Living Wide Open with Mercury Racing power is often family affair, but the sport of powerboat drag racing makes it possible for multiple competitors to share one boat at the same event. At a recent Upper Midwest Power Boat Association (UMPBA) event we met a family who loves to have fun and go fast together.
The Go-Fast Grandfather
Ask Kilea-Ann Kleckner when she got interested in the drag boat racing, and she has to think for a second.
“They tell me I attended my first race when I was two months old,” replied the 16-year-old high school junior. “I can’t remember when I wasn’t interested in drag racing.”
Kleckner kept tagging along with her grandfather, Rick Conklin, who started drag racing in Florida in the 1980s, but makes frequent trips to the Midwest from his home in Kissimmee to compete on the Kentucky Drag Boat Association (KDBA) circuit, and events at Lake Lucas, the purpose-built drag boat racing lake located at the Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri.
“He’s taught me everything I know about racing,” said Kleckner. “I’ve watched him all my life and I just emulate the way he behaves at the races. Together we’ve watched all the other racers, and I’ve always paid attention to who wins and how they do it.”
Kleckner was ready to start racing when she turned 12, the minimum age to drag race a personal watercraft on the KDBA series, and in 2017 she was high-point champion on the circuit. In 2020 she turned 16, and the minimum age to race a boat, and started sharing a seat with Conklin in a new Full Throttle Powerboat QS1 Mod VP boat powered by a 2.5-liter Mercury Racing outboard. The purple single-seat boat Carbon Copy has a full carbon fiber layup and the hull weighs just 310 pounds, according to Conklin. The motor is tuned to make about 280 horsepower.
The pair started coming to Wisconsin to compete in UMPBA events to get Kleckner more experience in a low-key setting. This is bracket racing based on boat speed – the quickest boat down the 800-foot course wins as long as they don’t exceed the bracket’s top speed. Kleckner signed up for the 95-mph bracket, while Conklin ran in the 105-mph class. Dialing in the boat to nail that speed, but not go faster, requires careful tuning and attention to water and atmospheric conditions.
“Today the difference between 95 mph and 105 mph is about 2 degrees of trim,” said Conklin.
Kleckner is quick but still learning. The UMPBA event was held down a river with a 2 mph current, which meant she had to keep her engine running to keep from drifting downstream and into the course. The class had 17 boats, and by the time she lined up for her third run she’d burning up a enough fuel to lighten the boat just enough to break out of the 95-mph bracket. A big disappointment as she won her first two heats. Later in the season she was the second-fastest qualifier at an event on Lake Lucas, but a strong cross-wind made it challenging to keep her very light boat lined up for the start. She got distracted and was late on the starting light.
“Actually driving the boat came naturally to me,” she said “Right now my biggest challenge is learning to keep my composure when something goes wrong.”
Both Conklin and Kleckner stressed the comradery they enjoy at powerboat drag racing events.
“The people make this fun,” said Conklin. “This is like our summer family. We loan each other parts, and I’ve even seen a racer loan another competitor an entire powerhead. The only time we don’t get along is for those eight seconds it takes to make a run.”
That’s the Wide Open life – eight seconds of pure intensity.