Racing MerCruisers: 1988 – 2010 (continuing from 50 Years…Part 1)
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.
“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.)
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.
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.
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.)
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.”
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.
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!