Pat Labrada has been in Key West his whole life and vividly remembers the powerboat races as a young Conch.
“I remember in elementary school, my dad taking me out of class early to watch the race from Miami to Key West. The boats did not go as fast back then, but it was something to see those boats fly across the water,” said Labrada.
Labrada and Bill Spottswood are founding members of the Conch Republic Offshore Powerboat Racing Association (CROPRA), an organization full of Key West business owners and active community members whose mission it is to promote powerboat racing in Key West. When the group first began, in conjunction with Conch John Carbonell of Superboat International Productions 34 years ago, it was a different sport according to Labrada.
“The advent of the catamaran changed everything. The V-hulls in the early years went about 45 mph, which is pretty fast, but boats today can go about 150 mph,” said Labrada.
Today, the mega powerboats are operated by one man on the throttle and the other steering the craft. The throttle man slows the engine down when it flies out of the water or hits waves, and goes full speed ahead when the craft is in water. Drivers steer the boat, avoiding the other crafts — sometimes by inches — and ensure the hull meets the waves properly to avoid capsizing and even death.
“This is so much different than NASCAR. Boats are going as fast as racecars but not on a flat track. They are out there dealing with Mother Nature,” said Spottswood.
And Mother Nature is not a force to be reckoned with. Spottswood and Labrada shared a somber moment when remembering Bob Morgan and Jeffrey Tillman who died in a crash in 2011.
Key West Mayor Craig Cates raced from 1988-1992 and said there is no comparison to zooming in those powerboats.
“Being in a boat going that fast is very exciting. My brother Scott and I were in a lot of races and won a lot of races. You never know what the boat is going to do when a wave comes,” said Cates. “I have a lot of great memories from those days.”
Bill Spottswood’s greatest memory is the 25th anniversary of the races. He said it was unbelievable how the little island of Key West had a race as big as the Daytona 500.
Aside from the fun and popularity of the races, bringing to town more than 300,000 people, it reportedly also has a bigger financial impact than any other event all year long. The power boats will return to the Keys in 2015 during the weekend of 4th of July for races set in Marathon. To find out more go to superboat.com.