MICHIGAN CITY — There is strength in numbers, and in unity, there is strength.
Offshore Powerboats Association President Ed 'Smitty' Smith found both old axioms to be true in his organization's recent partnership with Powerboats P1.
"We figured if we had 35, 40 boats and they had 35, 40 boats, instead of having 70, 80 boats scattered over 15 races, we could pick the best six and concentrate on that," Smith during a Great Lakes Grand Prix reception Thursday at Sunset Grille in Washington Park. "In the past, the problem was the sport was so fragmented, it just didn't make any sense. Our long-term goal is to develop a six-race series, build a brand, then go after sponsorship."
The marriage gave birth to the American Powerboat Association (APBA) Offshore Championship Series, a set of six races with three stops in Florida as well as Lake of the Ozarks, Mo., St. Clair, Mich., and Michigan City. This weekend's event on Lake Michigan is the fifth race in the series, which is capped by the Roar Offshore OPA National Championships Oct. 10-12 in Fort Myers Beach.
"We took a poll of the teams and found out which places were their favorites," Smith said. "When the conversation came up about Michigan City, I'd never raced here before but I'd heard about it. Most of the teams rave about the site. I met with (Grand Prix director) Rick Wright in Key West in November and said, why don't you merge with me and instantly we double the boat count? I came up in February and met with the powers that be and we put a deal together."
In a Jan. 18 News-Dispatch story, Wright said the future of the Michigan City event is based on getting more national and international attention, and he expects the new racing series to achieve that.
“We have spent a lot of time and effort building the event, and people come here to enjoy the weekend of racing with the racers treated like rock stars,” he said.
A native of the New Jersey shore -- just like Miss Geico partner Scotty Begovich -- Smith was in the marina business when he built his first boat about 40 years ago. He raced with his son, working his way through the ranks to the point where he became head of the OPA in 2003, a position he's held since. Having only been to Michigan City in the dead of winter, Smith was excited to return this week to see the beach and lake in all of its summer glory.
"It's been a lot of fun," he said. "In Jersey, on the East Coast, there's so many other things going on, boat racing gets overlooked. You come up here, it's a motorsports environment and we kind of fall right into that. We raced in St. Clair and when they invited me there, I'm thinking, 'Michigan, Detroit, I don't know,' but I got there and the water's beautiful. Previously, this was a Superboat International race, so it was impossible (to attend) with St. Clair the weekend before. You look out there, you think you're in the ocean. You don't realize how big that lake is. It's huge."
The spectator response has also drawn Smith's attention.
"One of the coolest things coming up this way is the people," he said. "There were 75, 80,000 (in St. Clair) and I'm expecting this to be even larger than that. It's great. We're performers. We love to perform in front of big crowds. It's not like this is a business generating tremendous profits, that everybody's in it for the money. It's a hobby."
In addition to the big boats, the weekend's slate includes the Aqua-X (jet ski) races.
"In Jersey, we had these little 16-foot boats, garveys, and we'd run a little course like an opening act for offshore boats," Smith said. "They'd get more attention because you can see them. The offshore boats, you can't see half the race. What's cool about the Aqua Cross is it all happens right here on the short course. You can see the whole race."
Testing begins at 2 p.m. today for the P1-6 and Aqua-X classes, which will race from noon to 4 on Saturday. The Pro Stock V -- Class One will test from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday with racing starting at 11 a.m. Sunday.
For more information, go to GreatLakesGrandPrix.com.