In today’s world of offshore powerboat racing, it could be argued that the competitors in the “bracket classes” face the greatest challenges. For example, on the first day of the Offshore Powerboat Association world championships at the Englewood Beach Waterfest in Englewood Beach, Fla., on Saturday, the teams battled high winds and waves consistently measuring 5 feet tall with larger rogues and holes. Then on Sunday, the teams were met with much more favorable conditions, but they had to temper their desire to run wide open, which many could have done.
Jason Saris and Brent Appiarius earned the Bracket 500-class title at the OPA world championships in Englewood Beach, Fla., in their 30-foot Superboat, Shoreline Plumbing. Photos by Pete Boden/Shoot 2 Thrill Pix
“It’s a very counter-intuitive thing,” said Jason Saris, who throttled two boats in different classes to world championships in the Bracket 500 and 400 categories. “We are so used to trying to make our boats go as fast as they can. In bracket racing, it’s about making your boat go the speed allowed and make it as rock-solid as you can.”
For example, in Bracket 400, Saris throttles his 33-foot Cobra, Saris Racing, with his son Johnny driving and Verne French navigating. The class has a speed limit of 85 mph, meaning that the governing body that puts on the race, the OPA, requires that the teams in the bracket classes turn in cards from their GPS units after the race. If race officials see that a team has “broken out” by exceeding the maximum speed for its class, it is penalized or disqualified. For Saris, the bracket-class speed limit simply presents another challenge.
“People ask me, ‘How fast does the Cobra go?’ and I really have no idea,” Saris said. “The drives are probably too low for most people, but it’s all about making it handle. I can go into a turn and not lift.”
It helps that he’s been racing with his son/driver Johnny for 10 years in Bracket 400.
“I’ve really gotten to enjoy the challenge,” the elder Saris said of bracket racing. “The whole thing about not breaking out is just a whole other challenge. Johnny is a really good driver and that’s a lot of it. Teamwork has a lot to do with it.”
Check out more images from Saturday’s “bumpy” racing conditions in the slideshow above.
The boats in the OPA’s Bracket 400 class didn’t get the chance to race on Saturday because winds were too strong to allow the transfer of personnel from a crashed raceboat to a rescue boat so the competition on Saturday was canceled for the last two races of the day.
That left Saris Racing competing with one other boat in Bracket 400 for the world championship in much calmer conditions on Sunday.
A total of 43 boats showed up in Englewood Beach for the OPA world championships that have been part of the Englewood Beach Waterfest for the past few years. After the area was hit hard by a hurricane in 2022, it welcomed the teams with open arms in search of a return to normalcy.
For 2023, a contingent of teams forewent paying the big dollars to trailer to Key West for the Race World Offshore championships and headed to Englewood the week after. The four-mile course in the Gulf of Mexico offers a challenge of a dogleg and the fans on the beach in the sleepy town on the west coast of Florida turn out in droves to support the event.
Jason and Johnny Saris took home the world championship in the Bracket 400 class in their 33-foot Cobra, Saris Racing.
When Saris Racing took to the course on Sunday afternoon, it was racing against offshore powerboat racing legend Red Crain and Joe Torek in the 28-foot Challenger, Crazy Rhythm. The 34-foot Phantom, Control Freak, scratched both days.
Saris used his boat’s length advantage and pulled out to a lead the team would not relinquish. “Nobody would ever think about putting the tabs down and the drives straight,” Jason Saris said. “You lock the boat in the water. It’s not what you would normally do to go fast.”
In Bracket 500, the elder Saris used the size of the boat he throttled to his advantage yet again when he joined owner/driver Brent Appiarius in the 30-foot Superboat, Shoreline Plumbing. On Saturday, owner/throttleman Fran Vellutato and driver Mike McColgan jumped to an early lead in their 26-foot Scarab, Rum Runners, that was sponsored by a handful of Englewood businesses, but by the end of lap one, Shoreline Plumbing, had pulled to the lead.
Another big Long Island-built boat, the 29-foot Kryptonite, TC Marine, with driver Lou Laferrara and throttleman Tom Crowley appeared to finish second on both days, but on the strength of two solid finishes, the Mean Streak team of Vance Hagen and Jeremy Hellens in their 29-foot DCB, claimed the runner-up spot for the championship. Third in class for the weekend went to Rum Runners.
Jason Saris credited Appiarius for driving a good race, especially with keeping the course as short as possible in Sunday’s faster conditions. It would have been easy for a fast boat like Rum Runners to have snuck up on them.
After a convincing win on Saturday in Bracket 600, Johnny Saris and owner/driver Michael Lang in the 26-foot Modern Marine, Moderation, found themselves playing catchup when Jason Govatos and McColgan, who was pulling double duty, pulled out to an early lead in their 26-foot Protector, MDG Motorsports.
MDG Motorsports teammates Jason Govatos and Mike McGolgan secured the Bracket 600-class world title.
Johnny Saris said his competition ran a “perfect race” and that his GPS quit early in the race, so despite his best efforts not to break out of the class’ top speed, he wound up doing just that. Even though Moderation appeared to finish second on the livestream screen, the boat was dropped down in the rankings. That moved Money Monster, with owner/throttleman Jeff Kipfmueller, driver Tim VanderBerg and navigator Cliff Show, up to second overall in the world championship results. They were followed by Synergy, a rare appearance by a Sunsation in offshore racing, with driver Kevin Reger and throttleman Marcus Stackpoole.
Summing up the weekend on Sunday, Govatos said, “Yesterday was nasty as hell, but today was some fun water to run in.” For those who’ve never heard of a 26-foot Protector, he found the boat in a barn in Topeka, Kan., drove out from Maryland to get it and fortified the boat for racing. He built the engine with his dad, Dave, at the family’s MDG Performance in Edgewater, Md., and the team consistently improved through the season.
Saturday was a shock in more than one way for the in-boat team. The alternator was shorting out and the driver and throttleman were getting shocked when they tried to talk on the intercom system.
The tricky thing for Govatos and other throttlemen on Sunday was the wind from the north that tried to push the boats out of their speed brackets.
“That’s the nerve-wracking part about running up front,” he said. “You don’t want to slow down so someone catches you, but you don’t want to break out either.”
Competition on Saturday and Sunday started with the 21- and 22-foot boats in Bracket 700 taking to the four-mile course in the Gulf of Mexico. Ten boats registered for the races with one, Red Rum, dropping out of Sunday’s action after damaging the transom.
The father-son team of Joe Reilly Sr. and Joe, Jr., in the 22-foot Progression, Team Progression, put a on a dominant performance in Saturday’s race that was shortened to two laps in the rough conditions. On Sunday, the team ran the majority of the race in second place, chasing John Iezzatti and Jerry Harmant in Statement Marine Bad Decisions.
After driver Nick Buis sustained compression fractures in his back Saturday, he was replaced by Dalton Palestra in the other Statement Marine boat, which put two high-school-aged kids in the cockpit. Palestra drove and his best friend, Owen Buis, throttled #747. The two classmates worked their way up through the fleet to finish fourth on Sunday.
The Statement Marine 747 team unofficially claimed the Bracket 700-class world championship in Englewood Beach.
Perhaps the most impressive run of the day came from Matt and Joe Lauer in their Battlewagon boat, Goofin’ Around. They finished back in the pack on Saturday but were in a photo finish with Statement Marine 747 for the checkered flag on Sunday. They even lost the cowling for their 300-hp Mercury outboard during the race, but it didn’t slow them.
When the spray settled, the Statement Marine 747 team unofficially took the world title in Bracket 700 followed by Team Progression and Goofin’ Around.
Another father-son team continued to make strides in Bracket 300 with Keith and Cade Herbott having its best run of the year in its 38-foot Fountain, Herbott Racing. The team took the checkered flag on Sunday followed by Chad Woody and Billy Shipley in their Laveycraft, Team Woody, and Russ and Randy Breuninger in their custom-built canopied boat, Brothers Racing. All reported results are unofficial at this point.
In Stock V, Pete Riveiro and throttleman Chris Uzzolina in their 30-foot Activator/Rage, The Firm, took the rough-water win on Saturday and followed that with a last-lap checkered flag on Sunday to claim the world title.
The Firm teammates Pete Riveiro and Chris Uzzolina ran two strong races to win the Stock V world championship.
OPA president Ed “Smitty” Smith and his son, Anthony Smith, led from the green flag on Sunday in their 32-foot Phantom, Wazzup, but were taken down by a mechanical gremlin on the last lap Sunday. Jim Wessel and Rob Goodwin followed up in third in Cigar Monster. With the twin wins, The Firm claimed a hard-earned world championship.
In Modified V, David Kelly and throttleman Mark Gibbons in the 30-foot Fountain, Absolutely Not, dueled with local favorites Jake Nicks and Mark Fernandez in their 30-foot Phantom, Allied Construction.
In the final two races of the day, a fleet of boats running solo entertained the folks on shore. “Evil” Ed Smith drove the popular 40-foot Fountain, Knucklehead Instigator, with Anthony Smith throttling and ran alongside the equally popular 32-foot Victory, Jackhammer, that runs in Super Stock class with owner/driver Reese Langheim and throttleman Julian Maldonado.
The finale saw Maldonado team up with driver Logan Adan in the 38-foot Doug Wright catamaran, Doug Wright Powerboats, to “race” against owner/driver Jeff Stevenson and throttleman Micheal Stancombe in the 42-foot MTI, JBS Racing, and driver Christian McCauley and throttleman Anthony Smith in Win Farnsworth’s 40-foot MTI Super Cat, Hancock Claims Consultants.
The three catamarans roared around the four-mile course for about 10 laps until Doug Wright Powerboats pulled off early and the two inboard-powered boats finished the final three laps “dueling” until the weekend wrapped up.
Inside Englewood Beach: When Normalcy Means The OPA Worlds
Commentary: The Lasting Importance Of Bracket-Class Racing
Weather Ends Final Day Of OPA Englewood Beach Worlds
OPA Worlds Day 1—Jumpstarting The Recovery