George Conover Sr.’s love of powerboat racing started 44 years ago with a chance encounter at a local gas station.
The then-21-year-old was pumping gas at Benter’s Gulf station on New Road in Linwood when a 25-foot hydroplane power boat capable of reaching speeds of more than 150 mph was pulled in to fill up for a nearby race.
“I was curious like everyone else,” said Conover, who added the unidentified driver would come frequently to gas up. “One day he asked me if I wanted to come along and give him a hand (with the racing). I was interested, and away we went.”
Conover, who at the time also worked at his cousin’s farm, later joined the driver’s crew, and in 1978 he started driving. The Egg Harbor Township resident went on to win 17 American Power Boat Association Region 3 titles as members of his family and friends became more involved in the sport.
Now 64, Conover retired from driving in 2013, but he has stayed active in the sport as an owner, forming the Magnum Curexa Offshore Performance Race Team, which is made up of 13 friends and family members, including his wife, Mary Ann, his son, George Jr., and his daughter-in-law, Eileen.
But with everything Conover’s done in the sport, one accomplishment had eluded him — a national points title.
Until this season.
Conover’s boat won the APBA national points championship in the Grand National Hydroplane class. Driver Scott Liddycoat, of Suffolk, Virginia, clinched the title with a victory in New Martinsville, West Virginia, the weekend of Sept. 24-25.
“It’s great to win it,” Conover said. “I didn’t even think about national high points at first, but after two-thirds of the season I realized that we were a points contender. It happened, and everyone had a hand in the success of the boat.”
The elder Conover gave special credit to his son, who was the on-shore radio man communicating with Liddycoat during the races. The radio man’s job is similar to a NASCAR crew chief or spotter. He has constant contact with the driver during the race.
“Every Grand National Hydro race has to have a radio person, and George Jr. worked with Scott all summer,” Conover Sr. said. “Everybody on the team is there, but once the gun goes off, those two people make it win. They had their own communication system. I couldn’t be more proud of George.”
Liddycoat raced in the Grand National Hydro class years ago. He knew the Conovers and agreed to be their driver before this season.
“The Conovers are fortunate because they have a lot of family in their team, a great group of people,” Liddycoat, 44, said. “(The boat) was fun, a fast boat, and it was an enjoyable season. ... They’re definitely perfectionists. They’re not going to settle, and that’s what you need to win.”
Conover Jr., 37, who works at Stone Crafters in Egg Harbor Township, credits the team with the victory.
“What a great year it’s been,” he said. “All this would not be possible without the glue, grease and guts of the team, my dad. What a great man. I can’t thank Scott Liddycoat enough for being such a great driver and making it happen on the track when it counts. A big thanks to the entire team.”
Mary Ann Conover, 65, didn’t make it to any of the races this season, but for several years her family’s focus every summer was traveling around the country with a hydroplane boat in tow.
“It’s like a dream come true for them to win the championship,” said Mary Ann, who also has a daughter, Theresa LaMond. “We used to take everyone with us to the races, cousins and friends. We’re one big happy family. I’ve always been a big supporter of their racing. I do like watching it, but I like it better now that somebody else is driving. Watching them used to make me nervous.”
Just as in any motorsport, hydroplane racing can be dangerous. Conover Sr. said he has known drivers who have died or been injured racing. His boat is 12 feet wide with a 511-cubic-inch engine featuring between 800 and 900 horsepower.
“There is danger involved, but you have to respect what you are doing,” Conover Sr. said. “You are out there to perform to the limit of what you’ve got and go as fast as possible. You wear safety equipment with that in mind. We are always updating our safety equipment, so that, God forbid, something happens you want to be as safe as possible.”
Conover Sr. said it’s the love of the competition that continues to drive him.
“I’ve always loved motorsports, whether it’s car racing or boat racing,” he said. “We enjoy preparing the boat and competing against people who are doing the same thing. If my son and I aren’t racing, we may go to a car race and watch how the people compete and prepare things.”
Conover Sr., who is a retired electrician, declined to talk about the money involved in keeping the boat afloat.
“It’s an expensive sport, but that’s what we do,” he said. “We don’t go on ski trips. We save our money in the winter and we don’t do a lot else. You’re constantly updating with the latest equipment. I’ve had six or seven boats, and you always make modifications. Sometimes it’s better to have a newer boat that already has those changes.”