Based on his longtime involvement in offshore racing and the high-performance marine industry, no one could say—at least with a straight face—that Rich Luhrs didn’t know what he was getting into when he became the American Power Boat Association Offshore Commission chairman a couple of months ago. As previously reported on speedonthewater.com, the 72-year-old New Jersey native now living in North Carolina was the force behind the former Shadow Cat and Conquest Cat lines and is a well-known, knowledgeable figure in powerboat-racing circles.
Luhrs, who replaced outgoing commissioner Rick Felsen, comes to his role at a critical juncture in the sport. In 2019, the Offshore Powerboat Association and Powerboat P1 combined to deliver the inaugural six-race APBA Offshore Championship Series. With record-setting fleets at six strong venues, the series delivered the most exciting offshore racing action—for fans and racers—since the early 2000s.
But as it has been since the first offshore racer donned a helmet, the balance is fragile and needs to be cultivated with a strong but even hand. That’s where Luhrs, who for years has embraced “allergic to nonsense” as his credo, comes in or—and the very least—is hoping to come in.
Luhrs promised speedonthewater.com an interview once he got his feet on the ground, so to speak. And yesterday, he delivered.
The APBA Offshore Championship Series is heading into its second season with Rich Luhrs as the APBA Offshore Commission chairman. Photos courtesy/copyright Pete Boden/Shoot 2 Thrill Pix.
Why did you decide to take this job?
(Laughs). I have been an APBA member almost nonstop from the early 1960s until today. I have been first and foremost a racer, but also a boatbuilder, TV announcer, chronicler, and for a while, an official. When I was asked to take the job, I reflected that perhaps it was time to give back some of what I have received over the years from this great and enduring organization. At my age, it’s now or never. My predecessor worked quite hard at nurturing the sport, but his term was cut short for both personal and business considerations, and he deserves a pat on the back for knowing when to step away, and for all the right reasons. Let me also make it perfectly clear, this is not about me. I have no magic wands nor mystical powers. An awful lot has been done by some pretty amazing folks to build and nurture the offshore racing community. The tenacity and passion of OPA, P1 and the racers in so many classes have kept the sport alive and growing. My goal is to make APBA a contributing factor and an assisting partner in their goals and efforts.
How would you summarize the current state of the sport?
It’s definitely on an upward and positive trajectory. Certainly, all of motorsports on land and sea are hurting in one form or another, and most of boat racing has encountered strong headwinds for almost 20 years. However, offshore racing in the USA specifically fell into an almost dormant state about 15 years ago. This followed decades of damage caused by a costly rivalry between APBA and two groups that broke off in the late ’80s. These competing bodies existed under various identities for almost 30 years, and remnants of them still endure today.
Fortunately, the sport was pulled out of that malaise, by a group of “Jersey Boyz,” especially Ed “Smitty” Smith and Augie Pensa, and the rebirth of grass roots racing under the sanction of OPA. This has led to renewed interest and growth in other groups and classes, including the internationally successful P1, Steve Curtis and OTA (Offshore Team Association), Super Cat, Race World Offshore, and notably the fast-growing Super Stock Outboard, and the amazingly entertaining Class 7 bracket-class fleets. We are even seeing an interest in long-distance offshore speed runs with the P1/Ocean Cup series. Various marketing efforts are gaining significant traction in both the electronic and print media arenas due to efforts from P1 and OPA.
With RWO, OPA, APBA, P1 and UIM, there’s quite a bit of alphabet soup out there. Do you find that confusing for would-be fans? If so, how do you resolve it?
Good question, and one that I pondered long and hard before accepting the role of APBA ORC Chairman—lots of letters in that one too (laughs). The key, in my opinion, is in how, why and where you communicate and engage the public. NASCAR, for instance, makes clear delineation between Cup, Xfinity, and the Truck series. The Cup drivers are household names and generate huge loyalty, while the true fans are watching the up-and-comers as they emerge through the other series. NASCAR and NHRA also leverage their local track marketing personnel to create a buzz as they move from city to city. The regional NASCAR and AHRA circuits are not as well-known and provide a development vehicle for future stars. The SCCA and many other motorsports promotions, on the other hand, are almost unintelligible and basically invisible in terms of classes, drivers, tracks, back stories, etc. Many offshore racers embrace the mantra that we will never be NASCAR, and with good reason.
