The turquoise water laps gently at the white sand beach. A gull preens its wings. Then…AAAAAEEEEiiiiiii!!!!!!VAAAROOOOOOMMMM!!!!! Five hundred yards off Miami Beach a 50-foot white speedboat marked Team USA, piloted by Don Johnson and his crewman Kurt Russell, comes skidding wildly around a buoy at 100-plus mph. A second later, hot on its rooster tail, comes a shrieking yellow boat, Popeyes/diet Coke, driven by Johnson’s buddy and racing nemesis Chuck Norris.
The chase is fresh, but the game isn’t new: Norris has been on his friend’s case for six weeks. Johnson, who began racing in his Miami Vice days, won the Offshore World Cup in 1988. Norris, an avid off-road racer, only took up powerboats on April 14, won his very first race and has been into power gloating ever since. “For me to go up against Don and beat him was such a thrill,” he says happily. “I love to needle him. I’ll say, ‘Don, how did that happen? You’re the world champion, and I beat you first time out.’ ”
“It’s good fun,” Johnson agrees. “But this is not something you just fall off a cabbage truck and do. It’s serious.”
Deadly serious, actually: This racing is one of the world’s most dangerous motor sports. The 3,200-hp “superboats,” which have lightweight hulls of aluminum or carbon fiber and cost better than $1 million each, attain speeds of around 145 mph. There have been 14 deaths in four years, one at the April 14 races, despite such safety measures as enclosed cabins, harnesses, and scuba gear for escaping from a flipped boat. “What injures people,” explains Al Copeland, president of the Popeyes chain and owner of Norris’s boat, “is hitting the water. At over 100 mph, the impact triples.”
So, apparently, does the thrill. “The speed, the engines,” rhapsodizes Johnson. “I just love running fast. This is a great sport.” Not quite great enough to take over his life—”I have not quit my day job,” says the actor—but enough for him to found and serve as chairman of the Offshore Powerboat Tour. A national organization of racers that has branched off from the volunteer-run American Powerboat Association, the OPT will stage nine races around the country in its first year.
Russell, Johnson’s neighbor in celeb-intensive Aspen, turned to racing last year. A former stunt pilot and race car driver, he serves as Team USA’s navigator, trying to stay on course while watching gauges for signs of engine trouble. “Obviously it’s hazardous,” admits Russell, “but I like competing at the highest level in anything I do. I want to be in as many races as I can this year.” Not everyone shares his zeal. While wife Melanie Griffith often cheers Johnson on, Russell’s significant other, Goldie Hawn, is seldom seen on the tour and is said to be nervous about its dangers.
No such trepidation trips up Norris, whose attraction to the sport is about as subtle as his karate movies. “I do it for kicks,” he says, strapping in before the race. “And right now I’m looking forward to kicking some butt.” For most of the 150-mile, nine-boat contest, he, Johnson and Russell roar bow-to-wake. The winner is INXS, driven by John Gehert of Pennsylvania, but Team USA is 16 seconds back in second place, and Norris is third.
“We ran a great race and had a blast out there,” says Johnson, on the dock. “There were a couple of times I thought we were upside down. We didn’t run as fast as we wanted, but… we beat Chuck Norris.”
—Jack Friedman, Cindy Dampier in Miami