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Innovators in Boating - Larry Smith & Scarab

You may never have heard of Larry Smith, but I would bet the farm that, as a boater, you have heard of Scarab.

SoCal engineering graduate Larry Smith’s passion was offshore racing. In the mid-1960s he partnered on a 23-foot Formula and won the very first sanctioned U.S. Offshore Championships.

Smith worked in his family’s heavy construction business in California but, true to his passion, in 1974 he designed a 30-foot deep-V offshore boat he called a Scarab after his friend’s famed race cars. He founded Team Scarab in 1975, won the U.S. Offshore Racing Production title in 1976, and the World Offshore Championship in 1977.

President of Wellcraft Marine at the time, Dick Genth, along with his talented team who were producing over 20 models at the time, saw the potential in the Smith design. In 1976, he produced the boat as the Wellcraft Scarab 300. It immediately won APBA Production Class offshore racing championships.

Smith soon came to a licensing arrangement with Wellcraft where his west coast Team Scarab in California would build race boats, while Wellcraft in Florida could build and market worldwide the pleasure boat versions. Smith would build the molds in California and ship them to Wellcraft in Florida along with the fiberglass layup schedule.

I vividly remember a few 30 Wellcrafts on our local waterways in the late 70’s, replete with their full surrounding teak windshield headers and their pair of 454 MerCruisers with TRS outdrives and telltale through-hull exhausts. Part of Smith’s deal with Wellcraft was that he would be the outside engineering and design house for Wellcraft’s performance division. Some likened this arrangement to that of the famous Skunk Works R&D division of Lockheed Aircraft founded by the famous Kelly Johnson.

Come the late 1970s, Smith had designed and built a 38 Scarab KV (Kevlar) for the World Champion KAAMA Offshore Race Team of owner/driver Betty Cook with legendary throttleman John Connor on the sticks. They won many championships with this legendary boat into the 1980's. Smith specially prepared one to challenge the 1100 mile record for traveling the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis. The original run was made in 1870 by the almost 300-foot long, 86-foot wide, 8-engined steamboat, Robert E. Lee. It took almost four days.

Larry at first sought out Betty Cook, whom he had raced with in the early 1970s, to take the helm of his Scarab for the record run. The boat was diesel powered with a pair of the new Arneson surface drives. Betty would have gladly joined, but sadly the Arneson drives conflicted with her own development of KAAMA surface drives.

As an aside, in the late 1980s, Betty took myself and my fellow BoatBlurb contributor, Captain Bill Jennings for a ride during the Miami Boat Show in her 30 Wellcraft Scarab with KAAMA surface drives. A few years later, Betty very enthusiastically agreed to my invitation to be the guest speaker in Toronto for the inaugural meeting of the Performance Boat Club of Canada, for which I was a co-founder and inaugural President. She was brilliant.

Michael Reagan -- yes, that one - the son of President Ronald Reagan, had racing credentials as long as your arm but last raced with Rudy Ramos in a triple Mercury outboard-powered flat bottom Rayson Craft where he won the World Outboard Racing Championship at Lake Havasu in 1971. He was ready to race again, but as Co-Chairman of the Fundraising Committee for the upcoming 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, he insisted that the record attempt be a fundraiser for this cause.

Because of teething problems encountered with the first diesel-powered 38 Wellcraft Scarab, Smith prepared a second one for the record attempt, this one powered by three of the new experimental OMC (Evinrude) V-8 outboards that were intended for Open Class Offshore racing. There are dozens of sub-stories associated with this record attempt but the bottom line is: after replacing several lower units on the outboards that were damaged by debris in the river, including fallen trees, in 1982 Reagan and his team set the new New Orleans to St. Louis Mississippi River speed record while raising nearly $500,000 for the Olympic fund. Reagan toured the boat show circuit with this record-breaking Scarab including being featured at the Toronto International Boat Show in the late 80s.

