Mark Cranny and crew notch up their seventh win in the world’s greatest ski race. By James Minchin. Photography: Dave Barker/BarkerPhoto.
Mark Cranny, the owner and driver of Hellrazor, wasn’t sure exactly what he should be celebrating more – the fact he and his team had just completed a hat-trick of wins in the 2012 Club Marine Southern 80, or that he’d extended his amazing record to seven outright wins in the world’s greatest water ski race.
Cranny and his team mates, observer Damien Matthews and skiers Peter Procter and Mick Kelly, were in a league of their own, setting a blistering pace as they raced down the 80km Murray River course, from Torrumbarry to Echuca-Moama, in a time of 30 minutes and 37 seconds – just five seconds outside the race record, which many of the same team set in 2010.
The big 21ft Force boat, which is powered by a twin-turbocharged Chevrolet motor that generates 1400hp and is propelled by a Mercury Six drive leg, finished nearly a minute ahead of runner-up The Syndicate, however, after the race Cranny refused to get too carried away with the team’s dominant performance.
“We won one (Southern 80) once and thought we’d never win another one again, so here we are 10 years later and we’ve got seven under the belt. It makes me feel pretty humble,” he said.
The platform for Hellrazor’s stunning effort was set on the Saturday of the Southern 80 weekend, when the team dominated a hot field of rivals in the Bakers’ Blitz, a 20km qualifying event for the Super Class competitors, which determines the starting order for Sunday’s race. With the sinuous 80km Murray River course consisting of around 120 bends, and the river rarely being any wider than 100m, getting the highest starting position is crucial, as passing slower boats at speeds in excess of 180km/h, while two skiers on ropes around 70m long hang on out the back, is no easy task.
The Hellrazor team clocked a time of six minutes and 44 seconds in the Bakers’ Blitz to comfortably take pole position, finishing 16 seconds ahead of The Syndicate, however, after winning Sunday’s main event, Cranny revealed the team had struggled during the Blitz.
“We’d done a really good time (in the Bakers’ Blitz), but we had issues with the boat,” Cranny said.
“We were able to rectify that last night and we were on the water at a quarter to seven this morning testing things, and we went with what we knew; what was tried and proven.
“We were probably down on horsepower to what we were yesterday, but it was a lot smoother. We had a lot of pulsing yesterday through the turbos.”
Cranny said the team took the decision to lower the turbo boost, sacrificing horsepower for better handling.
“It turned out to be the right decision by our head mechanic, Stewie Thomas, to come back a bit on horsepower, but to make it consistent,” he said.
Apart from Cranny, the 2012 Club Marine Southern 80 victory delivered observer, Damien Matthews his seventh outright success in the race – six as an observer with Cranny and one as a skier with Island Cooler in 1990 – while Peter Procter enjoyed his third outright Club Marine Southern 80 win and fellow skier, Mick Kelly savoured his first success in the race.
Having become accustomed to the excellent performances of Procter, who finished runner-up in last year’s Open Men’s world championship, Matthews was delighted with the effort of Kelly, who only joined the Hellrazor team at the end of 2011.
“Mick’s done a sensational job. He’s always been a great skier and to get him on for his first outright win in a river classic was fantastic,” Matthews said.
While the Hellrazor team continued its dominance of the ski racing classics – the Southern 80 win followed on from outright victories in October’s Grafton Bridge to Bridge and November’s Sydney Bridge to Bridge – the battle for minor placings was carried out in earnest.
SECOND TO SYNDICATE
The runner-up, in a time of 31.32, was the team of driver Garry Rudd, observer Jim Edwards and skiers Kevin Vahtrik and Danny Cropper with The Syndicate.
The team was delighted with the result, as the Southern 80 was the debut race for its new boat, a 20-foot V-drive Racecraft powered by a 540 cubic inch, twin-turbocharged Chevrolet motor. The boat was identical to the one which the team raced – and wrote off – in the 2010 Southern 80.
Rudd jokingly recalled the 2010 incident, in which the boat ran up the river bank, as a “little incident when there was a bit of bush-bashing”.
“As we were turning into a corner, the rudder snapped – it had hit a submerged object, but we don’t know what it was – but it snapped off and the boat straightened up and we ended up about 20-30m up the bank,” Rudd said of the 2010 crash.
“I don’t really know how far it was (up the bank), as I was kind of knocked out a bit, so I didn’t really see anything. But they tell me it was a fair way in. If it was just a bit further I would have got to the river on the other side,” Rudd added with a laugh.
Considering this year’s Southern 80 was the first race for the new boat, Rudd said the team was “very happy” with the result. “Everything went smoothly, so we can’t complain.”
