MICHIGAN CITY — There are plenty of stories on the shoreline and in the water at boat races of drivers who grew up around the sport, working their way up the ranks.
Darren Nicholson of Australian powerboat 222 Offshore followed a different timeline to fame.
"Some of these guys have been racing since they were kids," Nicholson said from the team's trailer Friday at Washington Park. "I was 47, which seems old to start. I'm 56 now. Some people are getting ready to retire. Sometimes, I wrestle with it, but I'm not quite doing that. Pretty much everybody else here came up through different ranks, different boats. That's probably the sensible way. I didn't have 20 years to do that. I figured I'd better start at the top."
No stranger to the water, Nicholson was an accomplished sailor, winning three world and multiple national championships in the sport. A carpenter by trade, he raced back home with current 222 throttleman Peter McGrath, a connection that ultimately helped him navigate his way into powerboats.
"He's very much a mentor," Nicholson said. "I always liked these boats. I'd been driving (smaller) boats most of my life. I would watch races in Newcastle. To see something this big go 150 miles an hour, it's fun. There's a camaraderie between everybody. Everybody knows everybody. It's not an easy sport to get into. I can count on one hand the amount of people who have ever come for a ride in it. It's so hard. It's like driving a car on an icy, gravel road, you just wind it up to over 100 miles per hour."
Nicholson realized the fear factor the first time he stepped inside the capsule for a test ride on a skinny, muddy channel at Red Cliff in Queensland.
"I was looking at this (thing) and I'm like, 'What have I gotten myself into?'" he said. "I'm a newbie. I know nothing. I think my heart was somewhere up here (raising his hand above his head). We were going seven knots and Pete said, 'I'm going to bring it up, you might lose a bit of visibility, just keep it straight.' He brings it up and I can't see. Lesson No. 1, you line up where the compass is."
Not so sure how he had done, Nicholson got a thumbs up from McGrath, and the two have since formed a winning combination, along with Italian throttleman Giovanni Carpitella.
"Pete said, 'You've got an idea what you're doing,'" Nicholson said. "He knew some of my bad habits. It was quite advantageous that he understood me. I can only steer as quick as he can go. It's very much a partnership. If he didn't think I was good enough, he would alter things accordingly."
Part of the 222 team for five years, Nicholson has raced worldwide, including Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Monte Carlo, Turkey and India. The boat is the current Australian national champion.
"We thought it was better coming over here," said Nicholson, who hadn't raced in the U.S. prior to this season's American Powerboat Association series. "Sometimes, we'll stay. Sometimes, like this week, we'll go back (to Australia) and come back. If there's damage to the boat, the crew will stay in Miami. We put in a lot of miles."
The boat that won down under remains in Australia, while the hull that will run at the Great Lakes Grand Prix was purchased in Carpitella's native Italy.
"We're tweaking it to get it up to a good level," Nicholson said. "We're running second (in our division) at the moment. Engine-wise, we're all about the same. There's no discrepancy in the motors. We're all 150, 160 miles an hour. It's like a push bike. You've got a cog on the pedal part and one on the back. It gives you different outcomes. Then you've got the propellers. It comes down to getting the right setup, the optimum gear, the optimum propeller, the lengths of the straights. Hopefully, expectations line up. We have more chance of winning if it's choppier. We'll do the best we can."
While the Lake Michigan course isn't the most intricate, teams have to prepare their boats accordingly.
"From a water point of view, fresh water is great on the engines," Nicholson said. "Once you're out there, you wouldn't really notice a difference. The bouncing around is all about the shape of the waves. It's a bit of a boring course. You go straight, turn around, go straight, turn around. It makes it harder to be better, faster. It doesn't tick my box, but everyone probably has their own opinion. There's no cutting back to get inside. A boomerang shape (course), there's more finesse. There's more possibility in a lap around that things could change."
A thrill-seeker like any other person willing to climb into a powerboat, Nicholson has had his fair share of accidents. He's had a boat land on another boat, he's had boats roll over, and he's spun through the air at 45 degrees to the water, but has been fortunate enough to walk away each time.
"If you're doing that speed, at St. Clair, we were doing 150, and with the wind between 20 and 40 miles per hour, that's practically 190 miles an hour wind coming at the (boat) deck," he said. "You just compartmentalize all those things, allocate the appropriate mind space for it."
For anybody who had a bit of that daredevil gene in them, 222 Offshore came up with a clever social media marketing contest that will earn the winner a trip to the Fort Myers Beach race in October and a chance to ride in the boat. They hand out stickers in the shape of a flip-flop sandal that features an image of the boat wherever they travel, encouraging people to post them in an imaginative place. Participants put the picture on the team's Facebook page and followers vote for their favorite.
"Whoever gets voted the most popular, we'll fly them from anywhere in the world to the race and they get to ride in the boat," Nicholson said.
Summyt Sports Marketing Managing Director Skye Gregory showed images from Niagara Falls, Atlantic City, and a mountain in Norway, among others.
"It's fun. It gets everybody involved," Nicholson said. "We were in Italy and some Russians took some stickers. If someone could put one on the back of (President Donald) Trump's head, they'd probably win. Maybe he'd want to go for a ride."