Driver in Sunday’s fatal speedboat crash was ‘a true gentleman on and off the water’

For more than 70 years, speedboat racing has had one of its most popular homes at Marine Stadium, drawing thousands of spectators to several series of races each year until recently, when the stadium’s schedule was pared down to just one annual event, the Long Beach Sprint Nationals, a prestigious two-day regatta filled with the ear-shattering roar of circle boats tearing through the water at speeds up to 150 mph.

This year’s second-day event on Sunday came to a sudden and tragic end a bit before 1 p.m. when the boat piloted by 37-year-old John “Jay” Hart of Lake Havasu City, Arizona, hit a depression in the choppy water alongside the craft driven by Duff Daily, of Miami. The hole in the water, as it’s described by racers, caused Hart’s boat to corkscrew and become airborne, ejecting Hart who was rushed to a nearby trauma center where he died as a result of his injuries.

“He was a very dear friend and his death pains me greatly,” said Ross Wallach, president of the Southern California Speedboat Club, which organizes the annual event. “He was a respected racer and a true gentleman on and off the water.”

Hart was racing in the K class, the fastest class in the event with boats able to reach 150 mph on the straightaways. But, said Wallach, the two boats were only going 110 mph when the accident occurred. Wallach said that Daily, the other driver who was not injured, was experiencing a great deal of guilt and grief about the death of Hart, even though, according to Wallach, videotape of the accident showed it was nobody’s fault.

Speedboat accidents resulting in death are relatively rare, said Wallach, “but like all motorsports, crashing comes with the territory. It’s unfortunate, to say the least.”

Hart, who was born in Salt Lake City, comes from a boat-racing family, and Wallach said that’s probably why they settled near Lake Havasu, a prime venue for the sport.

“His father was a circle boat racer and his brother, Fred, concentrates on drag boat racing,” said Wallach.

Fred Hart was unable to comment on Monday. “Fred was Jay’s best friend,” said Wallach. “They were very tight. I’m sure it’s just devastating for him.”

The tragedy puts the future of the Long Beach Sprint Nationals in question, something that Wallach is aware of.

“The timing doesn’t make it look too good,” he said, with Jay’s fatal accident following the death of racer Gregory Duff, 36, of Newport Beach, who succumbed to his injuries 12 days after his boating accident at the event in 2018.

The city initially canceled the event in 2019, citing safety concerns, until Wallach agreed to a slate of improvements, including an increase in the event’s insurance policy from $1 million to $10 million.

Tasha Day, the city’s manager of Special Events and Filming, said no determination has been made yet on the future of the race.

“Anytime there’s an incident like this, we go through a full review and make a determination,” said Long Beach City Manager Tom Modica, nothing that that process is underway. Still, he said, “It’s concerning that this is the event’s second death in the last three years.”

Driver killed in 110 mph crash at Sprint Nationals speedboat race in Marine Stadium

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.