Power & Motor Yacht
For the 70th anniversary of the “World’s Toughest Outboard Race,” a newbie gets a heart-pumping initiation to the sport.
The canary yellow helmet wasn’t mine. Neither was the race-flag-checkered runabout with the Yamato 24.2 cubic-inch outboard hanging off the transom. It was all borrowed, on the spot. As was the cut suit I was wearing to protect from bodily harm, should said runabout flip or crash or eject me at full speed, my limp body tumbling across the water like a marionette doll in a dryer. Stay calm, I tell myself. After all, you signed up for this joyride.
A certain breed of speedloving gearheads descends on northern Michigan once a year for the Top O’ Michigan Marathon. Past entrants have come from all over, including Ecuador and Japan. For the 70th anniversary of the race, I counted myself among this international,
grease-stained cadre. I was an utter newbie to the sport. But I wouldn’t have to travel the 87 miles of inland waterways—consisting of lakes and rivers, hidden stumps, hairpin turns and pleasure boat wakes—that collectively provides the marathon with its ominous epithet: the “World’s Toughest Outboard Race.” I was just getting a taste.
Competitors head to Burt Lake before race day to test their engines and measure prop pitch. Gas-fed bleating breaks the still morning air. A small gap in the reeds reveals a handful of young men milling about beside carbon-fiber hulls and 2-strokes that require a ripcord to start. Tents, RVs and a stomped-out fire pit litter the ground nearby.
“Better watch the rogue waves out there,” offers Will Affholter, a 23-year-old driver out of Bad Axe, Michigan. “They hurt.” His half-zipped cut suit reveals a tattoo of a hammerhead shark bursting into flames above his heart. Affholter competes in the 25SSR class alongside his father, Mike, with some of the oldest-looking Mercury outboards I’ve ever seen. When he’s not racing, the
younger Affholter runs track at Northwood University in Michigan and competes in closed course stock runabout races. Like many racers, for the Affholters, competing in Top O’ is a family tradition.
“That’s my brother there in the box,” says Mike, intimating to a black box taped inside the runabout’s helm. “He goes on every race.”
Race day dawns cloudy. The drivers disembark in timed heats from DeVoe Beach, where a makeshift tent city has sprung up overnight. Electric drills sound, final adjustments are made. Top O’ draws spectators by the thousands to Indian River, who gather along Veteran’s Pier near the starting line. Throughout the summer, the river is a tranquil, no-wake zone respected by pontoons and cruisers. Except this weekend. The Top O’ Michigan Outboard Racing Club takes an entire year to work through permitting with 12 townships, two counties, the state’s department of natural resources and the Coast Guard so that racers can rip through rivers at over 52 knots.
That’s the easy part. The lakes, on the other hand, offer a war of attrition. As a 30-year veteran of the marathon, Terry Kerr has seen it all; days where the lakes have running surfaces like glass and other times with chop like an inland sea. When the lakes are lumpy, racers must feather the throttle or risk getting submarined—or worse. “I’ve raced runabouts all over the country but this is still the greatest race in America,” says Kerr. Now, he’s trying to pass along his knowledge to the next generation of racers: his 15-year-old daughter, Emily and 12-year-old nephew Dominic. “Ain’t a day go by we don’t talk about racing.”
I asked Kerr what keeps him and the other racers coming back year after year. His answer surprised me. “Reading the waves,” he said. “That’s the best part. It’s just you and God for an hour, reading the waves.” They told him things I couldn’t yet see. —Simon Murray