Exploring the World of Airboat Racing


airboat racing

The appearance of an airboat gliding across the Florida swamplands creates an iconic image that just about everyone will recognise. This image becomes even more distinctive when accompanied by the loud roaring sound of the boat’s airfan and airplane sized propellor. These unique boats have been used on shallow waterways for a century, but did you know these versatile watercraft are at the centre of a large, fast-growing, and often underground, racing scene?

Here we look at the world of airboat racing, the vessels themselves, the locations for the races and the need for speed!

What is airboat racing?

Though airboat racing is a fast growing sport is actually much more than just a sport. Airboat racing is more of a subculture for airboat owners than it is based on one-off race events.

Having said that, airboat racing is one of the fastest growing sports in America.

The vessels involved in these types of races are heavily customized airboats that are enhanced for increased speed and power and have been designed for better overall performance on the water while travelling at high speeds.

These necessary customizations, which allow the boats to travel at breakneck speeds, means airboat racing has given rise to a thriving airboat building and outfitting industry dedicated entirely to airboat racing.

Airboat racing involves several airboats all racing to a predetermined finish line. Some unauthorized airboat races may involve boats racing around swamplands with tight turns and natural obstacles.

Airboat drag racing, also known as side by side racing, is conducted in a similar manner to airboat racing but with a key difference. Instead of an all-out airboat race, with several competing airboats, in an airboat drag race there are just two airboats racing side by side in a linear speed race over several hundred meters. The winner is the first across the finish line.

Oval track airboat racing is another common form of airboat race where the boats race around an oval shaped track.

Race meets may be formally convened, with races run according to agreed rules and featuring various classes and types of participating airboats. Unofficial or impromptu races are also known to take place on open bodies of water, and though not illegal there have been a number of accidents and fatalities attributed to airboat racing in recent years leading some people to call for legislation.

Many of the racing airboats are self-built, which is itself a source of competition, with builders attempting to outdo one another for the most powerful boat.

Alongside the airboat racing itself there is often some form of entertainment and additional social events held nearby as part of the event. This creates a more of a lifestyle event than a mere racing meet.

Airboat drag race (video)

Airboat racing bodies

For those interested in watching, or even competing in, an airboat race there are a number of need-to-know grassroots bodies which oversee the pursuit of airboat racing. These governing bodies include:

Popular airboat racing locations

Not surprisingly airboat racing has its heart in the deep swamplands of the Florida Everglades. Though airboats are common in this part of the world it is more than just commonality of airboats that lead to the growing phenomenon that is airboat racing.

The Everglades is the perfect place for this style of racing as it offers an atmospheric expanse renowned for being readily and easily navigated by airboats.  Add to that the knowledge and experience of airboat pilots in that area and you have the perfect recipe for the perfect water race.

As airboating is characteristic of the authentic Southern Florida lifestyle it is easy to see why up to 18,000 Floridians are registered as owning an airboat. So it is not surprising that a sizable number of Florida residents enjoy airboat race meets though these races are also hotly followed across the country via YouTube and Facebook.

Airboat races can take place on open bodies of water, such as the popular Lake Kissimmee. However, airboat races have taken place in more uncommon places – such as flooded pastures, where the race proceedings can be more tightly controlled and the boats can be free of obstacles like submerged tree roots which can flip a fast-moving boat.

Though the sport is growing and becoming much more structured unsanctioned events can pop-up just about anywhere. Anywhere in the expansive and secluded Everglades can be, and usually is, used for unofficial airboat racing. This means that current airboat racing meet movements probably have a large number of participants whose activities are relatively unknown.

Races can are also often convened on private property and at a number of Florida’s adventure parks which also accommodate All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs).

Types of airboats, engines and typical customizations

Airboats are flat-bottomed vessels, with powerful fans, that are already masters of propulsion and speed but that doesn’t mean you can’t play with the design to push them to get even more from the boat.

Racing airboats are distinct from other types of airboat due to their dimensions and high performance design features.

A racing airboat may not be readily identified as a racing boat by anyone unfamiliar with an airboat, in a way that a speed boat is for instance. However, there are some key differences between a standard airboat used for leisure, fishing or hunting and a racing airboat.

Typically a racing airboat will be a shorter and lighter vessel with a low seated driver as opposed to a high seated driver in a standard airboat. Racing airboats also have ‘big-ticket features’ such as oversized pistons and fully caged large propellers. Some racing airboats have a nitrous oxide system to supply their engine with NO2 for a more powerful burn and performance, though this practice can be extremely dangerous and damage the engine, if not properly tuned.

As mentioned above, there is a thriving industry for building and modifying airboats for maximum performance and optimum speed.  Companies like Whirlwind propellers, American Airboats and Hawk Racing and Custom Airboats are key sources for the parts and fabrications needed to create airboats that are wholly built for speed and racing.

Rather than using marine motors airboats have traditionally used an automotive engine (from a car or truck) to turn the propellor which creates the forward thrust to move the boat through the water. These days automotive engines are still widely used on airboats though there are now specialist engines readily available for all types of airboat. Racing engines are also available.