In 1984, the Wellcraft 38 KV Scarab became one of the most recognizable performance boats in the world as it became the conveyance of choice for Crockett & Tubbs chasing criminals on the popular television series Miami Vice. Wellcraft’s performance sales expanded exponentially, as did the prominence of the show’s star Don Johnson. The show lasted for 111 episodes through 1991, all while carrying Wellcraft sales with it. Johnson himself soon caught “the bug” and started offshore racing himself, eventually becoming a world champion himself.

Shortly thereafter, Larry Smith designed, and Team Scarab built, an all-new 43-foot Scarab powered by twin V-12 Lamborghini engines with Arneson surface drives for a run up the Mississippi to break the Reagan record. Don Johnson, with only two years of modest experience in offshore boating was to be the driver, backed by experienced Wellcraft throttleman Gus Anastasi, plus a local Mississippi river guide as a navigator.

Johnson broke Reagan’s record to become the new Mississippi River champion. Larry Smith turned the manufacturing plans for the 43 Scarab over to Wellcraft which promptly made it into a pleasure boat – the Wellcraft 43 Scarab Thunder. Don Johnson liked the boat so much that he worked with Wellcraft to create a new iteration -- the triple-engined Don Johnson Signature Edition Wellcraft 43 Scarab. It was in one of these that I became the “stunt boat driver” in the feature-length movie F/X2 starring Bryan Brown and Brian Dennehy.

Wellcraft then enjoyed even more promotion when Team Scarab built a 34 Super Sport Scarab in bright yellow to be used by the lifeguards in Baywatch. The hugely popular series ran for 10 years from 1989 to 19999. Canadian Pamela Anderson was a regular on the show.

Larry Smith then designed arguably his most famous race boat that didn’t become a huge sales success. This was the 46-foot Scarab powered by triple Gentry Turbo engines with the brand new Kiekhaefer surface-running outdrives. Don Johnson drove this boat in the flashiest, fastest, most powerful, and yet toughest class to the 1988 World Offshore Superboat Championships, where he became world champion and was also awarded Driver of the Year honours. Wellcraft favourite Bill Sirois was throttleman, and Gus Anastasi, my friend and head of Wellcraft Performance Division, was navigator.

Wellcraft and Team Scarab were on a roll. Next they brought Hollywood star Chuck Norris on board to drive a 46 diesel-powered Scarab with Arneson surface drives with the intention to break the San Francisco to Los Angeles speed record. Next, Norris teamed with NFL great Walter Payton in a specially prepared 46 Scarab to break the Chicago to Detroit speed record. Unfortunately, mechanical issues thwarted both attempts. But the point had been made. Wellcraft Scarab boats were at the top of their game, despite the fact few boaters had ever heard of Larry Smith or Team Scarab.

In the early 1990s, Smith and Team Scarab developed a small waterjet-powered stunt boat that appeared at various boat shows. The waterjet was licenced to Volvo Penta to aid the development of their PJX waterjet, and was later used in development by Zodiac for its diesel jet. The current Kona 17 Sprint with Rotax Water Jet System is a one-class race boat which can be quickly converted to a family boat.

2024 Kona 17 Sprint Jet Boat by Larry Smith of Kona Concepts

In the early 2000s, the licensing agreement between Wellcraft and Larry Smith expired. Shortly after that, Wellcraft purchased the rights to the Scarab name from Smith and Team Scarab. The Wellcraft company has been sold a few times following the insolvency of Genmar, and today is part of the largest pleasure boat conglomerate in the world -- Groupe Beneteau. The Scarab name adorns the sides of a line of family jet boats.

As an innovator, Smith was one of the first to add Kevlar into hull laminates and one of the first to introduce vacuum bagging to improve equal resin distribution for strength and uniformity. He was also the first to introduce ventilated transverse stepped hulls on raceboats. He believed in fine tuning hulls by adding slight rockers where needed and stepped keel pads for lift. All of this technology has spilled over into the pleasure boats of today.

Meanwhile, Smith’s new company -- Kona Concepts --has continued in California where he remains a designer and consultant. Over the past decade, Smith has also begun working on battery-powered boats with Germany-based electric motor builder Torqeedo. #innovatorsinboating #scarab

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