Organizers of the Sprint Nationals speedboat race that has been hosted in Long Beach for over 70 years have filed a formal appeal to the city’s decision earlier this month to deny its permit for this year’s race in August due to safety concerns following two fatal accidents in the last four years.
The city notified race organizers that a number of factors—including speed, the course itself and the limited ability to safely steer some of the boats—made it difficult to avoid a deadly crash in 2021 that killed 37-year-old John “Jay” Hart after a crash ejected him from his boat during the K class event that features the fastest boats.
Hart’s death came three years after another driver, 36-year old Greg Duff, died after an accident during the 2018 Long Beach race.
An April 11 letter sent to Ross Wallach, the president of the Southern California Speed Boat Club, which has organized the event since 1998, denied the race’s permit, saying that it posed a danger in its current configuration and safety requirements.
Wallach has appealed the ruling, alleging that the basis of the city’s denial was contradicted by evidence and proposed changes to allow this year’s race to happen.
The appeal zeroed in on the city’s stance that the course itself created dangerous conditions for drivers because it creates choppy conditions that make it unstable for boats, some of which travel as fast as 150 miles per hour.
Instead, the club says both fatal accidents were due to “tragic” driver error, not the racecourse.
“Both the 2018 and 2021 incidents involved open cockpit boats racing in the same class with encapsulated boats and colliding with one another,” Wallach’s appeal says. “In both cases, the drivers of the open cockpit boats died as a result.”
Wallach is proposing that encapsulated boats no longer race alongside open-cockpit boats and that the event’s two fastest races, the Unblown Flat class and the K class, be restricted to only encapsulated boats. The two races have boats that travel at about 120 miles per hour and 150 miles per hour, respectively. He’s also proposing reducing the number of boats allowed to race in a given heat to four.
Using encapsulated boats won’t rule out a future crash, Wallach said, but it could prevent another driver of an open cockpit boat from dying. The appeal also said the city’s concerns that spectators could be endangered by runaway boats is unfounded because each boat has a “kill switch” that is attached to a driver’s life vests that is initiated when it becomes disconnected, like in the event of a driver being ejected.
Jay Hart’s dad, John Hart, said in a recent interview he also believes the race can safely continue, but his idea of how to run it safely differs from Wallach. Hart, who’s been racing boats for decades, said he’s reviewed videos of the deadly race countless times and he believes the water was “perfect” and the course had no issues.
“It’s damn tough,” Hart said of the number of times he’s replayed the crash, which he watched on a video stream as it happened last August. “It’s just one of those deals where I’ve watched it a million times to see if there’s anything I missed.”
The issue is the encapsulated boats themselves, Hart said. The way drivers are strapped into the boats, and the way some are designed, makes it hard to see what’s on either side of the driver, Hart explained.
Hart said capsule boats are the problem, not the solution, saying that they give drivers a false sense of invincibility.
The city’s investigation into the 2021 crash found that Hart’s boat hit a wake in the water that cause him to veer into another boat. The father of the victim disagreed with those findings, saying the capsule boat driver turned into his son’s lane and caused the fatal crash.
He questioned if racers would pivot to the new rules that would require an encapsulated boat to participate in the fastest races at the Long Beach event. The price difference can be as much as $50,000 for the more expensive capsule boats.
“My son knew the risk, I knew the risk,” Hart said. “But it was a different scenario because when you’re racing with all the same boats you have that element of respect around you.”
A hearing over the permit appeal must be held within 60 days of the notice, meaning that the fate of the race might not be decided until June. It could leave Wallach’s group with just a few months to plan for the Aug. 6 race but he said he’s confident it can be pulled off if the city grants the race its permit. The city also initially denied a permit for the 2019 race before Wallach and the city agreed to added safety precautions.
“I’ll make it happen regardless,” Wallach said. “I’ve been doing this race for 25 years and we have everything in place to make it happen.”