Running with the Big Cats

| April 07, 2005

Abrams says Reliable Carriers benefits from what he learned in those years on the road. “I still think like that; I’m a hands-on manager, and I’m always available to my drivers. We have some of the best drivers you’ll find anywhere. We’ve never had a driver shortage.”
Abrams admits that the one time he drove the classic old Pete that hauls his boat, he ran into a little trouble. “That two-stick transmission can take some getting used to. I got it stuck in gear, rolling down a highway at 1,600 revs doing about 45 miles an hour. I had to call Robert, and he came out with a hammer and banged away at it to free the linkage.”

The big, twin-hulled Super Cats carry two men, one behind the wheel, the other handling the throttles. The throttle man on the Reliable Carriers boat is Jerry Gilbreath. “Here’s a guy,” says Abrams, “who has won eight World Championships. He’s the best setup man in the business, and now he’s teaching me. Wow.”

Gilbreath says that in the years before he joined Abrams he managed transportation for his own teams, including getting all the required permits. “I made sure of every piece of paper. I’ve been racing boats for 40 years and not always with this level of success, not always with the great equipment his team has. But I never liked to ask anyone to do something as part of the team that I hadn’t done or wouldn’t do. And I still keep up my CDL. My wife and I drove a Kenworth T600 around Europe two years ago pulling a race boat,” Gilbreath says.
“My idea of the best way to manage is to have been there and done everything. I’ve changed wheel bearings on trucks; I’ve had a truck break down on the side of the road and had to find a way to fix it and keep going.”

Alan Ritz and Jim Shimandle handle a matched set of 2002 Freightliner Argosy COEs with Detroit Series 60 500s and Fuller 10-speed shifts. Behind one of the tractors comes the No. 84 Platinum boat on a 40-foot Bollini custom trailer built in Italy. Loaded up, the tractor and the trailered boat weigh about 66,000 pounds. The other tractor pulls a support trailer for the team, KR racing, which is owned in Norway.

“We usually race both here and in Europe,” says Ritz, “maybe with four or five races here, 10 over there through the summer. The shorter wheelbase is really useful in some of those tight places you can find yourself in older European cities. But this year, things being the way they are, we’ll concentrate our racing here.”

The team’s former hauling power came from Kenworth T600s, but the longer truck made some maneuvering difficult in tight European quarters. The shorter COEs are also helpful on the roll-on/roll-off ships that carry the tractors – and the boat – back and forth across the Atlantic. And their size is also valuable if they have to be shipped by air to meet tight race deadlines, says Ritz.

The KR Racing trailer tilts, although not enough to bring the boat back under oversized limits. Instead of an 11-foot, 9-inch load, the KR tractors pull a 10-foot 9-inch load. “She’s still wider that regulation,” says Ritz, “but we can see around her more easily, there aren’t any blind spots and we don’t need extension mirrors. But we also have a bigger boat; she’s over 12 feet wide, and when the trailer tilts, the load comes under 12 feet. So we don’t need escorts when we haul her to races.”

The hardest part of the haul, says Shimandle, “is people pulling up next to you and staying right there beside the boat. It makes it hard to move, and you can never take your eye off them. We had some teenagers in Ohio who just wouldn’t leave us. They stayed with us for a long time; they wouldn’t let us change lanes.”

All of the drivers help out with racing teams. Since there are no pit stops during an offshore power boat race, most do their additional work when the boat is sitting on the trailer. Some work on engines, some just help clean the boats. There are no crews that have the luxury of a driver who just drives a Class 8 tractor.

Typically, drivers spend 10 days getting ready for, getting to, working and getting back from races. Many tractors and their cargo are left behind if races are not far away, the crews going home by air and picking the truck up and moving to the next race. For example, California-based teams leave their boats on the east coast when they go back home between races.

Ralph Zell is an independent owner-operator who hauls cars from his base near Daytona, Fla. He also drives the Peterbilt 386 that hauls the Callan Marine boat on a 55-foot trailer. “I mainly drive from car dealers to auctions and back. This boat racing, this is a hobby. The people who own this boat are friends of mine, and they asked me if I’d like to drive it to races. It was a wonderful opportunity to be a part of a big, exciting operation. I love boats, but I couldn’t afford to get close to this. Hell, I’d pay them to do it.

“I try to do a lot of little things when we’re at races,” says Zell. “Sometimes that’s washing the boat, sometimes it’s just have the truck ready to roll when they want to roll. And I take care of permits and the other paperwork that comes with the truck. The owners didn’t want to have to do that – it’s not part of making the boat win – so that’s an area where I can take a load off them.”

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