by Ted Kreiter
(from The Saturday Evening Post Nov/Dec ’91)
The boats get more powerful every year, but the true test remains man against the sea.
Powerboats come in all sizes, and the owners and drivers are equally diverse. They range from President George Bush and former football quarterback Joe Theismann to the cast of the “Miami Vice” television series and top officials of giant corporations. All, however, have one thing in common—to go as fast as they can with the boat that’s under them without it ending up on top of them.
A good case in point is George Bush, whose 28-foot Cigarette boat, Fidelity, can reach speeds of 50-plus mph. Bush loves to drive all out, and finds great sport in outmaneuvering his Secret Service guards. To keep up with him, the agents use bigger 36-foot chase boats. Unfortunately, their boats take such a pounding that the men who never smile have blown an undisclosed number of engines. Now, they’re trying a different tactic—sturdier engines. Meanwhile, Bush is having the time of his life.
Fortunately for the Secret Service, Bush does not own a Superboat. These behemoths of the powerboat racing set can reach upward of 150 miles per hour and require crews of six to operate. At such speeds, they make powerboat racing one of the more dangerous sports, but for die-hard powerboat competitors, the thrill outweighs the risks. “Racing is living and dying in three-quarter time,” one boat racer has said. “You can experience, in the span of one day, defeat, humiliation, joy, excitement, and ecstasy.”
Few powerboat racers understand this better than Bob Nordskog, a corporate executive who has been racing powerboats since the 1940s and at age 78 is still making waves.
The Californian’s penchant for speed and danger began in his teens. He flew solo in a WWI biplane at age 13. At 14, he was wing walking and parachute jumping. At 22 he modified a Model T Ford and set a land-speed record of 125 mph. The record still stands.
Nordskog’s first racing boat, a 15-foot Lux-or ski boat, promptly barrel-rolled and sank, but that early setback did not dampen his competitive spirit. “As a boy, I was an extreme introvert,” Nordskog explains. “People intimidated me. So I was determined to excel.”
Today Nordskog’s extraordinary record includes 125 wins in 12 different boating divisions; 47 victories in offshore boating alone (the last three just this year). In all he holds more offshore victories than any other driver in the history of the sport.
“If you race with Bob Nordskog you love him,” says Ed Atlas, a spokesperson for the American ‘Power Boat Offshore Racing Corn-mission. “If you race against him, you may not but you respect him.
“There are no records to substantiate this,” Atlas continues, “but he’s believed to be the only person. who has raced as fast as he has for as long as he has in any sport. And when you go out in the ocean for maybe a hundred miles and are hammered by waves for two hours, it can be pretty brutal. At his age, it probably even gets a little tougher.”
But Nordskog doesn’t mind the difficulties. In fact, he thrives on them. His favorite races were four nine-hour marathons in which he drove without a relief driver from start to finish, claiming two victories. In 1974, while still in a cast from a broken arm received in a racing accident, Nordskog set a speed record for offshore powerboats in the Annual Powerboat Magazine World Speed Trials held at Marina del Rey, California. The next year he returned and set the still-existing record for the nautical mile in an unsupercharged V-bottom.
“I believe my thinking controls my like him, destiny,” Nordskog says. “I have crashed several times, and each time that I am in the midst of the crash, my brain is concentrating on the best way to protect and save myself from injury or added injury.”
In Nordskog’s book, the race may go to the swiftest, but not necessarily to the guy with the most powerful boat. “I have always tried to be a winner,” he says, “but preferably without special exotic equipment; rather, with technique and capabilities of the human mind and body.”
A case in point was his race earlier this year at Corpus Christi with his friendly arch-rival Reggie Fountain of Fountain Powerboats. “Reggie has the biggest boat on our circuit and the fastest, most powerful one,” Atlas re-calls. “But it was all he could do to hold Nordskog off. Reggie’s comment afterward was, ‘Anytime you can beat Nordskog, you know you’ve done a good job, because he’s the best driver in the world.’
As a young man in the fledgling airline industry, Nordskog worked on aviator Amelia Ear-hart’s long-distance plane and on the legendary Howard Hughes’ famous around-the-world Lockheed 14. From the latter he learned the importance of determination to accomplish goals. “1 spent hours preparing myself for boat-racing challenges,” Nordskog says. “He taught me to never give up never, never, never.” That attitude, Nordskog says, has helped in his business life as well as in racing. The small company he started with a few simple machines in a Quonset hut in 1951, Nordskog Industries, Inc., is now a conglomerate with a dozen operating companies. Nordskog Inc. is the world’s largest manufacturer of airline galleys—inflight food-service systems—and a leading manufacturer of electrical industrial vehicles.
Somewhere along the line, Nordskog also managed to marry and have two children, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. His main loves, however, remain speed and water—and his chief motivation the desire to win. “All my life, when I am faced with a challenge, I have a strong desire to overcome obstacles—and life dishes out many,” Nordskog says.
Of course, he admits, “There is bound to be a day when this will all be memories, but as I create them as I go along, it is the pleasure of knowing I have succeeded. That’s what keeps me going out to win again.”