The lead up to the 36th annual IJSBA World Finals was a rocky one. Racers were scrambling to arrange travel and transportation, and tuners hustled to put the final touches on new machines for the iconic event. Advancing the dates to a week earlier in October required many to shuffle plans as other events threatened to overlap. Returning once again to the Crazy Horse Campgrounds in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, the World Finals – this year sponsored by Blowsion – saw a great deal of change ups, a handful of surprises and a few curve balls.
Those few who were present on Monday, October 2nd, woke to tragic news of a mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada. As one of the primary airports used by professional personal watercraft racers every October, flights, hotels and rental cars were suddenly akimbo. All travel came to a screeching halt when Air Force One touched down at McCarran International Airport a couple days later. The annual get-together with long-time friends and industry people was boiled down to a mad dash to setup booths, pits and equipment before their races began.
As the industry’s single largest gathering of aftermarket companies, the IJSBA World Finals also acts as the sport’s one-and-only trade show. New product is revealed, and existing items are displayed and sold on Vendor Row; the alley also serving to give competitors an opportunity to catch up with their sponsors and potentially make new ones. Welcomed newcomers and established mainstays all beckoned for visitors to stop in and review their latest wares. As the days continued the foot traffic increased but never to the point of congestion.
Legendary athletes from the sport’s heydays like Larry Rippenkroeger, Tera Laho, Jeff Jacobs, Chris Fishetti, Tommy Bonacci, Mike Yellich as well as many others were walking the grounds checking out the racing and the latest and greatest products for PWCs as well as just catching up with old friends. Moving in and out of the RIVA Racing booth, the massively-expanded Jettrim tractor trailer, catching up with Arno at Hydro-Turf, or stopping in at the Skat-Trak booth, the Vendor Row was teaming with racers and enthusiasts alike.
Initial practices for Novices and Amateurs began that Monday, October 2nd with Tuesday kicking off the actual racing. Novices, Amateurs and Masters classes all had heats, LCQ’s and first and second motos all in one day! It made for a long one, but a good time was had by all. On Wednesday, some of the GP classes and SuperStock Amateur and Master classes were held. The laps were increased as there were less races. Like Monday, northern winds whipped up the lake into a sea of white caps, giving racers another challenger: Mother Nature.
Thursday we started to see some of the bigger classes like Sport Spec and Junior Ski classes as well as the implementation of the log jump for some ski classes. Actually, there were 3 log jumps in a row on the massive track this year. Friday, as when most of the stands were filled with spectators, the wind returned and fiercer than ever. As the Pros started to fill the starting lines, spectators witnessed great racing in the Jr. Ski classes as well as the Sport GP class as Dustin Farthing entered the fray, taking home his 20th world championship.
Saturday’s roster was packed full of stellar racing and welcomed the largest class of the event, Vintage Ski. Competitors from all ages entered, and many in the bleachers stood on their feet as the plumes of blue two-stroke smoke billowed over the beach. In fine fashion, class winner Rob Flores showed why experience should be feared as he fought back the field to a world championship. Equally, Chris MacClugage’s decades of racing paid off as he won another championship in the Pro Runabout Stock class to add to his resume.
Amid all the chaos, all the world stood still for the Pro Freestyle event. World Finals seems to be about the only place to see the best perform and this year was no different. Taking the short straw was 5-time World Champion Lee Stone, who every year has brought new and exciting tricks to the water. As Stone circled the shore, many wondered what the Englishman had in store. Stone erupted into the air with an incredible double backflip – a trick only previously executed either in surf or in the wake of a ski boat.
The rest of the competitors, the judges mused, were now in a race to fill the rest of the podium. That night, at the Blowsion Expression Session held under the London Bridge, Stone executed his double backflip again and followed it with the first 720. As Sunday rolled around, many thought that Stone had the championship in the bag, and 30 seconds into his final routine only added to it. Stone performed his third double backflip and 720 then his engine died. All efforts to revive the ski failed.
Failing under 60 seconds meant Stone was out of the running. Not to be outdone, one competitor had not given up the race, Mark Gomez. Gomez showed true showmanship panache, performing freeride tricks on flatwater again and again, with exaggerated flair and near-flawless transitions. He even installed LEDs to his ski during the nighttime performance. With Stone out of the running, Gomez was crowned the victor.
Last year’s GP Runabout winner György Kasza came back swinging after a tough week. During testing, Kasza blew up a motor, requiring him to purchase a whole new ski just to extract its engine and replace the blown one. And the payoff? In a field of 12 racers, with so many breaking down with mechanical issues, Kasza was all but unchallenged, leisurely cruising the entirety of the track at an average of 45 miles per hour.
Sunday wasn’t without its drama either. Some of the sport’s fastest boats were on the water, both in Pro Ski Modified and Pro Runabout Open; France’s Jeremy Poret beat out Dustin Motzuris in a hard-fought race, and Kuwaiti Mohammed Burbayea bested György Kasza, respectively. The Vintage X2 class was well-populated showing that most of the effort has shifted from new to old as it just seems to be easier to afford. Of course, Kawasaki’s new SX-R 1500 was the biggest winner, as so many racers opted for the new ski either for advantage or due to class restructuring.
All-in-all it was a great World Finals event, although attendance was noticeably low, travel to the location hindered by unforeseen circumstances and weather being all but uncooperative. Thankfully, those present will attest that it is the spirit of camaraderie and passion for the sport that drives so many and compels all to do just about anything to keep it going. The sport of personal watercraft racing will continue only as long as there are passionate, dyed-in-the-wool enthusiasts who love and sacrifice to keep it going. And that is all it needs.