A single-boat accident blemished the final day of racing Sunday at the Key West World Championship, but injuries to two New Jersey racers were not believed to be serious.
Owner/driver Robert Vesper of Somers Point and throttleman Danny Crank of Hammonton were both taken Sunday to Lower Keys Medical Center after their 38-foot Warpaint slammed into a wave during the final of three race days at the weeklong event.
Vesper was released a few hours later with cuts and abrasions, according to Warpaint crew chief Dave McIntyre, but Crank was transported to Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital by helicopter as a precaution to examine a head injury. McIntyre said Sunday night that initial reports on Crank were positive, but additional tests were being performed.
The injuries follow the death of Joey Gratton, 59, of Sarasota, Fla., on Saturday from injuries suffered Friday when his 38-foot Superboat 850-class Skater catamaran, Page Motorsports, rolled over twice in the final lap of a seven-lap race.
On Wednesday, powerboat racers Robert M. Morgan, 74, of Sunrise Beach, Mo., and Jeffrey Tillman, 47, of Kaiser, Mo., died when their 46-foot catamaran Big Thunder Marine violently crashed inside Key West Harbor.
For Sunday’s race, many drivers affixed memorial decals to their boats that honored the three racers. Throughout much of the afternoon a plane towed a banner over the race course that read, “IN MEMORY OF THREE GREAT RACERS.”
Before this week’s fatal powerboat accidents, it had been 16 years since a racer had died at a Key West World Championship. To have three deaths over three days is unprecedented.
Some close to the sport suggested the final race be canceled, but Super Boat International President John Carbonell insisted the world championship continue.
“Racers can choose to race if they want to or not,” said Carbonell, who raced himself for 10 years, before producing racing events. “But most want to race and they know there is a potential for accidents.”
One competitor who chose not to compete Sunday was Scott Begovich of Riviera Beach, Fla., throttleman for Miss Geico, the lone Turbine Class boat, which nevertheless won a world championship.
“My head is not in the game,” said Begovich, a good friend of Gratton. “You have to be 100 percent mentally sound and clear-headed to pilot a boat at 160 mph.”
Superboat Unlimited class winner Randy Scism of St. Louis, who throttles CMS, said there’s always room for improvement in design and safety equipment.
His 48-foot MTI catamaran is one of the most advanced on the circuit with an internal roll cage. The front glass in the canopy is more than two inches thick and the boat, like many with canopies, has full-time oxygen systems so that if the boat flips, racers can continue breathing until they can get or be assisted out.
“I’m always up for more safety improvements,” Scism said. “We need to look at it (the accidents) and learn from them.”
Miami racer Johnny Tomlinson, who has 40 national and world titles, said the sport has evolved since he began racing in 1986.
“We’ve (the larger classes) gone from open cockpits to enclosed canopies,” he said. “This is as good as anything that anybody has done so far.”
Carbonell believes his circuit and the Key West site have the best safety procedures in the world. He pointed to the nine medical people on his staff. For a 6.5-mile course, there were two helicopters with rescue divers that were deployed from the air. Six medical boats, with rescue divers, and two patient transport boats rounded out the medical plan.
He also said safety equipment is working, pointing to a rollover accident Wednesday, in which New Jersey brothers Scott and Ron Roman survived and then were able to get their boat ready to race again Friday.
Carbonell said accidents sometimes happen because some drivers and throttlemen take chances they shouldn’t.
“It’s racing and everyone wants to push the envelope,” said Jerry Gilbreath, technical advisor to Lucas Oil, a Superboat Extreme entry. “Today’s boats are designed to go faster and are safer, but that being said, the impact speeds are even greater.
“Unfortunately, we lose lives, but every time we do, we learn something,” he said. “So we’ll take all this data we have and implement it into more safety aspects for our boats. It’s the same thing that NASCAR does.”
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