Bob Vesper crashed his powerboat going faster than 100 mph in last November’s Key West World Championships. He was lucky to come away with only minor injuries, unlike three competitors who died that week.
Vesper could have quit racing. Instead, he built a faster boat.
The 57-year-old Somers Point resident missed most of this Super Boat International season but returned to competitive racing with a new version of Warpaint this week in Key West, Fla. The World Championships run through Sunday.
“If I could have gotten (back in) the boat the day after we crashed, I was ready to go,” Vesper, who owns and drives the boat, said in a phone interview last month. “So the mindset is you have to sit back and build the next boat and build it right — not that our boat wasn’t built right. You want to improve on everything. But after a while it becomes frustration because you do want to get out there and race.
“The excitement now is incredible. Now we just can’t wait to get there.”
Warpaint returns to Florida as the reigning world champion in the Superboat 750 class. Already a two-time national champion, Vesper needed only to start the final race of the weeklong Key West event last year to clinch the world title. But Warpaint had a shot at the “First Overall” title, which includes all classes, so Vesper and throttleman Danny Crank, of Hazlet, chose to go for it.
The race turned bad when Warpaint hit a hole between waves and went about 20 feet in the air. The lucky part was that a wave hit from behind and tilted the boat vertically so that it nose-dived cleanly into the water, minimizing the impact.
Not everyone had been so lucky earlier in the week. Three of Vesper’s friends and fellow competitors died in two separate crashes — the first in 16 years at the Key West event.
Crank, meanwhile, came away with a mild concussion. Vesper had bruises on his face.
“It looked like we were in a street fight,” Vesper said. “That was it.”
Once it was clear that they were OK, Vesper’s 7-year-old granddaughter, Isabella, had a question.
“She just wanted to clarify after she saw her grandfather’s face — it was swollen as could be — ‘We did win, right, Pop?’ ” said Vesper’s wife and team manager, Patti Raffa.
They won, but the boat was badly damaged. It could have been repaired, but with Super Boat International starting a new class called Superboat this year, Vesper decided to start basically from scratch, salvaging only about 30 percent of the old boat.
The boat was built by a company called Marine Technology Inc. and arrived in Vesper’s Hammonton shop a few months ago. There, Vesper, who operates a sales and service company for supermarkets and convenience stores, got some help putting on the finishing touches from Crank, who recently started US-1 Performance Marine in Sayreville.
They had hoped to race in the New York Grand Prix in early September, but the canopy for the new boat had not arrived yet.
The boat was finally finished in the second week of October, and Vesper and Crank took it out for a test run off Mantoloking.
“The boat checked out excellent,” Vesper said. “It’s definitely faster.”
Vesper is aware that people think he’s crazy to keep racing after last year.
“They say it every day,” Raffa said with a laugh.
But he loves racing. Even after he retires as a driver, Vesper said he and Raffa might keep the Warpaint team going.
It’s the same passion that made him race hard even after clinching the championship last year.
“We’re kind of idiots like that,” Vesper said with a laugh.
To start their first test run in Key West this week, Vesper and Crank planned to take the boat out to the same spot where they crashed.
“It’s kind of where we left off,” Vesper said.
They haven’t forgotten the racers who died last year, either.
“We’re trying to keep it very light, and I’ll tell you that’s not being cold,” Raffa said. “They would absolutely expect us to be back in the water. Hopefully they’re sitting on some of our guys’ shoulders. It’s who they were.”
Contact Jason Mazda: