Last week’s announcement that the Miss GEICO offshore powerboat racing team would run Mercury Racing 1650 Race Engines left more than a few race teams and fans scratching their heads. After all, until the news broke on this site (Read the story) on Thursday, Feb. 14, at 10:15 a.m. during the Miami International Boat Show, most offshore racing insiders had the GEICO team either rigging its 44-foot former Victory Team catamaran with the T-53 708 turbine engines in storage at the shop or going with an in-house piston engine program.
Speculation, at least on what the team would do for power, ended last Thursday. Still, there were lots of unanswered questions on Miss GEICO racing’s past, present and future. And there were and are, in the words of the team’s driver Marc Granet, “lots of ruffled feathers.”
This morning, I caught up with Granet via telephone and asked him a few questions. Here’s what he said to say.
Until your boat burned in June of last year, you were one of the leading proponents—if not the leading proponent—of the turbine class. Is that a fair statement?
You even have two spare turbine engines in your shop right now, right?
So why didn’t you put them in the ‘new’ Miss GEICO?
As you said, we have been the main driver of developing the turbine class. John Haggin’s dream (Haggin was the former backer of AMF Racing, which fielded and primarily funded the Miss GEICO program) of creating in offshore what Bernie Little created with Unlimited hydroplanes pushed us on for a long time. As you know, we took a lot of flak because many times we were the only turbine boat on the racecourse. When we did have competition, it was generally fast and had some drama attached to it. Prior to the fire, we had made a significant investment in upgrading our turbine program equipment with the expectation of racing against the Spirit of Qatar boat.
What prevented you from simply putting turbines in the 44-foot Victory boat you bought to replace the 50-foot Mystic and continuing the turbine-class quest?
Many times during our journey down the road with turbines, we would step back and ask ourselves if we were doing the right thing. Were we on this quest alone? There were definitely moments in the quest that gave us pause and made us feel as if we were throwing spears against brick walls. But we came to a defining moment after the fire. Not only did we understand that we were not prepared for a fire, we were at a crossroads for what our future held and how committed we were to the turbine-power aspect of it. What, truly, did our future look like?
We made a significant investment of hard cash in the new boat. To get the T-53s ready and rigged in the boat wasn’t just going to take an enormous of amount of money, it was going to take time. It takes time to rig a turbine boat—you don’t just do it overnight or the failures will put you up against the wall. Because of our sponsor commitments, we had to get the boat back on the water very quickly.
People have asked why we didn’t we just shove the turbines in our MTI boat or one of the other boats. Why? Those are retired boats. They are not ready to accept turbine engines without a significant amount of work and our backs were against the wall. Again, we had very little time.
We did explore buying a couple of other turbine boats from people who were getting out of the sport, and those explorations went right down to the wire.
As things got closer, we had to sit down ask ourselves: What does our future look like? Bottom line, while the proposed Qatar turbine boat is coming down the line it is still one year away from being truly ready. Even if the Qatar boat came, we all know it takes a year to get any offshore race boat at this level, especially a turbine boat, right. And even if Qatar did show up, it was one turbine boat. For two years, we had begged—begged—to have somebody come race us. We even offered to pay for an equally powered boat to compete with us. Almost no one did.
We decided that we could not bank our future on the unknown. What we did know was there were a lot of piston boats. While piston power was a change for us technologically, we thought the transition was manageable and that we have what it takes to run on the edge with the competition. So we made the decision to run with a known quantity.
You finished the 2012 offshore racing season with Mercury Racing 1075SCi engines that had mechanical issues at almost every race. Did you ever second-guess your choice to go with piston power?
Absolutely. We second-guessed and third-guessed and fourth-guessed, but the drive to race in a class with lots of competition was too strong. Scott (Begovich, the throttleman for Miss GEICO) and I knew we needed to have competition.
One of the most painful things we experienced after the fire was that that the turbine boats came out for every race. For two years, they would not come play. There are different ways you can look at it. But to race for two years and not have anybody to compete with, go through a disaster and then see them out there? That was painful.
The Qatar team reportedly commissioned its turbine boat specifically to compete with Miss GEICO. Did you feel as if you left them in the lurch, so to speak?
We did not leave them in the lurch. They obviously have other turbine boats they can compete with now. If Sheik Hassan’s goal was to go up against the GEICO boat, he already has a very quick piston boat that won a World Championship last year in Key West.
Should we have invested millions of dollars in the hope that their turbine program would come along? We didn’t plan on the fire. It cost us a ton of money. We had to make a decision that was best for our team, our business and our sponsor, not for proposed competition down the road. We had already been let down too many times.
At what point did the notion of running turbines become completely dead to the team?
Once the Mercury discussions progressed and we knew how fast and powerful those engines really were. We were one of the very few teams to have witnessed their capabilities up close from another boat during the Key West Offshore Worlds last year. Once we began our discussions with Mercury, we knew we didn’t have to depend on turbine power to be on top. We were at a point where we could close that chapter.
What would the team have done if the Mercury deal didn’t work out?
We’re a big team. We’re certainly not going to back ourselves into a corner. We’ve learned that sometimes you have to make decisions quickly and you always have to give yourself options. This team has survived a lot. We’re in it for the long haul. We had a Plan B of developing our own piston engine program in house, but we didn’t have to go with it.
How do you see the season playing out in terms of competition for Miss GEICO?
I won’t make a prediction on who will be competitive with us and who won’t, but I will tell you this: We have combined two groups, Mercury Racing and Miss GEICO, that are committed to building, racing and producing the very best in the long term. What I see is a team that will be dominant, but will also be fair and compassionate, and will set the stage for the next generation of offshore racers.