But that does not mean that we shouldn’t learn from them and follow their example rather than resigning ourselves to sitting in media limbo. I have often said that, while we may not be able to achieve the heights of NASCAR, we should be able to give the X Games and even NHRA a run for their money. We have speed, glamourous sites, truly bankable personalities, high-tech hulls and the added advantage of man against man and man against the sea. Our biggest challenge is to get those stories out there, in a way that focuses the casual viewer’s attention on the people in the sport, and not just boats and motors. That’s how you build a vital and enthusiastic fan base.
Is the number of classes confusing to would-be fans? If so, how would you resolve it?
Clearly, the worst thing you can do is bewilder someone during his, or her, first exposure to the sport, lest he become a one-time observer never to return. This basically means that you feature your best and most impressive class or classes in a truly professional, simple and clear manner. In past years this has led to some jealousy among the smaller classes, and an almost knee-jerk reaction to “break away” and form separate groups, which in the end only creates divisiveness, finger-pointing and a loss of traction for everybody.
The solution is a sensible division of coverage that creates multiple programming outlets with very different emphasis and, initially, production values. Until the “feature” class or classes really connect with a growing fan base, the smaller guys will not have the opportunities to gain sponsorship and fan interest. NASCAR started with a bunch of moonshiners racing on Saturday nights for kicks. Today, you have huge fan bases and sponsorships for, of all things, pickup truck racing. This didn’t happen because some folks racing trucks got equal time with cup drivers. It happened because there were overflow opportunities from the “big show,” basically proving the adage that a rising tide raises all ships.
We need a bit of patience to achieve a truly sustainable product for all to share in. This also means that we need mutual respect and support between our various classes and participants. Right now, we have the national series with major promotional horsepower, and regional races to supplement, complement and create a local buzz for the sport, while providing a more economical venue for the teams on a tighter budget.
Should all domestic offshore races be run under the APBA umbrella? If so, explain.
In my heart I believe so, and I’ll tell you why. The APBA, at more than 100 years in existence, is the oldest, and most respected boat-racing sanctioning body in the world. It is actually the main building block that the, much younger, UIM used as a cornerstone for its internationally recognized sanctioning authority. In the century plus since its founding, the APBA has seen literally hundreds of small, medium and large, breakaway groups start up and attempt to wrest “control” of various categories away from them. In every case, these startups, either failed outright, or, returned to the mothership. Sadly, in many cases, they left a trail of broken promises, disappointments and hard feelings in their wake.
In spite of that, the APBA survives and carries on. So, if you were an odds maker in Las Vegas, who would you bet on? The APBA is by no means perfect, and too many times has been the cause of its own problems. In addition, right now we are fortunate to have very strong, passionate groups guiding the various categories and groups. My goal is to offer APBA as a unifying vehicle that will allow the whole to be greater than the sum of its divergent parts. Again, the “rising tide lifts all ships” doctrine comes into play.
How do you respond to those who say APBA isn’t relevant?
I don’t and I can’t. At times, APBA Offshore has been more relevant than others. Relevance and respect are something you earn, not dictate. My goal is to reestablish the trust and confidence that the APBA has gained and enjoyed in the past, help to create a broad-based success strategy for all members and groups, encourage teamwork, and lead rather than follow. I believe that I am a guy who says what he means, and means what he says. If the representatives of the other major forces in the sport act in a like manner, we’ll be fine, and there will be enough “relevance” to go around.
Can the sport grow with the three race-producing APBA organizations?
Sure, why not? The problems of the past were not caused by member groups. We had OPBRA running Florida events, GLOPBRA in the Midwest, POPBRA on the West Coast, and various others during the “great years” ending in 1987. The “problems” occurred when groups broke away completely, multiplied, and competed willy-nilly for the same race sites, sponsors, TV, media coverage, and the hearts and minds of racers. The sport is too small to support more than one “umbrella.” It has been proven repeatedly that once you have redundant hierarchies, rules and cultures, loyalties get divided, acrimony starts, the boat count and the sport as a whole suffers and shrinks.
This is accelerated in today’s electronic media environment, where every negative comment, diatribe and failure is broadcast for all the world to see on the Internet. Potential racers, sponsors and race sites will turn away to something more positive almost without exception. As long as every leader pulls in the same direction, discourages negativity within their ranks, stays within their chosen and mutually acceptable arenas, and keeps their collective eyes on the prize, there should be no issue with multiple “brands,”series or organizations.
