It’s started with a text from racer and JetX team director Ryan Dalli one evening;”Hey bud. You going to ‘Finals this year?” I replied affirmatively, although bemoaned the process of actually getting to the remote Lake Havasu City. A few seconds later came, “Yeah, we’re not going. In fact a lot of Canadians aren’t going this year.” It came as a shock obviously. Dalli and his team were favorites in the pits and have been building a strong presence in the North American racing series. To sit out the biggest event of the year seemed…uncharacteristic. When pressed, Dalli shared his woes – mainly logistical, but some political – that culminated in something more sinister:
“I hear there won’t be a lot of internationals this year,” he hinted. “The UIM is discouraging racers from participating.”
That bomb echoed louder than anything else. What was this about? Was there a silent feud between the UIM and IJSBA resulting in racers having to choose between one or the other? Rumors like these are quite often birthed out of games of telephone, and because of such, required more investigation. Inquiries to the respective organizations were sent the following morning, while I reached out to various racers. Messages sent to international racers went unanswered for the most part, yet domestic racers were happy to reply. RIVA Yamaha racer Brian Baldwin shared, “I heard they pay them a ton of money up front to race (the UIM) but they must race the whole tour or they have to give the money back.” Wisely adding, “[I’m] not sure the truth of it.”
Until recently, the dates for the UIM-ABP Aquabike World Championship in Shanghai, China overlapped with the dates of the Blowsion IJSBA World Finals, which had been scheduled unusually early in October, leading many to believe the scheduling conflict to be intentional. (The UIM event was later rescheduled to the 13-15 October last month.) “The IJSBA pushed up the Finals to mess with AJ’s World Championship in Naples, FL,” a representative from a major OE manufacturer noted, asking to be kept incognito. Giving some legs to the rumor, the Pro Watercross World Championship announced a move from its typical final week in September dates to the first week in November. “They’re all trying to screw with each other,” he laughed.
Investigating further, racers were split on whether the UIM was having racers enter into a verbal agreement or whether there was an actual written contract threatening racers by withholding a stipend were they to “leave the reservation” and participate in IJSBA events. WaterX’s own Blake Corning – a key figure in the operation of the World Finals – wasn’t shy to share: “Yeah, I heard about it. And only twelve people signed it.” The existence of such an agreement would almost certainly cripple the World Finals’ international participation numbers, as well as seriously injure the organization’s clout as an international sanctioning body. The rift, it would appear, would be equally as damaging as the current one existing domestically between it and AJ Handler’s Pro Watercross series. “If this keeps up,” one person wrote, “it will be time to change the ‘I’ in IJSBA from “international” to ‘isolated’.”
Thankfully, a response from UIM-ABP’s Nigel Quilter assured The Watercraft Journal that, “We never penalize anyone but we do encourage riders to participate in UIM sanctioned and recognized races. On many occasions we help riders that want to attend and race in other competitions, such as the Kings Cup, by helping organize their transport. We certainly don’t force our riders to boycott other events but we do offer a small bonus to our riders to commit to our program of events as a recognition for their commitment.”
Instead of a contractually-binding penalty, what Quilter calls a “bonus system” is in place. And not through the UIM. He explained, “The bonus system that we have introduced is proprietary information and is offered by H2O Racing and not the UIM. As a matter of fact the UIM Championship is open to all riders with valid criteria to participate (license, insurance, etc).” Yet, Quilter continued, adding in his sentiment on the current situation, “The reason is that jet skiing – as an international sport – needs to be organized and managed worldwide under one serious and reliable authority, which is the UIM, the world governing body for powerboating and an international authority that is fully recognized by the IOC, Sportaccord and ARISF.
“With all that said, we want to emphasize that having a sport reunited under one entity, which is democratic, meaning rules [are] voted by majority and representatives of UIM National Authorities, not one individual making decisions [that] can only be good for [himself]. …The majority of riders that have crossed our path in the last years can [testify] to the ambitious project that we are building.”
Understanding Quilter’s words as representing the UIM as a whole, it is clear that the organization feels that the IJSBA is no longer the preeminent sanctioning body, and has taken efforts to usurp its authority – not through a forcible coup but rather emphasizing the palatable chasm between how the UIM operates and the IJSBA. Participants who travel to Thailand, Guadalupe, Shanghai or France’s Aquabike series all gush with praise at how well the racers are treated, the venues are arranged and the smoothness of the operation. In contrast, there is still no unified National Tour, no Nationals event or a cohesive regional series; hopes of a AquaX-ran national series have yet to materialize; and the IJSBA still remains at bitter odds with Pro Watercross, like two virulent divorcees fighting for sole custody of a child. And it is the children that are hurt most during a divorce.
“A house divided cannot stand,” Lincoln paraphrased, and like it neither can this sport. For jet skiing to rise from stagnancy and begin to flourish as a world class motorsport, we agree with Quilter’s insistence that a single, unified and democratic system ought to be in place; whether that is the UIM or IJSBA. Yet, for it to be the latter, a great many changes need to be initiated: the disorder within its own house must end; positive, insightful and dynamic leadership must exist; a reunification of the domestic regional and national racing landscape needs be established; and newfound energy needs to erupt from what many consider the cooled embers from a dwindled fire. Likewise, if the UIM wishes to wear the mantle, it must accept that the US remains the single-largest PWC marketplace in this industry, and thereby, must appeal to its constituents accordingly.