Skip to main content

Race deaths raise questions about safety

Three powerboat racers died this fall at the Key West World Championships in the deadliest race in the 31-year history of the event.

Big Thunder Motorsports, a 46-foot Skater, went airborne in a violent and fatal crash at the Key West Super Boat World Championships.

Robert M. Morgan, 74, of Sunrise Beach, Mo., a world powerboat champion in 1998 and 2001, and Jeffrey Tillman, 47, of Kaiser, Mo., died when their 46-foot Skater catamaran, Big Thunder Motorsports — an unlimited super boat — blew over backward Nov. 9 in the harbor at Key West during the first day of racing.

Two days later, on Friday, Page Motorsports, a 38-foot Skater, rolled twice going into an offshore turn on the 6.5-mile course in the final lap of a seven-lap race. Stephen Page, 57, of Fort Myers, Fla., Page Motorsports’ owner and driver, climbed out of the overturned cat on his own. Rescue divers pulled his 59-year-old throttleman, Joey Grotton, of University Park, Fla., from the boat and airlifted him to Miami’s Ryder Trauma Center, where he died early Saturday. Page was treated for minor injuries at Lower Keys Medical Center.
These were the first deaths at the Key West race in 16 years, and the loss of Morgan, Tillman and Grotton inevitably raised questions about safety, especially about how sturdy the cockpit capsules are that protect the racers. Weather was moderate by offshore standards — winds 10 to 15 mph, gusts to 25, seas “4 to 5, occasionally 6 [feet]” inside the reef where the course runs, according to John Carbonell, president of Super Boat International, the race organizer.
“It’s horrible, it’s tragic, but it’s a dangerous sport,” says Andy Newman, a spokesman for the Florida Keys Tourism Council. “Guys get in their boats and know it’s a risky sport. Stuff happens.”
Big Thunder throttleman and owner Morgan and driver Tillman were racing up the straightaway to the third turn just north of Mallory Square when the Skater’s twin bows skipped out of the water in a light chop while pointed into what one experienced observer described as a 25-mph headwind. “The boat was racing hard inside the harbor — probably doing 130 mph — when it caught some air and flipped,” Newman says.
Once the bows came up, “it only had props in the water. It’s like an airplane taking off. That’s exactly what it’s like.”
As the bows rose higher, the four 1,200-hp engines riveted the stern to the water, causing the big catamaran to blow over. In more technical language, once the bows lifted off the water, the center of gravity shifted aft, raising the bow higher, says John Connor, a 40-year racing veteran from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Pretty soon the “center of gravity is so far aft it brings the stern under the bow,” he says, and the boat flips backward.
Big Thunder’s trim could have been off a little, contributing to the accident, but in a 25-mph headwind, “Who’s to say they didn’t just catch an [unexpected] gust and lift off?” Connor says.
The weight of the 65,000-pound unlimited super boat crashing back down on the water crushed the enclosed cockpit and shredded the bow of one of the sponsons, Carbonell says. He says Coast Guard, insurance and Super Boat International investigations will include looking into the construction and installation of the cockpit capsule.
Carbonell says helicopter-borne rescue divers dropped near Big Thunder within a minute of the crash. Its two crewmen were transferred from a rescue boat to an ambulance and taken to Lower Keys Medical Center, where they were pronounced dead, according to a Super Boat International statement. “Our hearts and prayers go out to their families,” it reads.
Two hundred racers, fans, family and officials gathered in a tent in the dry pits at Key West’s Truman Annex at 9 o’clock the next morning for a memorial service for Big Thunder’s crew. On Saturday afternoon there was another waterfront memorial service, for Grotton.
Looking at cell phone images of Big Thunder’s crushed cockpit, Connor says, “It looks like the capsule failed. It was either a substandard canopy or a substandard job of attaching and reinforcing it.” He says capsules — well designed and properly installed — “definitely have made a difference” in raceboat safety. Super Boat International recommends that all entries comply with its cockpit design guidelines. Compliance is not mandatory, although the race’s management can deny entry to non-compliant boats.
Page Motorsports, powered by twin 850-hp engines, averaged 107 mph in the sixth lap going into the turn where it rolled. Veteran racers, Page and Grotton had won seven national titles and three world championships together. Grotton crossed over from motocross to race boats with Page in 1997 after managing American Motorcycle Association racing in the 1970s and ’80s.
Carbonell canceled Wednesday’s racing after another Skater, Motley Crew, a 36-footer powered by twin 565-hp engines, capsized. Brothers Scott and Ron Roman, 2005 Super Cat national champions from New Jersey, climbed out of their boat’s bottom hull hatch unharmed, but Carbonell says the second accident left debris on the course, so he made the call to cancel.
There was another accident on Sunday. Warpaint, a 38-foot Apache driven by owner Bob Vesper, of Somers Point, N.J., and throttled by Danny Crank, of Hammonton, N.J., stuffed the catamaran’s sponsons into a wave at 140 or 150 mph, causing the cockpit capsule to “implode,” Carbonell says. Both crewmen were hospitalized. Vesper was released the same day; Crank was held for observation.
Morgan and Tillman had been averaging 122 mph on the third lap and were gaining ground, racing third in a field of five in the unlimited super boat class. Morgan, a Lake of the Ozarks marina owner, had just returned to super boat racing this past summer after a five-year absence.
He and Tillman, a lake contractor and developer, went in together and bought the Big Thunder Motorsports Park and Marina Complex, which Morgan had owned from 1987 to 2006. They also began racing Big Thunder Motorsports, the 46-foot Skater that Morgan had campaigned under the Big Thunder name before he sold the marina and that had been racing as Bad Moon Risin’.
Teaming with Tillman, Morgan put the Skater back in service and raced in August in the unsanctioned Lake of the Ozarks Shootout Top Gun, where they posted a speed of 171 mph on the 1-mile speed course. This year’s was the first Key West championship series the two had raced together. At the memorial service, Key West Mayor Craig Cates, a friend of Morgan’s, said Morgan had told him he just wanted to race at Key West one more time.
Morgan and Tillman had planned to bring the Big Thunder property — a 50-slip covered marina and lakeside cottage development on North Buck Creek Cove in Laurie, Mo. — back as the lake’s “oldest performance-oriented marine operation,” starting with a new Donzi dealership. Tillman, named one of the top 500 young businessmen in the United States, was a developer with more than 1,500 condominium units to his credit and was the owner of several businesses. He started racing in sports cars, Indy Lights, Grand Ams and the Daytona 24.
The 31st Key West World Championship — the finale of the 2011 Super Boat International season — ran Nov. 9-13 and drew 56 boats from the United States and six other countries.

See related article:
- Investigation to look at canopies

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue.