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Hollywood Stars & Offshore Powerboat Racing (Part 2)

Kurt Russell, Chuck Norris, and Don Johnson
Kurt Russell, Chuck Norris, and Don Johnson

In Part 1 of this series, we learned how the Miami Vice television series in the mid-1980’s introduced the show’s star, Don Johnson, to offshore powerboats. He quickly became proficient at handling and running the show’s centrepiece crime-fighting conveyance, a 38-foot Wellcraft Scarab KV offshore. Johnson loved the power and adrenaline rush and wanted more. He got into sanctioned offshore powerboat racing and became World Champion in 1988 in the fastest and most powerful and showiest of classes – superboats.

In the last years of the 1980’s, and quite possibly because of the worldwide attention that Johnson had brought to offshore racing, fellow movie superstars Chuck Norris and Kurt Russell both became involved in the thrilling sport and challenges of offshore powerboat racing. Norris was a veteran of the US Air Force, had been a World Karate Champion, was star of the long-running television series, Walker, Texas Ranger, and had starred in box office hits such as Lone Wolf McQuade, Missing in Action, and A Force of One.

Norris first came to prominence in offshore racing in 1988 when he instantly took to the thrill of horsepower pitting man against water. He had the opportunity to lend his talents in an attempt to break the APBA/UIM sanctioned San Francisco to Los Angeles speed record. The record at the time was just over seven hours, set four years earlier by offshore legend, racer, aficionado, Powerboat magazine publisher, and septuagenarian Bob Nordskog. Norris became the driver of a 46-foot Wellcraft Scarab with twin 3208 Caterpillar diesel engines and Arneson surface drives. A broken propeller blade nixed the overall record for them, but they did set the record for diesel-powered boats.

Next, he teamed up with renowned NFL Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton to break the water speed record from Chicago to Detroit. Norris was a huge Hollywood star at the time and Payton held the all-time NFL running record, so the publicity around the attempt was enormous. Wellcraft supplied the specially-built 46-foot Scarab V-bottom to tackle the rough waters of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Wellcraft also supplied its head of R&D, veteran throttleman Eddie Morenz, and veteran navigator Gus Anastasi, head of its High Performance Division for the 605 mile (974 km) challenge. Once again, Norris was the driver.

Coincidentally enough, the record had been set by Michael Reagan, son of former U.S. President (and Hollywood star), Ronald Reagan, in 1983 in a Wellcraft 38-foot Scarab. At the time, Reagan also held the speed record from Venice, Italy to Monte Carlo, also in a Wellcraft Scarab. Sadly, this new Great Lakes record attempt by Norris and Payton, regardless of the public attention and press coverage it garnered, was not able to break Reagan’s record. But they did win in another way --they accumulated huge donations for the United Way, the charity of choice for both Norris and Payton.

Then 1990 saw Hollywood become the backstory to offshore powerboat racing.

It was the year that heartthrob favourite Kurt Russell also took up the sport, and the year Johnson, Russell, and Norris competed against each other in the world’s fastest and flashiest Offshore Superboat class. Russell was brought up in California in an acting family. He became a major child actor at just eleven years old, with a leading role in the Elvis Presley movie It Happened at the World’s Fair. In the same year, 1963, he also signed a ten year contract with Walt Disney himself. Russell also went on to star in movies including Silkwood, Swing Shift, and Overboard, among many others. In the mid-80's, he and Laugh-In star Goldie Hawn met and have been together ever since. Goldie was oftentimes spotted at the races.

Having three world-renowned movie stars involved in offshore boat racing attracted the world’s press while also bringing in thousands of new fans and spectators. In 1990, Johnson was still running his favourite Team USA 50-foot Revenge catamaran with four individual 1000 horsepower engines. Kurt Russell became navigator while Richie Powers remained as throttleman. Both Don Johnson and Russell had to fly to the races, run the race, and fly back to their respective movie sets. Due to the time commitments, they only ran in select races that year.

Al Copeland, the multi-millionaire founder of Popeye’s Chicken, had also become an offshore racing enthusiast by the mid-1980’s. Copeland was a shrewd showman and promoter, and helped usher offshore racing into the modern era by bringing the sport into people's living rooms through national television coverage. Copeland also brought a huge entourage of brightly painted boats in the Popeye’s theme to each race, along with a bevy of similarly painted support vehicles including helicopters to film each of his boats while racing. The helicopters also carried rescue divers.

In 1990, Copeland brought out of storage his multi-time champion winning Popeye’s/Diet Coke 50-foot, four-engine Cougar catamaran. He also assigned Chuck Norris to drive it, along with legendary throttleman Bob Idoni on 'the sticks' (throttles) as they say. One of the first races of the season was off Long Beach, California where the retired Queen Mary cruise ship is docked.

Once again Johnson, with Russell aboard in the Team USA cat, pulled in front but was not able to continue their fast pace as mechanical issues slowed them down. As a result, Norris won his first offshore race in the Popeye’s/Diet Coke cat, with 46-foot V-bottom Apache’s (INXS) in second, third place going to Little Caesar’s Pizza, and Johnson and Russell finishing in fourth place in Team USA.

Another race in 1990 that brought all three actors into competition against one another was the New York Grand Prix Offshore Race on the Hudson River off Manhattan. Don Johnson and Kurt Russell were by far the fastest boat in the Team USA cat and were well ahead of the pack when mechanical issues once again put an end to their day.

Norris, in the Popeye’s/Diet Coke 4-engined superboat, then battled with Charles Marks in the Gentry Turbo Eagle cat, Eric’s Reality, through to the final lap when Marks slowed with mechanical problems and was limping to the finish line just as Norris blew by. Shockingly Norris then blew an engine himself and literally hobbled over the finish line to take the win. With the checkered flag in hand, Norris’ boat promptly ran out of fuel and had to be towed into the pits.

The days of Hollywood superstars like Johnson, Russell, and Norris competing in offshore powerboat racing ended too soon. Could it be that the adrenalin rush was over, or maybe wanting to move on to other active leisure time activities, or maybe the rumours circulating around the circuit that the major Hollywood studios that had these actors under contract thought the activity too dangerous and forbid it? Whatever the reasons, very little was seen of any of these three at offshore race venues after 1990.

As told in Part 1, Johnson kept up a rigorous television and movie career while racing, and continues to work in film today. Kurt Russell has also kept a rigorous television and movie career right up to the present, as well as becoming a pilot. He and partner Goldie Hawn own a farm together in Aspen Colorado where they have a vineyard to make and sell their own wines. They also raise and sell beef to local restaurateurs.

Chuck Norris became the first man ever in the Western Hemisphere to be awarded an 8th degree Black Belt Grand Master recognition in Tae Kwon Do. He has also founded two major martial arts systems, has co-authored several Christian-themed books, has been a celebrity voice for conservative politics. He has, like his Hollywood offshore racing teammates, kept a rigorous television and movie career right up to the present time. You might also like: Hollywood Stars & Offshore Powerboat Racing (Part 1) #culture #hollywoodoffshore

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