For a lot of good reasons—wear and tear on the body, considerable expense and time away from paying work and family chief among them—the list of offshore powerboat racers who’ve been at it for 40-plus years is short. It includes the likes of John “The Movie Star” Tomlinson, the co-owner of Miami-based TNT Custom Marine who will compete in the 450R Factory Stock and Class 1 categories this season, WHM Motorsports owner/driver and general Billy “The Plumber” Mauff and Steve “Flipper” Curtis, a true Brit by birth who will throttle the Class 1 Huski Chocolate raceboat with alternating drivers Travis Pastrana and Brit Lilly this year.
The ever-colorful Saris Racing team of Jason Saris, his son, Johnny, and Vern French has made a significant impact on the sport—and it all started with Jason. Photo from the 2017 Offshore Powerboat Association Bimini Grand Prix by Pete Boden copyright Shoot 2 Thrill Pix.
Big names, to be sure. But there’s another big-name in 40-plus-year-career category that might not immediately leap to mind—and probably should.
The 66-year-old owner and co-founder of Performance Marine/Saris Racing Engines in Bolton Landing, N.Y., Saris launched his offshore racing career 41 years ago in Louisiana at the Popeye’s Grand Prix on Lake Pontchartrain with Bobby Sheer in the Sheer Terror Modified-class raceboat.
“We raced 160 miles on that lake,” Saris recalled. “That’s how long the races were back then.”
Jason Saris (right) and Bobby Sheer won the New Orleans race Lake Pontchartrain in 1982. Archival images courtesy Johnny Saris.
Johnny Saris, who is 30 years old and works alongside his father at the full-service marine engine-building and powerboat-restoration shop, began racing with his dad when he was 16 years old. His first event was in Ocean Beach, Md., and neither he nor his father were sure he’d been granted permission to compete at that tender age.
Not long before the green flag flew, the then Bracket 500-class teammates got the nod from race officials to enter their 27-foot Avanti V-bottom.
“I said, ‘Johnny, they just told me you can race. Do you want to go?’” the senior Saris recalled. “And he said, ‘Hell yes.’ It was just so cool. Johnny had been around fast boats all of his life—I have pictures of him sitting on the deck of raceboat when he was less than a year old—but there’s no way to tell anyone what it will be like. There’s no comparing it to a poker run or anything like that, and that Ocean City race was rougher than hell. That was a ‘holy crap’ moment for him, especially after we hit three waves in a row and we didn’t slow down. He was pretty beat up after the race and we finished fourth. I was so proud of him.
“A few years later, we won our first world championship together in Ocean Beach,” he added, then laughed. “And once again it was rougher than hell.”
For Johnny Saris (in his father’s arms) exposure to offshore powerboat racing started early.
That memory also lingers for his son, as does his first race in the Saris Racing team’s Cobra V raceboat a couple of years later with his dad and Vern French, who joined the team 10 years ago as its navigator.
“Vern and I worked from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. on the boat, then at our real jobs till 5 p.m., then back went back to work on that thing until midnight,” Johnny Saris recalled. “Our goal was the Atlantic City race—it must have been in 2013. We finally got it in the water on Friday before the race and it broke during testing. We fixed it in the pits and won the race.
“That boat had soul, the soul my dad built into it,” he added. “I’m proud of it. And I’m proud of him.”
At the 1999 world championships in Key West, Fla., Saris watched his dad vie for a world title in the hope of following up the national championship he claimed with the Stylin’ team. Though the team didn’t prevail in the Key West event, that trip—the first of many to the city at the end of the Sunshine State road—was life-changing for him.
“Watching him throttle Stylin’ was the coolest thing in the world. “I got to root for my dad, in key west, throttling a big catamaran, that had his engines in it. Life didn’t get better for a kid.”
With French in his navigator role, Jason and Johnny Saris plan to run their Bracket 400-class Cobra V-bottom in three regular-season Offshore Powerboat Association events—Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., and another Atlantic Ocean-based race they have not yet determined—as well as the organization’s world championships in Englewood Beach, Fla., this year.
“We are so slammed with work that I have to look up to see down,” Jason Saris said, then laughed again. “We’re not sure what our third race will be just yet, but we’ll get there.”
On the stage or on the water, Jason Saris (right) and his son, Johnny (left), simply rock.
After four decades of offshore racing, he explained, success comes down to one word.
“When you’re out there and everyone has the same equipment, it’s more about being smooth and calm than it is about having balls,” he said. “It requires finesse.
“I love all aspects of boating, but there’s nothing better more satisfying than competing in offshore racing,” he continued. “It’s as much fun as you are ever going to have with your pants on.”
Like his son, or vice-versa if you prefer, Saris plays guitar and sings in a rock-and-roll band. When it comes to the satisfaction of a job well done, he sees a direct correlation between racing well and playing well.
“During a race, you measure your performance boat how you did your competitors,” he said. “If you win, you are entitled to feel good about yourself. The same applies to playing a gig. If people enjoy your playing, you can feel good about your performance.”
During the 2018 Offshore Powerboat Association awards banquet, (from left) Jason Saris, Johnny Saris, Paul Chambers and Vern French received the Godfather Award. Photo by Tim Sharkey copyright Sharkey Images.
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