Whether they use an automotive engine, a customised engine or a specifically designed airboat engine, racing airboats make the most of the power their engines provide. Powerful 4 and 6 cylinder engines from manufacturers like Chevy are a common find out on the water.

Racing speeds

The massive motive power and propulsion driving airboats mean that they can achieve speeds in excess of 130 MPH (208 KPH).

Of course this type of speed is dependent on:

  • The horsepower of the engine.
  • The type of fan used by the airboat.
  • The propeller used and its number of blades.
  • The balance between horsepower and torque and the efficiency and integrity of the airboat’s fan design.
  • The fuel consumption and efficiency of the boat.
  • The hull design and build of the flat-bottomed boat.
  • Fabrication materials used, such as lightweight aluminum or fiberglass as opposed to heavier materials.
  • The loading of the boat and its weight distribution.

As you can see the design of a racing airboat is carefully considered by racers. Owners of the fastest boats take into account all the above factors when striving for optimized performance and optimum speed.

Design factors of a racing airboat often lead to the production of a boat that is distinct and very different from airboats that are used as leisure watercraft – at least they are distinctive to people who own airboats or ar familiar with them.

Leisure airboats, designed for these type of airboat rides, are built for speed but they are built for more than just speed.

As we have already covered, standard airboats not only look different to racing airboats but they also perform differently. A ordinary airboat will differ from a racing airboat by having much better fuel consumption, offering much easier handling, and be better for swamp and river navigation.

For a better understanding of how an airboat design is perfect for speed in swamp environments and shallow waterways read this article.

Cost of airboat racing

Airboat racing is not cheap with owners spending tens of thousands of dollars to acquire, or create, the fastest and most powerful boats.

Racing airboats from leading manufacturers and outfitters can sell for upwards of $45,000.

Given the prices involved and exclusivity of some customized models, racing airboats are sometimes stolen purely for their premium parts.

Airboat races you need to know about

There are some very popular airboat racing meets which take place in specific areas. Here is a breakdown of the most popular at the time of writing.

Hog Waller Mud Bog is a popular off-road park in Palatka, Florida which hosts championship airboat racing as well as ATV and UTV weekend events.

The Redneck Yacht Club is an airboat racing event-based at Redneck Mud Park in Punta Gorda, Florida. This off-road environment can be set up for the ideal conditions necessary for awesome airboat drag racing events.

Milk Bus on Lake Kissimmee is a popular sport meet for airboat owners, spectators and airboat racers, with a regular calendar of meetups.

The Sarno marsh races in Melbourne, Florida are located among the shallow marshlands that spread either side of the Interstate towards Lake Washington. This is a popular hangout for airboat owners and annual races are held there.

Of course Florida isn’t the only place that airboat racing happens. For instance, further afield, there is Thunder on the Loup which is a major airboat racing event that attracts thousands of participants and spectators to the Loup River in Nebraska.

The legality of airboat racing

Despite the powerful nature of racing airboats and their ability to reach the type of very high speeds that are exceptional for most watercraft, there is actually very little legislation that specifically controls airboat racing.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission publishes a handbook of its Boating Laws and Responsibilities which boaters of all kinds are expected to abide by but that is just about the only legal guidelines that exist.

The FFWC acknowledges that, in fact, there is no speed limit for airboats and racing is not prohibited in the Everglades.

However, though there is no law against racing an airboat be aware that negligent and reckless handling of any type of watercraft will contravene local and federal legislation and all relevant laws are enforceable in instances where it can be proven that an airboat was not operated in a safe and appropriate manner. So the lack of legislation on airboat racing isn’t an excuse to go crazy on the water!

Risks associated with airboat racing

The acceleration and speeds that can be achieved by racing airboats combined with the thrill of the race and desire to win can prove a volatile combination. Accidents not only wreck boats but wreck lives. Flipped airboats can cause burns or fractures in the best case scenarios or disabilities and even fatalities in the worst case scenarios to both pilots and spectators.

Airboat racing is dangerous and should only be participated in by people who have experience piloting an airboat and the expertise to do it safely.

Rounding up

With the increased attention and awareness surrounding airboat racing these days, it is likely that Airboat Racing in all its forms is going to eventually become sanctioned as an official sport. This will then lead to official meets and, most probably, televised racing events with commercial backers.

This is to be celebrated. However, it is a double-edged sword.

At the moment competitions are usually flexible and offer many classes, meaning there can be a broad range of participants but as the prospect of a more commercialized approach to the sport looms, potential licensing and legislation will inevitably follow. This is something that not everyone wants to see implemented.

Currently, airboat racing is open to anyone and many airboaters take real pleasure in seeing what their home-built vessels can accomplish on the water without the restrictions on how they build their boat.

For many airboat racing aficionados, the lifestyle will always be truly at its best when they are allowed to roam free among the mangroves and weed beds of the Everglades. So let’s hope that the inevitable legislation and and licensing that will come does not impede the spirit of this fascinating and exciting sport.

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