'It must be I'm an adrenaline junkie," Joe Sgro of Bellmore says when asked why he races powerboats.
Good thing, really, considering these aren't just any boats, nor is he your average boater. In August, Sgro, 55, was midway through the 2009 season of the Powerboat P1 World Championship, piloting a 43-foot, 8,000-pound V-bottom boat against international teams at Grand Prix of the Sea events across Europe and the Middle East.
These are boats that go fast, 100-plus-mph fast. Boats that cost upward of a half-million dollars just to put into the water. Boats in which the driver and throttle man wear five-point harnesses in an enclosed canopy, and in which even a slight miscalculation can have catastrophic results.
In the 10th lap of the event's final race, on a 5-mile course off the southwest coast of Gothenburg, Sgro and Hook had taken second position in their Outerlimits boat, right behind the Belgian-piloted Furnibo. This was an enviable position for the U.S. racers, since they had arrived in Sweden - after three Grand Prix of the Sea events in four months - in fourth place, 163 points behind the first-place British Silverline team, which had 500 points.
They'd started the Powerboat P1 circuit in May with a race in Valletta, Malta, racing Sgro's boat with sponsorships from Lucas Oil and Outerlimits, a Rhode Island boat builder. They won both races, securing first place in the event. Mid-June found them in Istanbul, Turkey. They emerged victorious from the sprint race at the Turkish Grand Prix of the Sea, getting the maximum of 100 points and securing the top spot in the world championship standing in their class.
In early July, though, the pair had a boatload of trouble in the Grand Prix of the Sea in San Benedetto del Tronto in Marche, Italy. In the first race they broke a propeller, but because points are gained only for finishing 70 percent of a race, Sgro says he and Hook had to "drag" the boat around for about seven laps.
"The whole boat rattled," Sgro says. "It was torture for us and the boat."
The next day, in the second race, the throttle linkage broke. Still, Outerlimits was able to stay on plane, that is, at the proper angle on the water, to chug along at about 50 mph. All was well until the final lap, when another boat came by and knocked the boat off plane, leaving it limping toward the finish. "We went down to 10 mph," Sgro says. "We missed 70 percent by 500 yards." The team finished in fourth place.
Back on Long Island
Sitting in his waterfront backyard in Bellmore in early August, his patio and in-ground pool flanked on the water side by his own 51-foot Outerlimits speedboat, a smaller boat and some water scooters, Sgro talked getting the team back in the running.
"Keeping yourself out of trouble is vital," he says. "There's a saying that 'rubbing is racing' - when you go into a turn in a race, it's a test of wills. You don't want to hit anyone, but you want to see if the other guy will back down."
This is especially true for the so-called evolution-class boats. They must meet a power-to-weight ratio of about 7.7 pounds per horsepower. The organization says this rule allows boats to compete despite having vastly different engines and drive systems - it's not just a matter of the boat with the fastest engines winning. At the start of each season, teams ship their engines to Northampton, England, for testing. The engines are then sealed with wire and tamper-evident paint. There is also a UHF radio-based system that collects and transmits real-time race data to help determine how many horsepower the engines are producing.
Though these races aren't won by speed alone, Sgro says he stays in it for the thrill. "I've raced something ever since I was a kid, when I raced bicycles; then it was cars and then boats," he says.
Taken with racing
Technically, Joe Sgro grew up in Bensonhurst, but he grew his sea legs during summers spent in Hampton Bays, where his parents had a house when he was a kid. "I'd come home from the last day of school, and my dad would be packing up the car," Sgro says. He would spend all summer out on the water, fishing, crabbing and, eventually, boating.
He says his powerboat racing as a natural progression, a way to stay out of trouble, really.
"Around 1985, my friend Joe Latona moved to Long Island. He bought an old race boat. It was loud, fast, annoying," Sgro says. "We had a lot of problems with the bay constable, with the marine police, the Coast Guard."
"After getting a handful of tickets," he says, they began racing in the Northeast, taking their 28-foot Manta Fever boat to second place in their first race in 1986.
In the ensuing years he's had about the number of alliances and partings you'd expect from a marriage made of speed, water and money.
In the '90s he joined Peter Meyer, another Long Islander, to buy a 32-foot Fountain Activator. Later he would team up with Reggie Fountain, maker of North Carolina-based Fountain boats. Between '86 and 2008, Sgro racked up more than a dozen world and national titles.
There were bumps along the way, notably in 2005. In the first race of the season in Miami, Sgro says, the Fountain boat he was racing caught fire. "It was a catastrophic fire," he says, "and we lost the boat." Sgro wasn't out of the game for long when Outerlimits boat builder Mike Fiore, who had recently moved his operation to Rhode Island, called.
"He called with his condolences," Sgro explains, "and said he'd build me a boat." This year is Sgro's third year racing with Outerlimits.
The wider range and larger number of competitors are what attracted Sgro to the international circuit. The P1 racing organization says tens of thousands of spectators will line marina seawalls and beaches to watch the races in European ports, though stateside fans are limited to Web-based videos and P1radio.com, which broadcasts during the races.
Sgro has a wife, Eileen, and six children who range in age from 30 to 7. He also runs a Brooklyn school bus company, Maggie's Transportation, where his older sons work summers. He's a "family man," his wife says, so being away for the weekend-long races on far-flung coasts is difficult for him.
"We had our share of arguments early on about racing," Eileen says with a smile. "But this international racing is something Joe's wanted to do for so long." In July, Eileen and Joe Sgro and the kids spent just over a week in Italy after the San Benedetto race. That sort of family experience, she says, is amazing. For Joe it was some compensation for the team's performance in Italy.
'In God's hands'
By the time the Lucas Oil Outerlimits racers got to Sweden in early August, they figured they'd gotten "the gremlins out," he says.
And all was going well, until the 10th lap as they went into the turn.
"He [the Furnibo] was in clean water," Sgro, who was driving at 116 mph, recalls, "and I didn't see these three waves. . . . The boat skipped up sideways and did a little hop. The second wave popped it in the air, and the third wave grabbed the boat and rolled it over.
"Once the boat went off axis, I was in God's hands," he says. When the boat landed, he says he saw the sky and knew it was "time to leave."
As he stepped out of the intact canopy, the boat jerked straight up in the air, and he went off in a back flip.
Once rescued, he says he didn't want to go to the hospital, but went as a precaution.
The dramatic barrel roll doesn't seem to have rattled him too much. "I was a little dazed and confused," he says, but it happened so fast he didn't have time to get excited.
Sgro's Outerlimits boat, which is in pieces, will be shipped back to Baltimore from Sweden, and then to Outerlimits in Rhode Island to see if it can be rebuilt. Meanwhile, Nigel Hook, Sgro's throttle man in Sweden, went to the final P1 race in Sicily last weekend with a different boat, which didn't manage to finish the race. Nevertheless, the Lucas Oil Outerlimits had earned enough points to come in fourth place in the 2009 P1 World Championship.
Realizing he didn't have any "residual fears" after the Sweden crash seems to have surprised Joe Sgro. At the last minute, he says, he entered the Battle on the Bay race Aug. 23 in Patchogue - an event in which one of his friends died last year - and won the P3 class race driving his friend Jeff Cropper's boat, a 32-foot Activator made by Outerlimits.