Project: Remaking Speed Racer

The latest incarnation of Speed Racer has a six-seat cockpit and Potter Performance Engines with Mercury Racing No. 6 drives. All photos courtesy/copyright Sharkey Images.The latest incarnation of Speed Racer has a six-seat cockpit and Potter Performance Engines with Mercury Racing No. 6 drives. All photos courtesy/copyright Sharkey Images.

Precious few high-performance “theme boats” stand the test of time, regardless of how expertly their mural-based paint work is applied. The simple fact is that what seemed to be a clever theme one year appears tired the next. The real bummer and irony, at least for the owner, is that the big-buck theme paint job he once held dear can actually become an impediment to selling the boat.

Speed Racer, a 44-foot-long Marine Technology, Inc., catamaran built six years ago and owned by Bob Christie of New Jersey, presents a notable exception. Regardless of venue and exposure, the boat consistently attracts the biggest crowds at the docks. And not just the “Hey, ain’t that one of them cigar boats?” folks. Even the most discerning and experienced go-fast boat aficionados never seem to tire of it.

But that doesn’t mean Speed Racer hasn’t changed since it first left the MTI plant in Wentzville, Mo.—far from it.

When Christie bought the boat, which had BPM drives and rudder steering but no engines, in 2008, he immediately had the builder convert it from a four-seater to a five-seater. For power, Christie went with a pair of supercharged engines in the 1,000-hp range from Potter Performance Engines. He also added a pair of transmissions.

“The transmissions couldn’t take the torque,” said Christie. “So we replaced them with crash boxes.”

Christie ran Speed Racer with that powertrain for the entire summer of 2009. But although the setup was reliable and delivered excellent handing and stability at higher speeds, it was tough to manage at low speeds. In fact, its BPM drives, rudder and crash boxes (for those who don’t know, engines with crash boxes are started in gear, which means when the engines are running the boat is always moving either forward or backward) made it a bit of nightmare around the docks.

When Christie repowered Speed Racer in 2010 with 1,000-hp engines that had larger fuel injectors in the event he opted to boost their power, the catamaran became even tougher to handle at the docks.

“With the bigger injectors, the motors were not as docile at idle speeds,” said Ron Potter of Potter Performance.

“If you lose a motor for any reason at low speeds with a rudder boat, you have no control,” added Christie.

Though Christie dealt with Speed Racer’s low-speed drivability issues for much of the 2010 boating season, he knew that wholesale change was definitely in order. Appropriate as they were for driving at the highest speeds, the BPM drives and rudder weren’t the right call for the cat, which is first and foremost a pleasure boat. Docking at poker runs, where dock space often is tight, was an all-hands-on-deck fire drill. So during that summer, Christie discussed the notion of converting Speed Racer to a (Mercury Racing) No. 6 drive boat with Randy Scism, the owner and founder of MTI.

“The No. 6 drives are more user friendly for a pleasure-boat guy,” said Randy Scism, a former offshore racing world champion. “When you turn the boat a low speed, the boat goes where you want it to go. At low speed, a rudder does nothing when you turn the wheel.”

Smaller injectors in Speed Racer's Potter Performance engines have helped make the boat easier to handle around the docks.Smaller injectors in Speed Racer's Potter Performance engines have helped make the boat easier to handle around the docks.

Christie also talked with Potter about other ideas for making Speed Racer better around the docks, and to that end the engines had already been fitted with smaller injectors and remapped. Together, they decided on replacing the boat’s underwater exhaust, which Potter found was creating an exhaust gas recirculation issue, with through-transom exhaust. They also decided to add two-speed Coan transmissions, which were originally developed for use on alcohol dragsters.

All of the work was done at MTI. But it was anything but “plug and play.”

“It’s a big job,” said Scism. “To make it happen, we had to basically remove the back of the boat including the transom. The stringers in the engine compartment had to be removed and relocated to accommodate the No. 6 drives, which have more inboard shaft centerlines than the BPM drives.

“In some aspects, it’s harder than building a new boat, because you have to work within an existing space,” Scism added. “And if it weren’t such a great, high-value boat it probably wouldn’t have made sense. To Bob’s credit, he didn’t ask us to cut any corners, he had us go 100 percent, and it came out great.”

An added benefit: With the engines closer to the centerline, Speed Racer’s once-crowded engine compartment, which made routine maintenance chores a drag, became spacious on all sides.

Also gone were the catamaran’s Mercury 380-S K-planes.

“They were there originally because the BPM drives were slow and somewhat unresponsive to trim,” said Christie. “That’s not a problem anymore with the No. 6 drives, as Randy assured me it wouldn’t be, and the two-speed trannies. But even with trannies in second gear, I have to tell you that getting on plane is not a problem.

“Speed Racer is much more responsive now at lower speeds and around the docks,” he continued. “It’s a little looser at higher speeds than it was with the rudder because the rudder is so deep in the water, and you could probably turn it harder at those speeds with the rudder. But the boat spends very little time at those speeds.”

On its own, that project would have been ambitious. But Christie wasn’t done. In addition to the BPM-to-No. 6-drive conversion, he had MTI replace the boat’s five-seat interior with a six-seat interior. He also had the builder reconfigure the dash, which has redundant gauges on both sides for the driver and co-pilot, to accommodate a new Garmin 5212 GPS unit. (Speed Racer is set up for either one- or two-person operation.)

Speed Racer's six-seat cockpit came out existing MTI tooling.Speed Racer's six-seat cockpit came out existing MTI tooling.

MTI actually has tooling for a six-seat cockpit—it’s become the company’s most popular interior option seating option—so the builder didn’t have to “stick-build” the new interior. With the better half of Speed Racer already torn apart for the drive-replacement project, replacing the cockpit was fairly straightforward for Scism and his crew. Once the job was done, all that was left was to re-laminate and rematch the pearl-white of the boat’s color scheme in the areas that required it.

Said Christie, “I’ve never been happier with it. Randy sea-trialed Speed Racer with Ron Potter after everything was done, and he told me it's one of the best 44' MTIs, if not the best 44' MTI, he's ever built."

The remade Speed Racer made its public debut at the 2011 Atlantic City Poker Run last weekend, and as it always it captured the lion’s share of attention at the docks. It remains one of those rare theme boats that stands the test of time. And yet what casual admirers don’t know, and likely never will, is that this “classic” boat has changed radically since the day it was built.

Speed Racer remains a timeless theme boat.Speed Racer remains a timeless theme boat.

Editor’s Note: All images copyright/courtesy Tim Sharkey, Sharkey Images.