During Lake Havasu City’s early days, the town served as the site for an event that was once considered the premiere outboard boat race in the world.
The Outboard World Championships was an annual endurance boat race that attracted the top drivers from around the globe to a fledgling town in Havasu. During the event’s heyday, the World Championships was covered nationally by the New York Times and Sports Illustrated and aired on ABC’s “World Wide of Sports.”
“Lake Havasu was a mainstay in powerboat racing and this was the event,” said NGK Spark Plugs Formula 1 Director Tim Seebold. “Not only for the United States, but all over the world. International drivers came from everywhere to take their shot at winning the Havasu Classic.”
From 1964 to 1990, the Outboard Championships was a yearly Thanksgiving tradition in Havasu, running during the holiday weekend. According to Today’s News-Herald archives, the 1969 race featured drivers from 24 states and five other countries, such as Italy, England, Canada, Austria and Argentina. That year’s race featured Seebold’s father and powerboat racing legend Bill Seebold.
It was Bill’s first time racing in the event and recalls making his first trip to Havasu.
“I remember driving into Havasu for the first time and there was very little here,” Bill said. “(There were) 8 to 9,000 people at most and there were only two hotels in town.”
With only two hotels in Havasu, there weren’t enough rooms to accommodate drivers. The solution was for them and visitors to stay with host families.
“When you entered the race, they assigned you a place to stay,” Bill said. “I would stay in a private home for the first year I was here.”
As the Outboard Championships grew, the town became internationally known while its population increased over the years.
The outboard races brought thousands to Havasu every year, starting with 200 boats competing in front of 10,000 spectators at the inaugural event in 1964, according to a display at the Lake Havasu Museum of History. Havasu’s population was around 600 at the time of the first race.
When Bill competed in 1969, the Outboard Championships, which occurred over two days that year, drew over 20,000 people. Tim also raced in the event in the 1980s and continued until the event was discontinued.
Entrants, spectators and prize money increased on a yearly basis. The overall purse in the 1966 event was $25,000 – making it the richest outboard race in the world at the time – and that number increased to $60,000 in 1970, according to archives.
According to a December 1966 article in Sports Illustrated, a four-foot trophy was offered to the winner by the McCulloch Company, a manufacturer of chainsaws and outboard motors owned by Havasu founder Robert P. McCulloch.
Keith Jackson, broadcaster of “Wide World of Sports,” told the News-Herald in 1969 that he was “impressed by the excitement generated by the large crowds in Lake Havasu City.” Jackson added spectators followed the action closely, unlike some of the larger races he covered around the world.
The outboard races were halted after the 1973 event due money. According to an archived October 1975 article from the Lake Havasu City Herald, the McCulloch Corp funded almost the entire cost of the event. The company “felt the pinch of a poor economy” and “felt it was necessary to spend the capital used by the race on more urgent projects.”
After a one-year hiatus, outboard racing made a return to Havasu in 1975 in the form of the Havasu Classic with 41 drivers from 17 states. More competitors were expected, but they were stranded across the country with an early-season snowstorm. The Lake Havasu Sports Federation, the organizers of the 1975 event, expected 30,000 participants and deemed the Classic a success despite a smaller crowd turnout.
Thompson Bay served as the site for the original event and races lasted for four hours. The races were an endurance type of an event because it was more of a showcase for boat engine manufacturers. Since the 1960s, powerboat racing has changed and evolved into more of a fast-paced event, Bill said.
“Back then, the course was bigger and longer and it was a marathon race,” Tim said. “They would race four hours at a time and have co-drivers and switch and then they’ll come back the next day and do the same thing. Co-drivers would switch and then they’ll race another four hours.”
The Seebolds are bringing back powerboat racing to Havasu for the London Bridge’s 50th Anniversary with the Lake Havasu Classic Outboard Championships in October. The resurrected event will be organized by the NGK Spark Plugs Formula 1 Powerboat Series.
After the revived event was finalized and announced in May, the Seebolds returned to Havasu in June and noticed many changes to a town where they, along with the rest of their family, spent 25 Thanksgivings together.
“I think there’s 60,000 people here now,” Bill said. “Compared to the first year I was here… It’s grown a lot. It’s a city now. Not a town.”
“It went from a town to a city,” Tim said.