The classic offshore powerboat racer is rich and restless. When big houses and big cars pale, the racer peels off some $80,000 for an exotic race boat, adds $250,000 or so to campaign it for a season and joins the eight-race circuit. Winners are awarded elaborate trophies of crystal and silver and modest purses of about $12,000, barely enough money to keep them in spark plugs. But the circuit takes them to all the nifty places. Last week's event, the fifth annual Bacardi Trophy Race, offered a 198-mile trip across the sea from Miami to Bimini and back.
Seventeen of the big boats boiled out into the Atlantic last Saturday before a crowd of some 5,000 spectators lining Government Cut. The six finishers had to slash their way back and forth across the Gulf Stream in five-foot seas, searching out eight small checkpoints and dodging countless pleasure craft along the way. And each racer discovered, as the rich and restless almost always do, that it takes more than money to make a winner.
Consider Rocky Aoki, the well-known restaurateur who spends enormous sums to ensure that he is well known. By his own reckoning, Aoki spent about $500,000 last year on racing. Poor Rocky—if that's the right word to describe him—started all eight races on the 1978 circuit and failed to finish a single one. But when the 1979 season opened March 17 with the Bushmills Grand Prix off Newport Beach, Calif., Aoki showed up with a new 38-foot tunnel-hull boat. He took up where he had left off, his Benihana blowing a water pump 10 minutes into the race. He said he hoped to do better in the Bacardi, the second event of the season. But even if he did badly, Aoki pointed out, he could always console himself with thoughts of his proposed $93 million hotel-casino complex in Atlantic City, or the restaurant he will open in Moscow for the 1980 Olympics, or the powerboat speed records he hopes to establish between Japan and China. He may only be 5'3", but Rocky Aoki thinks big.
Charlie McCarthy of Warwick, R.I. arrived in Miami with a better record. McCarthy had not only finished the Bushmills GP, but he also won it. It was the first open-class race he had ever entered. Because it was the first race of the season, he thus became the points leader for the U.S. offshore title.
McCarthy got his start in powerboats 23 years ago, when he was 11. He and his friends would clamp outboards on small skiffs, then meander along the Rhode Island shore, looking for good spots to dig for quahogs. Several times, usually at night, the young clammers would come upon seedbeds, quahog nurseries for succulent, if illegal, small clams. "Mother would stand on the shore and blink a flashlight when the game wardens approached," McCarthy says. The night diggers would then rev up and out-race the law.
McCarthy now owns 300 trucks, a boat building business and a hot new offshore design he calls a Banana Boat. Banana? "It's just the opposite of what you think of as a racer," he says. "I sort of picture a banana boat moving slowly up from South America with everybody aboard asleep—including the guy at the wheel."
McCarthy likes to do things differently. Though the majority of competitive offshore boats are now built of duPont's strong, light—and expensive—Kevlar, Top Banana, the 38-footer he is campaigning this season, is constructed of old-fashioned fiber glass. Further, the two 600-hp MerCruisers that power it were the only carbureted engines in the open class for the Bacardi because, "I didn't feel comfortable with fuel injection." After spending three years and well over $100,000 to put Top Banana into the water, McCarthy pondered the question of what he would do if the boat succumbed to the pounding of the Gulf Stream. "If the boat goes down," he said, "I'll go back to digging quahogs at night."
But the treacherous stream wasn't the only obstacle he had to face. There was also Joe Ippolito, 28, second in the national points standings for the last two years and the defending Bacardi champion, who would be driving a 38-foot Scarab. And there was 45-year-old Preston Henn, a Florida drive-in movie tycoon, who had won the Bacardi in 1976 and 1977 and might have won again last year if he hadn't been caught jumping the gun.
Bill Martin and his new Bounty Hunter also were considered a serious threat, especially in rough seas. The bright orange, 39-foot Cigarette was a mean-looking machine built to particularly heavy and solid specifications. "I've broken eight open-class boats in half," said Martin, a furniture company executive from Clark, N.J. "I was determined to make this one last." And who would Martin be watching for? "I consider Betty my only competition out there," he said.
Of course. Betty Cook. Martin was referring to the 1977 world champion and 1978 U.S. champion, who is too often described as a 54-year-old grandmother. The fact is true, but the description is inadequate. Cook is a tough, articulate woman whose determination and attention to detail have put her on top in what was once an exclusively male field. To be totally prepared for all conditions at Miami, she had brought not one but two boats, a conventional deep V and a new, 38-foot tunnel-hull handbuilt in England from—of all things—wood. The V was to be used if the Gulf Stream kicked up over five feet, the more fragile and faster tunnel if the Stream decided to flatten out. So Cook waited for the Gulf Stream to lie down and play dead.
It didn't. On the morning of the race, though officials assured the entrants that seas were only three to five feet, the racers were suspicious. "If they say three to five," said one skeptic, "what they really mean is four to six and up to 10." Though estimates varied, everyone agreed it was a day to keep wood hulls safely at their docks.