Said Rich Luhrs, “In the end, I am simply one of many moving parts.”
How do you plan to address the current conflicts among those organizations?
Respectfully, cooperatively and eye to eye. Some positions and individuals may, in fact, be unreasonable or reflective of past rivalries, agendas and, frankly, failed organizations. Others are vibrant, growing, positive and, at least for now, supportive of a united front, The P1, OPA, APBA National Series is a perfect example of what can be done when cooperation and mutually aligned visions are at play. The APBA can bring UIM recognition for world records and world championships, plus the prestigious Hall of Champions and National High Points awards among other benefits. Racers, by and large, want these kinds of rewards to aim for, as a reason to undergo the sometimes-arduous efforts they endure during a long and taxing season.
As we build the significance of those and other aspects of a growing and unified sport, the differences should fade and the common bonds will certainly grow. There are some very strong, talented and passionate leaders in this sport, and my respect for them has grown immensely. When we all communicate, it’s encouraging how much commonality is demonstrated.
What are your three most immediate priorities as offshore racing commission chairman?
To borrow from the French—with a bit of poetic license: unity, safety and fraternity.
We have made some progress on unity already with one face-to-face meeting of all major parties in Seattle at the APBA Annual meeting, and that was a huge first step. We have followed that up with a series of calls including one with all parties present again just last week.
On the safety front, Bob Wartinger, and George Linder, at my request, are currently reviewing and combining the UIM and Lavin Safety cockpit standards as well as a plethora of engineering and test data to create an up-to-date, state-of-the-art cockpit construction model for the ORC to consider. Perfection, of and by itself, is an impossible goal, but we must constantly aim for it where the health and well-being of our racing crews are concerned.
Finally, we come to fraternity. My phone has been burning up with texts and emails since I took this position two-and-a-half months ago. I have made it my business to communicate with any and every one who cares to reach out. Further, I have reconnected with many old friends and contacts in an effort to fast track my learning curve of current events. I am truly grateful for the cooperation that I have received from just about everybody in that regard. I will attend as many events as possible to show my face in demonstrating that my passion for the sport is undiminished from the days when I ended every video with the words “Wishing y’all good racing.”
I must also point out the cooperation and warm welcome I have received from wonderful folks like Curtis, “Smitty” and “Boomer” Smith of OPA and their staff; Michelle Petro, Martin Raby and Azam Rangoonwalla of P1 and their staff, Billy and June Mauff, Ryan Beckley, the Saris family, Gene Stephens (my right arm), George Linder, Bob Wartinger, Nigel Hook and Janet Wilson of Ocean Cup, Lucy Nicandri and all of the National Series Promoters’ group, the entire ORC, Rick Felsen, Larry Bleil, and, of course, the APBA team: Chris Fairchild, Fred Hauenstein, Becky Nichols, Cindy Minoletti and so many others. Without them this whole effort would have been DOA.
What are your three most important long-term priorities as offshore racing commission chairman?
Smitty said it best with a phrase he modified: “Make Offshore Great Again.”
Breaking that into three parts is not necessarily the correct number of priorities, but I do like the simplicity.
First, help to create a mutual “vision” of what the sport can and should be, and spread that goal to the consciousness of all the participants in a simple and clear manner. This shared vision should include making Offshore attractive, exciting and marketable, both as a sport and in crafting the development of personal “back stories.” We must present the drivers/throttlemen as the compelling and competitive individuals they are and who, for the first time, should outweigh the boats they are driving in the eyes of the fans. We need Dale Earnhardts, not anonymous turbine behemoths.
Second, work with the various groups to attract major sponsors. The sport deserves substantial sponsor investment. It features wonderful locations, high-speed action, and truly remarkable personalities. There are so many parts of the consumer dynamic that it touches, from beverages to travel to marine industry products, action and swim wear, sun products, credit cards, high-end autos and pickup trucks, RVs and so on. The challenge is to alert those who control the advertising budgets to the reality of our viewership numbers.
Third, stay the course. Don’t get distracted by the latest “shiny things” and contradictory options. Stay centered, sensible, disciplined and focused. Maximize opportunities, add value where available and cast off excess, or non-contributory ideas, obstacles, naysayers and tangents. Never lose sight of the fact that no single person can, nor should, carry this entire program. It’s all about teamwork and cooperation. In the end, I am simply one of many moving parts.
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