Innovators in Boating - Reggie Fountain & A Need for Speed (Part 1)
By: Richard Crowder
“We want to build the fastest, safest, smoothest, and best handling boats in the world.” In his heyday, you would be hard pressed to interview with Reggie Fountain for more than a few minutes without hearing those words.
Born in 1940 to a close-knit family of comfortable means in the small county seat town of Tarboro, North Carolina, located east of Raleigh and northwest of the inland coastal town of Washington, NC, Reginald Morton Fountain, Jr. was a hard worker and a go-getter.
As a youngster, Reggie and his friends spent hours at the nearby Tar River swimming, fishing, and running one of their parent's borrowed boats. When Reggie was in control, he ran any boat just as fast as it would go and challenged anyone he could to a race. With money he saved from delivering newspapers, at age 12 he bought his first boat with an 18-horsepower outboard. His full-speed-ahead reputation gained notice and by age 14 he was hired by a local as his race boat driver to compete in local and regional races.
Reggie was athletic and played competitive of high school sports and always strove to be a winner at all he took on. He was even state trap shooting champion for a number of years. Reggie believed firmly in the saying that "to the winner go the spoils." Second place was never good enough for him and meant simply that he had to work harder next time. He followed that credo throughout his life.
Weekends and summers were spent in nearby Washington, NC where its Pamlico River led into Pamlico Sound. There, not only did Reggie become a proficient water skier in slalom and barefoot, but he also loved the challenge of racing locals with his ever faster boats that he tweaked for maximum performance. It was there that he took in the spectacle of the very fast Sports Craft and factory-sponsored Formula 1 tunnel hull racing. He was hooked.
Reggie graduated with both a business degree and then a law degree from the University of North Carolina. All this while he devoted his spare time to racing. He did most of the work on his boats from tweaking the motors to understanding how small imperfections in the hull bottom reflected in the speed and handling of the boat.
In the late 1960’s he bought a twin outboard-powered Glastron Molinari tunnel boat and entered racing full time as an amateur. But it was an expensive sport and Reggie needed to support himself. Through a relative’s recommendation, Reggie started selling life insurance and in true Reggie fashion, he worked hard to be number one. For the next ten years in a row, Reggie was honoured into the million dollar salesman’s club.
Reggie was certainly noticed as an amateur with his hard-charging take-no-prisoners attitude. In 1973 he won 22 out of 23 races in his class with his twin-engine Molinari. But without factory support to get the latest and most powerful motors, he was at a disadvantage. He made a deal with Gary Garbrecht, head of the Mercury Racing Team, for a pair of used Mercury inline 6-cyl stacker racing motors. The following year, in one day at one race, he set two world records and earned three national championships.
Throughout the early seventies, Reggie left his mark on tunnel boat racing by winning more races around the nation-wide circuit than any other amateur. He continually traded his older motors for the latest used motors from Mercury Racing, and then outperformed the professional factory racers with the latest technology. No longer capable of being ignored, he joined the Mercury Factory Team in 1974 which also included the likes of legendary racers Bill Seebold and Earl Bentz.
Over the next four years, they won almost every race with Reggie becoming 1976 and 1978 World Champion. After his first world championship he named his boat “Spirit of ‘76,” and that “76” label has appeared on the sides of many of Reggie’s later offshore race boats. After four years of domination in the extremely expensive tunnel hull racing circuit, where winning on Sunday and selling on Monday became a sad reality, Mercury Marine shut down its racing program.
It was 1979, and Reggie had learned a valuable lesson that would change the future of the sport boat industry forever; winning and the accolades it brought was invaluable to sales.
Offshore powerboat racing had been steadily growing since the start of the 60's. Charismatic personalities like Don Aronow had promoted not only offshore racing, but also the increasingly popular deep-vee hulled offshore-style boats that could be driven in almost any kind of water. With tunnel hull boats seating only one or two persons and being restricted to relatively calm waters, anyone with the money could buy and drive an offshore deep-vee boat and take along passengers all while having their egos stroked.
V-bottom names at that time like Formula and Donzi, Magnum and Nova, Scarab and Apache, and soon to be Cigarette and Hustler, were all catching on with the public as sport pleasure boats. Gary Garbrecht at Mercury was supplying ever increasing horsepower and volumes of sterndrive engines to satisfy the demand. On Garbrecht’s suggestion, Reggie visited Excalibur Boats in Sarasota, Florida, bought a 31 Excalibur offshore deep-vee and made an arrangement to work on and modify the boat at the Excalibur facility.
