A longtime member of the former Conch Republic Offshore Powerboat Racing Association in Key West, Fla., Race World Offshore founder Larry Bleil has been around the sport for more than two decades. He’s a successful businessman who long ago fell in love with the city at the end of the road and developed a passion for offshore racing, especially when it is center-stage in his hometown of 24 years.
“Key West is the best powerboat race in the world,” he said during a telephone interview on Tuesday.
As most fans of the sport know, Bleil has been swimming upstream against strong currents—from Super Boat International to the Offshore Powerboat Association—since he started Race World Offshore, which is entering its third year producing races and its second year of doing so in Key West. In the early stages of the inaugural six-race American Power Boat Association Offshore Championship Series produced by OPA and Powerboat P1 in 2019, there were notions floated of Bleil abandoning his Mentor, Ohio, and Dunkirk, N.Y. race venues and focusing exclusively on Key West as an American Power Boat Association-sanctioned event supported by OPA and P1 with Bleil as the man in charge of making the event sensational.
That didn’t happen. Plus, lack of sponsorship and local support led RWO to scrub the Mentor event last year and its Dunkirk event struggled to attract a respectable fleet. But the outfit added a solid race in Clearwater, Fla.
That development led to even more discord between RWO and OPA and P1—all three are APBA clubs—as the OPA and P1 leaders had hoped to snag Clearwater as their season-ending venue. To their credit, they added a successful event, the season-finale in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., to their 2019 event schedule without missing a beat.
To Race World Offshore’s credit, though its first in Key West event in November 2019 attracted just three classes of note with real competition (Supercat, Super Stock and Class 4) the organization did a solid job producing an event with months less lead time than its Super Boat International predecessor.
So much for history.
With the beginning of the offshore racing season just a few months away and two races—Alabama and Georgia—already gone from the 2020 RWO schedule, I caught up with Bleil this week. As usual, he was in candid and gregarious form. In three years I’ve known him Bleil has never shied away from a direct question. And that made starting with one a no-brainer.
Producing an offshore racing series hasn’t been easy for you. Why not just bag it and focus exclusively on Key West?
I could do just Key West and not worry about it, but I am looking at the bigger picture down the road. I want to do a series. I want to make it where the teams don’t pay to race, where they actually make money racing. I really want to produce a professional show, so I’m going to keep at it.
Yes, I could do it, just focus on Key West and nothing else. But I think the sport is better than that and deserves better than that.
Any improvements you’re planning for Key West this year?
Last year, we still had a lot of hotels downs from the last hurricane but they’re all back on line now. Last year, I was able to get 35 rooms comped for all of the Race World Offshore staff, from support staff workers to technical inspectors and safety personnel. This year, I am going after more rooms to help out teams that are struggling to afford to be in Key West for a week.
I was really happy with the way Key West went last year. Our VIP hospitality package was big success. So was our Thursday night Lee Bryce concert. And we were able to pay the city of Key West after the event. How many times has that happened? I don’t think it’s ever happened before.
We have a lot more time to plan this year. People are going to be impressed. Last year, Key West ended up fine but we had a lot of work to do in a short period of time.
Race World Offshore struggled to attract boats in Dunkirk last year. How do you plan to change that?
I am trying to put something together financially for the Super Stock class in Dunkirk and I plan on starting to make class to teams this week. If I can get most of the class committed we can actually do heats.
Dunkirk was hometown for 25, 30 years and it’s a great racing venue. The city supports the race very well financially. It would be a shame to lose such a great venue.
Can offshore racing handle more than one APBA club producing a series? Are three—RWO, OPA and P1—just too many?
Yes to your first question, no to your second. I wouldn’t care if there were four. But I think the organizations that put on races need to sit down and communicate. We need to work as a team. No one should be kicked to the curb.
The sport has to grow. It has to make money. It has to bring in sponsors. A lot of people don’t believe it—I’ve been called every name in the book on social media—but I’m not in this to make a million dollars. Heck, I would love to break even (laughs). But the sport has to grow, and it has to be run professionally. It deserves that. Those are my goals.