Local powerboat racing champ retires at the top

One of the nation’s most accomplished powerboat racers — a carpenter from Riverhead — is retiring this year with one last national championship under his belt.

Earlier this month, George Luce won his 17th and final American Power Boat Association national championship in Wakefield, Mich. in the “Mod,” or modified category — for super-light, custom-made boats powered by refitted commercial fishing boat engines that have been modified for greater speed.

“When I started the season, I said, ‘Win, lose or draw, this is my last year. But I would really like to win one more national,’ ” Mr. Luce, 61, said in an interview last week. “If I had won last year, I probably would have retired.”

Yet of his 17 national championships over 40 years, he said this year’s win was easily the sweetest.

“It was the best feeling I ever had in boat racing,” he said. “It was really, really special.”

Long Island Aquarium executive director Bryan DeLuca is among Mr. Luce’s friends and admirers.

“When you see a boat built from scratch, from raw wood, and then watch it come together, it’s pretty unbelievable,” Mr. DeLuca said. “The ability and the skill set to do both: the motor side of things, and to build the boat, that’s not easy … He’s been doing it for an incredibly long time and he’s tremendously talented.”

Mr. DeLuca said he’s proud of his friend.

“The biggest thing he wanted — when he knew he wanted to retire — he wanted to go out a champion. To set that goal at his age and accomplish that goal, it’s heartwarming … And to go out on top — who doesn’t want to do that?”

It took some prying for Mr. Luce, who is humble to a fault, to acknowledge that he’s one of a rare breed of power boat racers who both design and build their own boats as well as build or modify their own engines.

“There’s a handful of guys who build their own boats,” he said. “And there’s a handful of guys that will build their own motors. But most of the time, they have to reach out to somebody else to have that stuff made for them.”

Over the years, Mr. Luce said, he’s built about a dozen boats.

Powerboat racing is like few other motor sports in that it begins with a “flying start” — meaning racers aim to cross the starting line, at full speed, at just the right moment.

“You have to find your way into the pack, and as the race is starting, you have to find yourself a lane and be in the right position when the clock hits zero,” signaling the start of the race, Mr. Luce said.

“If you’re over [the line], you’re disqualified, but if you’re late, you’re not going to make it to the first turn before everybody else. It’s a hard thing to get the timing down for one of these starts, and you don’t always get it.”

For four decades, Mr. Luce competed in the Mod category of racers, which includes commercially designed or homemade boats powered by modified fishing boat engines. “You’re allowed to cut and grind and weld” the engines to improve performance, he explained. “There are guidelines and there is a whole set of rules you have to follow, but you can modify your engines, and that’s what I really enjoy doing.”

He said the 45-mile races — during which boats can reach speeds above 80 mph — are not necessarily as dangerous as they look.

Riverhead resident George Luce (above, helming the yellow boat) retired from competitive powerboat racing earlier this month, capping an illustrious career building and driving custom-made boats. (Credit:J. Schwartz Photography)

“There’s always an element of danger in it, but it’s relatively safe,” he said. “You’re wearing a lot of safety equipment.”

Mr. Luce’s love for boat engines and boat-building began when he was a young boy, frequenting his grandfather’s hardware store on West Main Street in downtown Riverhead. There he would visit the shop’s mechanic, Pete Kruzon, a powerboat racer who built boat engines in the store’s machine shop.

“He was a very good boat racer and he was a really good mechanic,” Mr. Luce said of Mr. Kruzon, who still lives in Riverhead.

“He’s the one that really introduced me to it. He was a friend of my dad’s, and they worked together and did some racing together when I was very young. And that’s where I initially got drawn to this.”

Mr. Luce bought his first powerboat in his late teens and first competed in the early 1980s in a two-man race in Lowell, Mass.

“We went around a turn and spun the boat out and sunk the thing right there,” he recalled.

By the late 1980s, Mr. Luce was building and racing his own boats.

An avid sportsman, when Mr. Luce perfects a boat design, he’s apt to share it with his competitors.

“One of the things he did was he came up with a boat design that was superior to what [his competitors] had and he shared it with everybody,” said Tom Sutherland, the Mod category chairman for the Michigan-based American Power Boat Association. “So he wasn’t sharing it with people who had no chance of winning the race. He shared it with some pretty good people. He had a design that was safer and faster, and anybody who wanted it, he shared it with them.”

Mr. Luce said he had no choice.

“I had to,” he recalled last week. “Or it would have dominated the class if I had kept it to myself.”

Mr. Luce’s retirement doesn’t mean he’s leaving the national racing circuit behind.

His son, James, who has also won multiple national championships, has been racing since he was a child, his father said.

Mr. Luce said he cherishes their shared love for the sport, but he worries that competitive motor sports in general are on the decline.

The power boat racing circuit, which unfolds each summer on lakes in places such as Alexandria, La., Wakefield, Mich., and Washington State’s Moses Lake is “not that big, and every year it seems to get smaller and smaller.

“[Powerboat racing] is a dying breed, and it’s all kind of disappearing,” he said, noting that he isn’t sure why the sport’s popularity is in decline.

“I think, maybe, people don’t want to work as hard as it takes to put one of these out on the water. It’s a lot of work,” he said. “And I can’t see the expense being a deterrent. But to me, it seems like the spirit of competition is not as strong as it used to be.

“That’s kind of a shame, because competition is what spurs everything to grow, to become better, or last longer. It just makes everything advance. And we don’t have that spirit anymore. It’s going away.”