John Carbonell, the president and founder of Super Boat International in Key West, Fla., died today. He was 83 years old.
Carbonell died of natural causes in hospice care. In recent years, his physical presence at Super Boat International events diminished, a product of the multiple long-term illnesses he reportedly faced. His wife, Deana, continued her extensive duties with the organization and became its public face.
John Carbonell’s Super Boat International organization produced its final event—the Key West Offshore World Championships—in 2018. Photo by Pete Boden copyright Shoot 2 Thrill Pix.
An often mercurial figure, Carbonell was born in Key West. According to newspaper magazine archives, he served six years in the United States Army and saw two years of active duty. He returned to Key West after military service in the mid 1970s and opened the AC Rug Company, which he owned for 35 years. In 1976, he took up offshore powerboat racing in a triple outboard engine-powered V-bottom.
In 1984, he led a group of local business and civic leaders to form Conch Republic Power Boat Racing Association races in Marathon and Key West. Two years later and retired from the cockpit, Carbonell and the Conch Republic organization put on their first race in Marathon under the American Power Boat Association umbrella. The event became a circuit opener in 1987 drawing more than 70 entries.
In 1987, Carbonell took over as promoter/producer of APBA/Union Internationale Motonautique Key West World Championships. The following year, he produced the Key West APBA Championship Race.
In 1989, the APBA hosted its World Championships in Atlantic City, N.J., with Trump Tower as the host venue. It was the first time in 10 years the event had not been held Key West. That same year, Carbonell was granted a special event in Key West by APBA, to be held after the aforementioned World Championships.
Called the Key West Battle of the Seas, the event featured what Carbonell called “stadium-style racing with a shorter, near-shore course that—unlike its true offshore counterparts—was friendlier to fans and television coverage. For better or for worse, the sport changed forever.
The newly formed Offshore Professional Tour series hired Carbonell in 1990 as its director. The OPT split from the APBA, taking the Open and Super Boat classes with it. The series had significant NBC television coverage in cities around the country and celebrities in the mix. By 1991, the series was in financial trouble. It went bankrupt the following year.
Carbonell started Super Boat Racing in 1993 and began picking up race sites from the defunct OPT schedule. In 1996, he changed that of the corporation to Super Boat International/Super Boat Productions. The following year, SBI took 98 American teams to an event in Argentina organized by Daniel Scioli, the country’s vice president and an avid offshore racer.
Upset with local businesses for lack of financial support, Carbonell changed the racecourse in Key West for the world championships to put it out of view of local hotels. That didn’t go down well with the local lodging powers at the time, and in 2001—backed by the Hotel Motel Association and local businesses—promoter Lee Mills obtained permission from the City of Key West to run an APBA Offshore LLC World Championship, two weeks before SBI’s 2001 race. SBI departed Key West to host is world championship in New Orleans in 2002 and in Deerfield Beach, Fla. in 2003.
Though APBA Offshore LLC enjoyed a successful run from 2001-2003, conflicts between race-class factions, as well as powerful sponsors including Mercury Racing and APBA Offshore LLC head Michael Allweiss led to its demise. By 2004, SBI was back in Key West.
Captured here in 2013 with Qatar’s Sheikh Hassan bin Jabor Al-Thani, John Carbonell produced most of his races in Florida, but also produced events in Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, Texas and more.
Super Boat International continued to produce races—including its signature weeklong event in Key West—through 2018. In 2019, Race World Offshore, also based in Key West, was awarded the five-year contract to produce the Key West races. Super Boat International released a 2019 schedule but has not produced an event since its 2018 Key West World Championships.
“I was so sorry to hear of John’s passing,” said Larry Bleil, the founder of Race World Offshore, who lives in Key West knew Carbonell for decades. “When I was president of the Conch Republic we worked alongside each for four five years. John would take me around in his golf car and we’d look at site and he would say ‘This needs to go here’ and ‘That needs to go there’—he was very good at that.
“John ruled with an iron fist,” he continued. “It was his way or the highway, and I understand why he did that. He knew what had to be done and I respected him for it. He was an ornery old conch, and conchs are known for doing it their way. He did it his way. Bill Spottswood and I will be working on getting something commemorating John on the waterfront. I’m going to miss him.
Now the chief operating officer of Race World Offshore, Rodrick Cox of the Cox Group in North Carolina worked closely with the Carbonells for years.
“I really liked having John and Deana and Superboat as a client for more than 10 years,” said Cox, who handled public relations for SBI from 2008 through much of 2018. “John reminded me a lot of my grandfather who was a very large-with-life person and really did things his own way. It probably wasn’t until the last few years that I got to understand his approach to things was, like it or not he was going to do it his way but he was willing to do it and accept the consequences.
“I wish the family my sincerest condolences,” he added. “And I’m fortunate that I had the opportunity to work with the most influential person in offshore power boat racing for so many years.”
John Carbonell introduced near-shore, “stadium-style” racing to the offshore realm.