50 Years of Racing merCruisers – Part 2

Racing MerCruisers: 1988 – 2010 (continuing from 50 Years…Part 1)

1988 Superboat World Cup Champion, Don Johnson, with Sterndrives by Kiekhaefer and engines by Gentry.
The deal that wasn’t: Mr. Seger had big ideas, but did not follow through. Ah, what might have been.

First, a relevant side bar: In 1985, a Swiss businessman and offshore racer, Hugo Seger, approached Kiekhaefer Aeromarine (KAM) to design a racing drive. He had tired of his drive failures. We agreed to a deal: KAM would design a drive, he would pay as we made progress, and would become our European distributor.

KAM looked back at the K-600 sterndrive because it was already tooled! But in the dozen years since 1973, we learned a propeller was happier when positioned higher and farther back. Since we dared not start with any handicap, we began to design anew. “Sterndrives by Kiekhaefer” was conceived. Designers, Larry Lohse and Tom Theisen, didn’t sleep much. Me either.

In 1989 Bob Kaiser ran “Systems” in the Atlantic City Worlds with experimental Mercury Performance Products twin turbo engines. While Bob and Errol Lanier had everybody’s attention, Peter Markey’s “Little Caesar’s Pizza” outlasted all to capture the title – with Kiekhaefer drives.

“Hugo. Hugo?” So much for a deal; for whatever reasons, Mr. Seger backed out. KAM continued development of a drive on our own (OK, with significant help from National Exchange Bank – thanks again, Peter). George Linder and the late Mark Lavin, of Jesse James racing fame, gave us “voice of the customer” feedback during design.

In February 1988, the Kiekhaefer sterndrive was shown – privately, by appointment only – in a hotel suite near the Miami International Boat Show. World offshore racing champion, Tom Gentry, was one of its first customers. For the Key West Worlds, Tom leased his Scarab race boat to Wellcraft for actor/racer, Don Johnson. (Should have raced it himself.)

Rebadged as a merCruiser 6 and mated to Mercury Hi-Performance supercharged engines, the merCruiser Hi-Performance series was born.

By November 1988, Don Johnson was acting like a real boat racer. He, Gus Anastasi and Bill Sirois were Superboat World Cup Champions in the Gentry Turbo Eagle Scarab. November 1989, Peter Markie was Superboat World Cup Champion in Little Caesars Pizza Apache. Both used “Sterndrives by Kiekhaefer” and won. For Mercury, this was getting old.

Mercury and the late Jack Reichert, then Brunswick’s Chairman, wanted me, my staff, my business and the Kiekhaefer drive. Some said, “To kill us!” but I trusted Jack. Twenty years later, we’re still here…and very much alive! (A rare, successful entrepreneurial acquisition). July 1990, I became president of Mercury Racing.

I re-badged the Kiekhaefer drive as  merCruiser #6. The combination of Mercury’s offshore racing engines and “our” merCruiser #6 was formidable. Plus, Mercury Racing continued to sell the #6 for use with others’ engines, as had been Kiekhaefer Aeromarine’s practice.

An early adopter of the merCruiser 6, Spirit of Texas.
Stuart Hayim and Joey Imprescia win one for Mercury.

These #6 packages won many races for numerous teams, but they were not infallible. The #6 was durable, it turned, it accelerated – but it began losing. Then Laith Pharaon and Johnny Tomlinson had a perfect 1996 racing season in their Zero Defect Skater using modified #6 drives! Those rascals in the Middle East, with help from the Weissmanns, had dry sumped the #6 while we were scratching our heads trying to figure out how to beat them. Their execution was a bit of a kluge, but it worked more efficiently. Their race record proved it.

With our eyes opened, Mercury Racing redesigned the #6 to “inject oil” at critical components and interfaces, but with a simpler and more robust design – one that could be manufactured in higher volume.

Dry sumped for efficiency and incorporating a CNC machined, swept back lower gear housing for handling, the #6 rules the sea.
Mike DeFrees on a quick tour of Puerto Rico in his “Team CRC” MTI Super Cat. Mike was World Champion in 2005 with dry sump #6 drives and Mercury Racing engines.

In 1997 the dry sump #6 superseded its wet sump, older brother. CNC wedge profiling of its swept-back skeg and lower case brought consistency and higher blow-out speed. With these improvements, the dry sump #6 was as efficient as the best surface drives. The #6 also enjoyed the steering, trimming and handling advantages of a sterndrive. Continuing design evolution has made the #6 the most successful racing drive in history.

