By: Richard Crowder
In Part One of the Reggie Fountain story, we examined his growing up in North Carolina and from a very early age, developing an unwavering focus on boat racing and on winning and on the work ethic required to get there. By the end of Part One, I had not yet met the man who was to become one of my most unforgettable characters.
I had been attending offshore powerboat races and specifically the World Offshore Racing Championships in Key West, Florida every November since 1988. In 1993 I was in the wet pits of the Galleon Resort Marina where all of the race boats docked and the crews gathered. I was taking pictures and chatting with the many friends I had developed in the industry over the years when suddenly the whole dock area shook with the loudest engine sounds I had ever heard.
Everyone stopped and turned toward the noise to take in the loudest, baddest looking offshore V-bottom race boat I had ever seen. It was also one of the first canopied V-bottom race boats: the 47 Fountain inXS powered by triple MerCruisers with over 1000 horsepower each. It was breathtaking to watch it run. inXS went on to win almost every race it entered over a two year period.
At that point I had not yet met Reggie Fountain. I had heard of his braggadocio and had mostly discounted it as another newbie looking to break into the industry. However, I realized in that instant in Key West that this man was going to change the high performance boat industry. He had turned his bragging into reality and the industry was taking notice.
Skip ahead about fifteen years, and during the course of a casual dinner conversation at the Key West World’s in 2010 I learned the people I was with had purchased and restored the original inXS. The boat that I had fawned over was once again parked in a slip at the Galleon Resort, and the new owners had never met Reggie Fountain but were eager for a chance. So I called Reggie and we agreed to meet at the boat the following day. Below is the picture of Reggie sitting in the driver’s seat of a boat he had not seen in over fifteen years. Most unusual is his huge smile which is rarely seen. He also signed his name on the canopy hatch for the new owners who were thrilled to have his legacy now signed onto their boat.
Skip back to the spring of 1994, where I first interviewed Reggie at his Washington facility. He was everything and more of the reputation that preceded him; his almost overwhelming hospitality and generosity coupled with his limitless knowledge of the industry and boatbuilding while almost totally monopolizing the conversation with non-stop promotion of his boats in his famous soft-spoken southern drawl. He quickly became one of my most unforgettable characters and remains so to this day.
As an organizer of some of the first poker runs for high performance boats, and as a tester and writer for two prominent boat magazines, I was invited by Reggie to be one of the first journalists to test his all-new triple engine forty-foot Lightning. It was a cold and windy day in April so we donned survival suits with gloves, helmets with intercoms, and had the Fountain helicopter standing by just in case as the water was rough.
We were headed from the factory to his condo in Morehead City, which required crossing Pamlico Sound. Reggie let me drive the length of the choppy Pamlico River from Washington while giving me a non-stop driving lesson through the helmet intercom. When we got to Pamlico Sound, the waves were frothing four to six footers and Reggie took over the helm. I asked him to keep talking and to tell me why he was doing every little adjustment along the way. It was a cold and wet ride but absolutely the best driving lesson I ever received.
By this time, Reggie had spotted another opportunity for fast boats. Seeing the bass boat craze expand with ever-increasing speeds to allow teams to reach the fishing hole first, Reggie recognized the offshore salt-water fishing market could benefit from the same input. There were two major associations; the American Striper Association, which held tournaments from roughly North Carolina north to Maine, and the Southern Kingfish Association, operating roughly from North Carolina south right around Florida and into the Gulf.
Up until this point, most tournament fishermen were running 18-25 foot center consoles with modest outboard power and moderate range capabilities. Reggie hired respected salt water fishing expert Clayton Kirby, and using a custom 31-foot center console with twin Mercury 200’s on it Kirby entered a Striper tournament. He was able to run faster, further, and longer than his competitors and won his first tournament. The fishing fraternity immediately took notice.
In the late 90's, the culmination of Reggie’s development in the fishing market was perhaps his 38 Fountain center console that was filmed literally running circles around its competitors in a Southern Kingfish tournament. The follow-up publicity and tournament support changed the offshore sport fishing industry almost overnight with fisherman seeing the benefit of speed, range, and rough water capability.
Once again sales rocketed and a new market for Fountain was created. By 2006, the majority of his boat sales were center console stepped-hull fishing boats . The following year he seized another promotional opportunity to showcase the speed, efficiency, and range of his hulls by running a fully outfitted 38 center console with triple Mercury Verado 300 outboards from Cape Hatteras to downtown New York City. They did it in just over six hours without refueling while sometimes averaging 70 mph!
Reggie also saw the promotional value in the poker runs for high performance boats spreading throughout North America. Even where speed had no part in winning, owners nevertheless gathered for a weekend of showing off their latest purchase with the newest model, or the biggest engines, or the snazziest graphics.
Reggie fit right in and always brought his newest model, or one of his kilo winning boats, or even a race boat. But in true Reggie fashion, it always had to be the fastest boat just in case he was challenged. Reggie gained immense promotional value from these events by mingling with participants and magazine writers. Fountain Powerboats and Reggie Fountain were always in the limelight and he lapped it up. His image became larger than life, his reputation grew, and his sport boat sales expanded proportionately.