With his appreciation of hydrodynamics from his years of water skiing where he could “feel” the effects of small changes made by his feet or skis, and from his years of racing where the smallest changes in the hull bottom had remarkable influence on speed and handling, Reggie went to work on the running surface of the Excalibur.
Reggie had marveled at the bottom design of his earlier Allison Craft V-bottom race boat and took two of its noted attributes and transferred them to the much heavier offshore deep-vee boat. The first was a keel pad. Most offshore designs at that time were a 24-degree deadrise at the transom. This made the keel very sharp and pointed from front to back. Reggie flattened out the keel about six to eight inches wide at the transom and tapered the width narrower going forward where it blended back into the original “pointy” keel. This flatter surface at the stern called a keel pad increased acceleration and top speed and offered better handling in certain situations.
The second change Reggie adapted from the Allison Craft was a notched transom. In all offshore designs in those days, the transom was absolutely flat from the gunnel to the bottom of the “V.” Imagine if you will placing a knife absolutely horizontal onto the transom about one foot above the bottom of the “V.” Now cut forward about six to eight inches toward the bow of the boat. From there, cut down toward the keel until you remove that V-shaped chunk of transom and hull bottom. Then fibreglass over the “cut lines” and you have a notched transom.
Now, the water running along the bottom of the boat will escape ahead of the transom and flow upward ahead of the lower unit and propeller and be less disturbed for better propeller “bite.” This allows the propeller to be mounted higher (called a shorter “X” dimension) and still have adequate water to work efficiently while also reducing drag by having less of the lower unit “dragging” in the water.
Testing at Mercury Marine’s famous Lake X facility in Florida proved the difference these two changes made to the performance of the Excalibur. These two innovations of Reggie’s have carried forward in his designs and in a large proportion of offshore performance boats to this day. Further improvements in the performance of the Excalibur resulted from Reggie’s almost obsessive attention with “blueprinting” the running surface; in other words, ensuring it was straight and true as originally designed with no blemishes or imperfections.
When all finished, Reggie knew he had a winner and named it the Excalibur Executioner. It was named the 979 Boat of the Year by the prestigious west coast enthusiast’s Powerboat Magazine. Orders came in and Reggie and a small crew built a dozen of them at the Excalibur facility in Sarasota.
In 1980, he moved production to an abandoned dealership in Washington, North Carolina. Then in 1981 the boat was retooled by adding a bow flare for greater buoyancy and rebound in heavy swells. They also added what would become the Fountain “look,” the famous bow “beak.” The boat was now thirty-three feet in length (10 m) and became the Fountain 10M Executioner.
This new look caught on and business boomed throughout the 1980’s. Reggie’s meticulous attention to detail with the boats themselves but also to his customers with his personal attention, training, and hospitality was unmatched. Production space was soon overwhelmed and was moved to new facilities custom designed for boat building and testing on the banks of the Pamlico River. Reggie personally tested every boat they built and signed off on it prior to a customer even seeing it.
The 1980’s also saw Reggie taking his company public on the American Stock Exchange and broadening his boat line with the iconic Lightning series of models in 40 and 47 feet. Then came the smaller Fever series. By the early 90's Reggie and his company were flying high and his reputation for fast, quality high performance boats constructed from the best materials in the industry was spreading fast.
Reggie quickly became the sport’s biggest promoter and repeated his mantra for building the fastest, safest, smoothest, and best handling boats in the world to anyone who would listen. He started racing and winning on the offshore racing circuit and began backing his claims by getting into a prolonged back and forth battle with the well known Wellcraft Scarab brand, both by winning on the race course and by setting new kilo speed records. The battle between brands and Reggie’s bombastic style put offshore high performance sport boating onto the front pages of boating magazines. Sales skyrocketed for Fountain and for other builders.
In his quest to always be the fastest, Reggie spent untold sums on R&D. In the very early 90's, he introduced his “Super Ventilated Positive Lift Hull,” which consisted of one or two lateral notches cut diagonally full-width into the hull bottom. These “steps” forced air to mix with the smooth water passing under the hull and cause turbulence, thus reducing the surface tension drag that smooth water had along the running surface. Called an aerated hull, boat speeds increased by about ten percent by eliminating some of the drag of the boundary layer of water against the hull.
In Part 2 of Reggie Fountain & A Need for Speed, we look at the phenomenal growth the of high performance sport boat industry and the salt water sport fishing boat segment that arose due to Reggie’s personal involvement and his penchant for bombastic promotion.