On a scale of 1 to 10, the boating life that we enjoyed in the middle 60’s was about a 23. We got to hang around with the cream of the crop of offshore racing in those days, Aronow, Bertram, Wynne, Sopwith, Max Aitken, Sonny Levi, Odell Lewis, Johnny Bakos, Dave Craig, Gale and Rene’ Jacoby, John Holman, Carl Kiekhaefer (I was allowed to hang around Carl because I was the only one who could spell his name), Dinny Phipps, Red Crise, John Crouse and a hundred others. We lived for racing each other in the ocean, and the thought that one of us “little guys” could knock off one of the PR firm inflated “Gods” gave us the adrenaline to work all night on our race boats, and the thirst to drink a case of beer while we were doing it!
I was in my fourth year at Donzi Marine, the first real sport boat company. Don Aronow had started Donzi Marine in 1964 after selling Formula Marine to Thunderbird Boats, with Merrick Lewis and Dick Genth at the helm. We didn’t consider the Formula 233 to be a true sport boat, as one might actually land a smelly fish, and compromise the beer box. After less than one year, Don sold the Donzi company to Teleflex, Inc, a bunch of Canadians now invading North Wales, Pa. Don ripped them a new one on the sale of the company. He left the staff of Donzi intact, taking only Jake Trotter, our fiberglass foreman, and his extremely willing secretary.
In that first year, we had built, to Wynne/Walters designs, the 16’, 19’ and 28’ Donzi’s, and started the 35’ “Big Bad Donzi”. We built four 28’ offshore race boats, and one 19’ Hornet for the 1964 Miami-Key West offshore race, working 12 to 16 hours a day. The four 28’s we all different. The one that Aronow drove had a pair of Turbocharged 409ci Daytona Marine Chevy’s, side by side with vee drives. The other Daytona powered 28 had the same engines installed “in tandem”. One was in front, one in the back on centerline with a common gearbox between them, driving a single propeller. Although that boat was better balanced, faster and easier to throttle when airborne, it never won a race for us. We broke the driveline on the rare times that we didn’t blow an engine. I think Sam Sarra drove it that year, but I don’t remember. Hell, I don’t remember how many drinks I had last night. A third 28’ was the “Donzi Diesel”, with a single 550HP Detroit Diesel, driven to Key West by all time great, Walt Walters. The fourth 28’ was a “side by side” twin vee drive boat with twin 400 HP 427 Fords, called “Donzi Doozy” and driven by Jim Wynne. The race was won by Jack Manson, for the second time in a row in his big wooden Diesel “Big Wooden Diesel”. Wynne was second, winning the first-ever Union of International Motorboating World Championship (without winning a single race overall). This did not go unnoticed by Aronow. Last, but not least (that is still being argued) was the author in the 19’ Donzi Hornet prototype with a single 427, 400HP Ford Interceptor vee drive in 9th and last place. It was very rough (Oh, Lord! Thy sea is so great, and my boat ain’t so great!). We dove the little boat a dozen times. To this day, I can’t turn my head far enough to properly back a boat trailer. My co-pilot never raced again.
A deep thinker would have realized that, in 1964, there were only a dozen or so drivers who had ever won an offshore powerboat race. This was the whip that drove us on (and forced us to drink beer). Fast forward a couple of months. Aronow sold all the raceboats but one, the 28’ tandem, Donzi Baby. Bill Wishnick, who had raced the 23’ Formula, “Amalie Oiler” on the Formula racing team, bought the “Donzi Doozy” and renamed it “Broad Jumper”. He took me as crew, and we had great success for a couple of years with the “Bargain Basement” boat, $20,000, ready to race. We won the ’65 Sam Griffith Memorial, ‘65 Hennessy Long Beach, ‘66 Gateway from West Palm Beach, ’66 Around Long Island, holding the speed records in all those races at the same time. We also won the “George Light Trophy”, emblematic of the National High Points Championship, before the merger with APBA. I was busy at Donzi Marine. We were selling boats like hotcakes, racing, prototyping and such. Over in the corner of the yard, The “Donzi Baby” sat, forlornly, unloved. From time to time, when it was very quiet, on a full moon night, you could hear her whisper “Brownie, I could win the Miami-Nassau for you…” I had driven the “Baby” in the 1965 Gateway Marathon, from West Palm Beach to Lucaya, in the Bahamas, and back. Aronow thought that my ‘light touch’ on the throttle might keep the driveline together. Naah, we blew the coupler between the engines again. The engines in that boat were level, and both engines drove the upper gear in the vee drive. All 1100 HP was on the gear face. I called the engineer, Sam Sarra, to discuss that fact. Sam was very patient and understanding. “F**k off, kid! Everybody’s a goddam engineer”.
John Holman, of Holman Moody Ford Racing called and said that he had a new set of Nascar ‘medium riser’ 427’s with 58mm Weber carburetors that I could race, fully supported. That did it. I had the “Baby” cleaned up and cleaned out. I called Andy Casale in California and had a special vee drive made with the propeller shaft extended out the front at 12 degrees, just like the output shaft. Only the rear input shaft was level. Now, the gears would only have to handle half the total horsepower. I proudly showed my handy work to my peers, and they hooted me out of the boatyard. “Can’t possibly work!” “You are an A**hole!” Actually, they had been saying that before….. I tested the boat, and it performed flawlessly.
October 13th, 1967, 7:00 AM. The starting line for the Miami-Nassau race. I had my mechanic, Mark “Big Dirty” Raymond, and Donzi plant Manager, Roy Farmer as crew. 50 boats in the race, about 30 in Open Class with us. How in the hell do you beat this bunch? The entire Mercury Racing Team, Dick Bertram, Peter Rittmaster, Don Aronow, Bobby Rautbord, Dick Genth, Merrick Lewis, Jake Trotter and some Limeys and left coasters. No time to think, there is the flare. We’re off! We were mildly competitive, speed wise. Don Aronow, Odell Lewis, John Bakos and a couple of others were easing away from us. We had nothing to adjust. No drive trim, no trim tabs. Nothing to do but hold it wide open and keep it on course.
An amazing event was occurring. All of the boats that were ahead of us had Mercruiser stern drives (instruments of the devil). Just before the race, they got a new batch of propellers that were a little faster than the ones that they had installed the day before. Everyone changed to the new props. They had faulty metals in them. One by one, they dropped back, until only Dick Bertram was ahead of us. We stayed like that until we were halfway to Nassau, when Bertram slowed, and Peter Rittmaster crept past in his 32’ Bertram with a pair of factory Hemi Chryslers. Just before Mama Rhoda rock in the Berry Islands, Rittmaster slowed to fix something, and came up again just in time to deflower his running gear on Mama Rhoda reef. We were all alone, in front. We kept it “in the corner” all the way to Nassau Harbour and the finish line. We had barely broken Odell Lewis’s speed record. The Playboy Magazine “Playmate of the Year” was the prize for 1st place. I took her for a spin in the “Baby”, came back to the dock, and there were still no other finishers. A half hour later, my hero, Odell Lewis came in, followed by my friend, Carl Moesly in an outboard powered “Sea Craft” boat. I was having fun on the dock with all the fans, when Mr. Kiekhaefer, who owned all the Mercury boats strode down the dock with his hand extended “Odell, nice work. You were really moving”. Kiekhaefer had taken off late to watch the race, and did not realize that the only Holman Moody in the race had won. Odell, “I am sorry, Sir. I did the best I could”. “What do you mean?” “Brownie beat me a half an hour”. “Get these goddamn boats off of this island!” And away they went.