The high-end of the performance market had what it needed, but there was a big hole in capacity below the #6 and above the Bravo. While the Bravo drive was excellent for mainstream merCruiser big blocks at 420 hp and even APBA Factory Class racing at 525 hp, aftermarket engine builders began over-taxing Bravos with 600, 700 and even higher horsepower – because Bravo drives were relatively inexpensive. Bravos then broke. It still amazes me that people were surprised. (You wouldn’t drop a big block into a Beetle and expect it to live.)

Formula was one of many manufacturers embracing the F-1 and F-2 “one-design” power concept in APBA offshore powerboat racing.  A durable, low maintenance 525 engine and Bravo drive train kept costs lower and attracted greater race participation – with production boats one could afford.
Bravo XR with Integrated Transom Assembly (ITS) option.

Aftermarket drive builders began applying band-aid solutions and making ridiculous claims. These helped little. Mostly, misapplication of power – well above design intent – just left boaters stranded and tarnished the Bravo’s image.

Mercury Racing responded in 1999 and 2000 with Bravo One XZ and XR drives – upgraded Bravos that could handle up to our 600 SCi. With the addition of Sport Master gear cases to the Bravo, we closed the hole a bit, but there was still a hole. Although they may not have known it, customers were asking somebody – anybody – for a better drive. I figured, it’s time for Mercury Racing to design “the next one.”



This LaveyCraft rips with the dry sump NXT1 drive system. Photo courtesy of Powerboat Magazine.
NXT1. In 2006, Mercury Racing answered with an 8.2L 700 SCi engine, cone clutch transmission and dry sump NXT1 sterndrive. Now, it is Racing’s most popular package: Power, weight, balance and package price hit a sweet sport for high performance boaters. All was right with the world – except for one gentleman who insisted upon a speedmaster version. Reggie got it.

Then, we designed and developed this huge, quad cam, four-valve 9.0 liter aluminum V-8 engine. At 1,350 hp, our dry sump #6 became too small. 1,300 lb-ft of torque was twisting #6 shafts and spitting prop blades. The answer? We developed more robust internal gears, shafts and bearings. We fit them inside an NXT upper with only minor casting and machining changes. A new lower gear case raised the X-dimension while accepting beefier Pro Finish CNC propellers. With 35% more torque capacity than the #6, the M8 surfacing sterndrive was born. The 1350 and M8 were revealed at the 2010 Miami International Boat Show.

Current state of the sterndrive art in “Dandy Candy Red”: the merCruiser M8.

The evolution of the racing sterndrive continues. It has been a joy to personally participate in most of the major steps, from installing that first merCruiser “ring-gear” transom with Jim Emmerson at Lake X in 1960, to blessing the Mercury Racing 1350/M8 test platform with Johnny Bauer on Lake Winnebago in 2009. It seems a long time when I write about it, but it’s been a very fast ride!

See you February 17-20 in Miami? I have a secret…

Never truer: The race never stops!

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12 thoughts on “50 Years of Racing merCruisers – Part 2”

    1. That’s how I felt back in 1968 when I climbed out of the boat in Freeport after leg #1!
      …And pretty much every morning, when I wake up.

  1. A link to these articles, Parts I and II, has been posted to John’s Old Mercury Site under Mercury History. Thanks for writing this. Too much of this Mercury history is not enough ! John Timmins, Florida Chapter, Antique Outboard Club of America

  2. Well Freddy I just bought another nice little piece of Mercury history…. 23′ Thunder Iriquois from the Flipper TV series. Want to help restore her? She’s got a pair of merCruiser four cylinders mated to some early Mercury non-trimable outdrives.
    Saluti, Cadillac (772) 285-2266

    1. Post a picture on Mercury’s facebook page and again when you’re finished. Nice project. My role is to build new, so I must decline your offer. However, I’ve left your phone number in your post for other volunteers. (If you prefer, I can delete it.) Regards, Fred K.

    1. John, I think you’re one of only three who ever built a K-600 (and maybe one of 20 who even saw one)! They worked well for their time in history.

  3. Fred: Big fan of you and ‘dad’. Grew up around boats ( out since 08 but not much longer).Grew up around Donzis, K-Planes, and merCrusiers. Mom and dad had a 87 Z33 454 Mag ….Alphas ( Yeah, baby, them on plane please). Begged my parents to get TRS. Anyway, I bleed black. Always will. Coming back outboard this time. Enjoyed reading this. I worked as a tech from 1996-2008. merCrusier certified and no drive is better. none.

  4. Funny to call weismann’s innovative modified 6 drive a “kluge”. Personally running these drives
    15 years later and still being competitive and reliable would only strengthen thar the weismann’s are pure drivetrain geniuses

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