I have heard pleas to make something positive happen in honor of those who lost their lives. This is yet again an opportunity to change the paradigm. Will the racers heed the call, or will I write yet another tragic article in a few years? It’s not merely in your hands—the life you save may be your own.

One more thing: Please stop saying these racers “died doing what they loved.” It’s disrespectful to the families they loved and who loved them much more than any damned race. Do you really believe that any of those three wanted to leave this life on that day—in that way?