In the late 90's, Reggie was still winning and setting V-bottom records in both kilo and offshore racing events. I attended two kilo record attempts held in cold and wet and miserable North Carolina February weather in 1997 and 1998. By 2003, Mike Fiore, owner of Outerlimits had set a new record of 150 mph.
So in 2004, Reggie upped that to 159 mph in the 42 Lightning race boat Rio Roses powered with a pair of 1290 hp MerCruisers. Later that same year, Reggie upped the ante again to 172 mph in the 42 Lightning race boat, Pier 57 running 1500 hp Sterling motors. That record held for ten years until 2014 when Mike Fiore of Outerlimits upped the mark to 181 mph using a pair of 1650 hp MerCruisers. The back and forth between manufacturers and the public challenges for determining who had the fastest V-bottom boat provided enormous promotional fodder for both sides.
Around 2000, Reggie’s oldest son Wyatt had started racing and had become a multi-time world champion. His youngest son, Reggie Fountain III, also got into racing and at age 16 became the youngest world offshore racing champion by being the driver for a class winning boat. Reggie Fountain III is currently a much sought after professional throttleman and crew chief.
Throughout the late 90's and early 2000’s, Fountain Powerboats arguably won more offshore national and world championships than any other manufacturer and Reggie was always there to cheer on the various Fountain teams. Fountain also claimed victory and set records in every kilo V-bottom class.
Offshore racing was gaining more prominence as the race courses were moved closer to shore for better viewing. Naturally, Reggie took advantage of this with huge on-site promotions. The media also took closer attention thanks in part to high profile business and media personalities like Don Johnson, Kurt Russell, and Chuck Norris.
Reggie was also witness to the growth in the express cruiser overnighting/weekender market. To help answer the demand, he extended the deck height and made bottom modifications to two of his hulls to create a 40 and 48-foot express cruiser with a full stand-up cabin with head and shower, full galley, and comfortable sleeping accommodations. Of course they were the fastest express cruisers on the market with speeds in some cases exceeding 80 mph. One customer’s boat being delivered to Mexico was driven across the Gulf setting a speed record for the 405 mile trip from Key West to Cancun. Of course, Reggie reveled in the publicity.
By the mid-2000’s, high performance boat ownership was booming, spurred on by poker runs springing up every weekend somewhere in North America. Many traditional manufacturers, and some new ones, began catering to this new sport. Catamarans started showing up in all sizes and power and caught on due to their greater interior passenger space, exotic designs and graphics, and their speed capabilities.
Reggie saw this and went about proving that V-bottoms could still be faster, especially in rough water situations. He built a 47-foot race boat with twin 1550 hp Sterling engines capable of speeds in excess of 160 mph. He called it the Cat Killer, and took it to a few poker runs to prove a point and ruffle some feathers. He captured two national and world offshore titles between 2008 and 2010, proving, at least to him, that V-bottoms could keep up with the cats.
The recession of 2008 reeked havoc in the discretionary income for such “toys,” and high performance boats and manufacturers suffered greatly. With little cash flow, large fixed expenses, and a huge debt partially due to Reggie’s claimed expenditures of $150 Million in R&D and racing participation over the years, Fountain Powerboats entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy in early 2009.
The brand went through a number of hands until Fountain boats along with Donzi, Baja, and Pro-Line were picked up by Iconic Marine under one manufacturing umbrella in Washington, NC in 2016. Pro-line was summarily spun off leaving the three sport boat lines, with each serving a different segment of the market. Reggie has recently been brought back in as a consultant. He still lives in his three story custom-built home on the Pamlico River close to the factory and he still has his several apartment buildings and shopping mall that he invested in early on in his career. Maybe, just maybe, he will now work to re-capture the V-bottom kilo speed record by supervising the build of a 200 mph Fountain. It would be great justice to a great man.
The high performance sport boat market is not as buoyant today as it was pre-recession. Over his thirty years of building Fountains, Reggie says he has sold over 10,000 boats worth over $1 billion in total. He has sold to such luminaries as ex-President George H.W. Bush, Ross Perot, US Customs, and the US Coast Guard to name a few. He has arguably won more official boat races than any other person, and his boats have done likewise with walls of trophies to prove it.
Reggie Fountain Jr. has been perhaps one of the largest personalities in offshore racing and sport boat culture than any other in history. He was a true innovator with his tweaked deep-vee hull designs, but was even more of an innovator in his use of publicity and bravado to promote the sport. In turn, that provided incentive for other manufacturers to innovate as well.
I always looked forward to the test drives, meetings, get togethers, conversations, and interviews I had with Reggie. I was deeply honoured in the mid 2000’s to be asked to emcee a surprise reception and roast to Reggie during the Miami Boat Show. It was there I introduced some of the giants of the industry who showed up to honour him. Reggie is deeply embedded in my memories as my most unforgettable character.
Who can forget his flamboyant appearance, like his consistent “man in black” wardrobe, his slicked back hair, and his spandex racing outfits? His commanding take-charge attitude extended to any meal you had with Reggie where he would invariably order to his choosing for the entire table. But he was always willing to stop and talk to anyone, regardless of how busy he was or whether or not you were a total stranger. He always made you feel like a somebody. A conversation with Reggie would always include a little self-promotion, usually about how his boats were the fastest and best in the world. And he always delivered them a soft-spoken southern drawl.
The boating industry will probably never again host another icon like Reggie Fountain Jr.