The result was also one to savour for The Syndicate’s two skiers, Kevin Vahtrik and Danny Cropper, as getting to the finish line of the Southern 80 has been a rarity for two of the sport’s elder statesmen.
For 47-year-old Cropper, this year’s second place finish was nearly as good as his outright victory when skiing behind Argo back in 1997.
“That’s the last time I finished this race, with Argo,” Cropper revealed. “It’s quite a few years ago. It’s got to be at least 10 years ago – I go alright when I finish!”
Cropper’s effort proves he’s still got what it takes to mix it with the best and it happens to come more than two decades after he enjoyed his first outright victory in the Southern 80, with the legendary Rolco in 1988.
ON THE RISE
While Cropper and 44-year-old Vahtrik proved age is no barrier, a couple of the sport’s rising stars were hot on their tails, as the Stinga team – racing in the Under 19 Boys class – claimed third overall in a time of 32.09.
Stinga’s skiers, 19-year-old Ben Hackett and 17-year-old Jack Houston – who last year claimed his second Under 16 Boys world title in Queensland, having won his first world title as a 14-year-old in Belgium in 2009 – smashed the previous record for their class in a most impressive display.
The Stinga boat – another 21-foot Force hull, fitted with a Mercury sterndrive and powered by a twin-turbocharged Chevrolet – was driven by Greg Houston, with Kevin Boylan doing the observing. Houston and Boylan are no strangers to Southern 80 success, having won the race outright in 2007, however that was with the famed 21-foot Connelly Craft Stinga, while this year was the first time they had tackled the Murray River in the new boat.
Houston said the Force took some adjusting to. “It’s got some things that aren’t fantastic – it’s nowhere near as fast as what the Connelly is, but it absolutely out-corners it, so there’s horses for courses,” he said. “But it would be really, really nice if some boat builder decided to marry the two. The fella that does that is going to be on a winner.”
After the race, Stinga’s two skiers certainly felt like winners, as they celebrated their first-ever outright placing in a river classic.
“This was our first year with a big boat – the last two years (at the Southern 80) we’ve been running behind Formula 2 boats (single-rig outboards), so it’s a big change in speed and cornering,” Jack Houston said.
The move from a single-rig outboard to a twin-turbocharged inboard saw the pair shave nearly 10 minutes off their previous best time in the race – but such a drastic increase in speed brought with it plenty of challenges.
“I wouldn’t say it was scary, but just difficult, as we had to work hard through the turns,” Hackett said. “Trying to keep the ski in front of you on the hard turns is difficult.”
After the top three, there were a few hard luck stories, as several Super Class teams were left to rue the fact they didn’t finish higher in the Bakers’ Blitz qualifier.
Just three seconds separated fourth, fifth and sixth outright on Sunday, with Top Gun finishing fourth in a time of 32.16, the team of Burnin in fifth with 32.17 and The Mistress in sixth on 32.18.
In Saturday’s Bakers’ Blitz, the team of Blowncash qualified fourth in 7.11, while The Mistress was fifth in 7.12, Top Gun was sixth in 7.13 and Burnin was seventh in 7.14.
With just a one-minute interval between boats departing from the start line and Blowncash not showing the same pace in Sunday’s main race as it did in the Bakers’ Blitz, The Mistress was forced to follow close behind its rivals for the majority of the course, eventually crossing the finish line just nine seconds behind Blowncash, having been unable to overtake on the tight, unforgiving course.
Top Gun and Burnin followed in close behind Blowncash and The Mistress, but both teams lost time as they had to deal with the boat wash from those ahead of them. But for the team of Burnin, just getting to the finish line was a great result, as driver Noel Griffin was severely burnt in last year’s Southern 80, when his former boat Blazen – which was seemingly on track for an outright victory – caught fire and burnt to the waterline.
Thankfully, this year’s Club Marine Southern 80 passed largely without any serious incidents, though the one major exception was the nasty fall suffered by Super Class competitor Daniel Shipp, skiing behind Sapphire Racing. Shipp fell during the Bakers’ Blitz, and after reporting a loss of sensation in his arm, he was placed in an induced coma and airlifted to Melbourne’s The Alfred hospital. Thankfully, he was later cleared of any serious injury.
From race sponsor, Club Marine’s perspective, it was great to see Club Marine staffer, Louise Mudgway and team mate, Suzanne Cuff participate in the Veterans class, skiing behind Out 4 Revenge, driven by Matthew White with observer Jeff Howard. Louise and Suzanne were rewarded with a great time of 17:01 for their efforts. As a bonus, Louise’s daughter, Tayla Stint, along with fellow skier, Emma Binnie, skiing behind Spinal Tap driven by David Bishop with observer Gary Butterworth, took out fifth place in the Junior Girls Expert class.