As the racers roared out into the Atlantic, Flap Jack, a 38-foot Bertram the Holiday Inn, so why don't you come over sometime?' "
Atkins went to the motel. "The man asked me, 'Are you having any problems?' I said, 'Oh, just a few bills.' He said, 'Do you need any money? We can loan you some money.' I said, 'Nah, that's O.K.' He said, 'I'm not going to try to get you to sign anything. Don't worry about that. But if I do you a favor, you can go ahead and do me a favor. Why don't you just sign this thing right here?' "
Atkins read the five-page offer sheet. "It had all these big words on it," he says. "I'm not an academic genius. He said it wasn't legally binding. He told me, 'Anytime you want to get out of this, just give me a call.' I signed it. I knew I did something wrong. I didn't want the NCAA to do something to Maryland, but just needed some money to pay some bills. I didn't want to sign with him, but I just needed to pay my bills." Atkins says that he accepted loans totaling about $1,000. Trope says it was $1,600.
Later, after a one-day visit to Trope's home in Pacific Palisades, Atkins apparently changed his mind about having Trope represent him. He told SI correspondent Joe D'Adamo, "Trope did all this stuff. He had a limousine pick me up at the airport and take me to his place. He's got a mansion out there. He's got a butler and a couple of Rolls-Royces. He took me for a ride and got me something to eat. He just made me feel obligated.
"Then he got me in this room with maybe about three or four other people, and he said, 'Well, how would you like to go with us? If you don't feel comfortable with us, you can leave.' But you can't say you're going to leave, with four or five other people there. It's just like being on stage with a thousand people looking at you. They knew all along, and I knew from the first night, that I didn't have no other way of getting them [the loans] paid. But they were aware all along that I did something wrong."
Atkins claims he never heard from Trope or anyone from Trope's office on or about Jan. 29, the date when Trope signed the offer sheets and had them notarized. He also says that Trope subsequently called his girl friend and "tried to intimidate her." Now Atkins has a new agent. "I talked to over 150 agents since the regular season ended," he says. "Last month I met Mr. Rick Bennett, a lawyer. He was the most decent person I met. He's my agent."
Ottis Anderson, the University of Miami's premier running back and the first-round choice of the St. Louis Cardinals, also signed a Trope offer sheet last July and, according to Trope, accepted a loan of $600. Anderson, who denies receiving any money from Trope, later dropped him and signed with a Houston agent named Clifford Paul. Anderson accepted a $4,000 loan from Paul as a down payment on a 1979 Buick Regal, repaid the loan, dropped Paul and also is currently being represented by Bennett. Says Trope of Anderson's dealings, "I have little doubt what the judge is going to say about a player he sees got a car from one agent, loans from another, then signed with yet a third.... So if anybody was conning anybody, Ottis Anderson was conning us."
The list of players Trope has sued for breach of contract includes Atkins, Anderson and Texas A&M's Sanders, a defensive tackle drafted in the eighth round by Tampa Bay. Sanders admits he received almost $1,000 in loans from Trope, and says he also was given a royal-treatment visit to Trope's mansion. Sanders says, "The thing that turned me against Trope, that made me realize he was a phony, was that almost any representative will give you a copy of something you sign. I asked him to leave me something, and he said he would send it by mail. But I never received anything."
Trope is seeking $52,500 in damages from Anderson, apparently on the assumption that this would be his commission on Anderson's NFL contract.
Some of the player suits have been settled out of court, some have not, some are in a state of total confusion. Keith Dorney, the Penn State offensive tackle who was the Detroit Lions' No. 1 choice, was said by Trope to have settled, but Dorney says he neither signed an offer sheet nor accepted any cash loans. "I hate to have Trope doing dirty to my name," Dorney says.
Attorney Singman, who is the legal adviser to Theotis Brown, the UCLA running back who was a second-round choice of St. Louis, says of Trope's suits, "In my opinion, the complaint he has filed against Brown and the complaint he has filed against myself are entirely lacking in merit. There is an absolute unequivocable defense to the complaint in that the agreement upon which the complaints are based is invalid because it is void under the circumstances under which it was executed." Legally, Sing-man felt that the contract had no binding substance from the start. This, too, was the opinion of Beverly Hills lawyer William Zeltonoga, who represents Jerry Robinson, the UCLA linebacker who was the Philadelphia Eagles' No. 1 pick. Zeltonoga says, "The agreement is clearly voidable because it doesn't exist in the eyes of the law. It was made under fraudulent representation because it would jeopardize Jerry's amateur standing under NCAA rules." More generally. Singman says, "The real burning question is why did all these people all across the country leave him independently? Why did they all decide it was not in their best interest to be represented by Michael Trope?"
Trope expects that more than half of his suits against the players will be settled out of court. "If these guys think an agent is expensive, wait until they see what it costs to hire a California attorney," he says. But while some observers think the whole thing may be dropped after suitable publicity for Trope's case. Trope insists otherwise. "When I dream about it, I'm really looking forward to this fight," he says. "When I think of all of us battling this out in front of a judge, having the chance to hurl their charges right back at them, a blood rush goes to my head. It's about time somebody had the guts to go to court and get a judge to make a ruling on all this stuff. There's one thing I think you should understand: of the players who were drafted in the first three rounds, 60% of them made a commitment to an agent in one form or another before their college eligibility was up. This is the trade. This is how the business works."
And whatever the outcome of his lawsuits, Mike Trope has declared war on the NCAA. He says, "If they ever try to pick out one of Mike Trope's players and make him ineligible to teach everyone else a lesson, that is a pure violation of the due process clause in the Constitution. I'd feel compelled at that point to hire my own investigators—and I would do that—and I'd come up with a dossier of at least 30 or 40 of the major universities that have broken NCAA rules. That would force them to put everyone on probation, and then, on Saturday afternoons we could all watch women's basketball on television during the football season."