Sam Sarra was Chief Engineer of Daytona Boat Works, and had just perfected (well, almost) the 427 c.i. turbocharged Daytona Chevy racing engine. At 525 HP, it was a lot more powerful, and a little more dependable, than the old 409 c.i. turbo Daytonas. Sam had just retired from Daytona Boat Works and was available for the repower of Billy Wishnick’s 28’ Donzi, “Broad Jumper”. Next up was the best race of the year, the Miami-Nassau race. I was working at Donzi Marine in those days, and had been sold into bondage by Don Aronow to Teleflex, Inc. in the sale of Donzi. I am not sure what else I was in charge of, but I was in charge of offshore racing. I had been teaching Wishnick the finer points of offshore strategy, having just taught him, in the previous race, how to throw his injured brother overboard and win the Sam Griffith Memorial race.
Sam was one of my favorite and most admired characters. He was a brilliant engineer and inventor, having invented the stamped rocker arm for General Motors engines, in use for 50 years. He wore an amulet on a chain around his neck that I recognized as a team member of the Manhattan Project, creators of the atomic bomb. Come to think of it, that was appropriate training for building turbocharged racing engines. To have his expertise, and to get to “hang” with Sam was a dream come true for me. I had first met him in 1957, when I lived on a charter boat on the Miami River, at Nuta’s Yacht (hah) Basin. Sam, Jim Rathman (Indy driver) and Dave Stirrat launched a 25 foot boat called “Cool Dual” with the very first pair of marinized 265 c.i. V8 Chevys. All three of those guys were practically Gods to me. Bill Wishnick would not be available for the race, and blessed Sam and me to run the newly repowered boat. Sam had done some secret ‘tweaking’ on the engines, and we figured to be one of the fastest boats in the race, with a good chance of winning. In those days all the racers hung out together, and since many of the entries were from the respective boat and engine companies where we worked, there was good-natured sniping going on among the various teams. There was the Donzi camp, Bertram, Magnum, Prowler, etc., and further subdivided by engine make, Holman Moody, Mercruiser, Chrysler, GM Diesel, then ethnic backgrounds, “foreigners” Levi, Sopwith, Aitken, etc., Rednecks, Jews, Irish, girls, gays and so on. Many of the competitors were bigtime gamblers, with one of the foreigners actually owning Crockford’s Casino, in England. We had bets going every direction. “You won’t finish, you won’t finish in the top five, etc”. Sam had bet Merrick Lewis, who owned Thunderbird-Formula boat company, $500 that we would finish in the top eight boats. Therein lies the tale…..
When the “Broad Jumper” was new, in 1964, it was called “Donzi Doozy”, powered by twin 400 HP Interceptor 427’s and was raced by Jim Wynne in the Miami-Key West race. It was then sold to Wishnick, who hooked up with me to teach him to race it competitively. We could kill two birds with one stone: I was learning at the same time. When we got the boat, it ran 51 MPH, which was competitive for the day. In fact, we won our first race together, the 1965 Sam Griffith. We repowered that year with 500 HP Holman Moody NASCAR Ford engines, 8v High-riser, High winder, side oiler, which took us to 60 MPH, and kept us in the front row. With the new Daytonas, we could run 66 MPH! I recall that it prompted my wife to ask “What in the hell are you grinning about?” We never told a soul about the new result. We were about 8 MPH faster than the Holman Moodys when fully fueled. We planned to run a conservative speed across the Gulfstream, where it is normally rough, and then blow past everyone across the smoother flats, between Cat Cay and Northwest Light. Sure enough, it was rough as hell at the start of the race. The wind was out of the east at about 15 knots, and the seas were about 5 feet high near shore, and eight feet in the “hump”, halfway across the ‘stream. We stayed a couple of miles behind the leader, Billy ShandKydd, Princess Di’s uncle, in another 28’ Donzi. Boy did we have a surprise for him when we got to the smoother water! No, not really. The first checkpoint was Cat Cay, 50 miles from the start, in the Bahamas. One entered through Gun Cay Cut (tricky), then a short run to Cat Cay Harbour. A couple of miles before Gun Cay, we made our move. Flat out, passing boats in groups of two and three, we made a REALLY hard landing, which stressed both the crew and the boat. The engines slowed a bit, despite the high throttle settings, and the steering stiffened up. I smacked Sam and pointed at the engine room. He raised the hatch. “Uh oh!” An exhaust pipe had broken off the inboard turbocharger, and the flame was shooting across the back of the engine room. Among the items in the flame path were the throttle cables (2), and the steering cables (2). They were welded into an amorphous mass. At this point, we were heading toward Gun Cay light at 50-some knots with the throttles frozen, and steering stuck straight ahead. At WFO, Sam lashed the pipe in place, more or less. As we approached the cut we shut off the starboard engine, and the boat lurched to the right. At just the right time, we turned on the starboard engine and turned off the port engine, and rounded the lighthouse just like everyone else. Unfortunately, we had to enter Cat Cay Harbour, where the Bahamas Immigration had wrapped our transire papers around a rock, to be thrown into the boat as we neared the dock. With “crashbox” transmissions, and steering by stopping and starting each engine, it wasn’t easy. After a few collisions, we made it.
Sam unhooked the throttle cables, and made some out of cord. We couldn’t fix the steering. It was dual cable, heavy duty Morse, with one cable down each side of the engine room. No way to unhook it. We found that only one cable was burned. Sam: “Hell, I’ll cut the frozen one off, and we’ll be on our way.” “With what?” “I’ve got a five pound sledgehammer and a Snap-on chisel in my bag”. We shut down, crawled into the engine room and sat down on the stringers. I was first to notice that there was an inch of 115/145 aviation gasoline in the bilge. “Hmm. Tank must be busted”. I held the cable on the driveshaft while Sam smacked it with the sledgehammer and chisel. Little blue sparks would fly across the keel and go “Ssssssssss” in the gas and water in the bilge. The fumes made us both sick. Me: ”Let’s give up”. Sam: “It’s only another 135 miles, and I’ve got a $500 bet”. We finished the job, fired it up, and finished out of the money anyway. I smile every time I think of Sam…….