April 11, 2013

If Seats Could Talk: Johnny Reed's Death-Defying Boat Race at Miami Marine Stadium

1975 Champion Spark Plug Regatta. Courtesy Friends of Miami Marine Stadium
Scene from the 1975 Champion Spark Plug Regatta

Since 1963, Miami Marine Stadium was not only an iconic piece of Modernist architecture, but a entertainment venue unlike any other. The setting for countless boat races, concerts, and even religious services, the stadium brought life to the Miami community -- even though sometimes the activities it held nearly took it away.

In part two of our “If Seats Could Talk” series, compiled by the Friends of Miami Marine Stadium in an effort to increase support for the restoration of the venue, we highlight the experience of race boat driver Johnny Reed, who remembers the stadium from a rather different perspective.

Johnny Reed

I was raised in Miami Shores -- we moved there in 1952. When I was about ten years old, I began hearing noise. It was boat racing. I looked over the wall, and as a kid, when you see these nutballs take off and you see the smoke, it definitely gets your attention. Eventually, my mom bought me a race boat and that’s when it started.

I raced at the Marine Stadium for about twelve years (roughly 1963-75). It was a great sport and there was great camaraderie between the boat racers, but it was very competitive and you had to be tough. One time, I was sandwiched between two boats, and they were each banging me. So I turned my wheel hard to the left and then hard to the right -- Wham! Wham! I got their respect and that didn't happen to me again.

Boat race prep. Date unknown. Courtesy Friends of Miami Marine Stadium
Boat race prep, date unknown.

The starts were another interesting place for gamesmanship. For our boats, the start would be in around the middle of the Marine Stadium and it was a timed start. Boat racers would usually hang out where the Rusty Pelican now is, and as the countdown began, would time their acceleration to cross the starting line at full speed as the gun went off.

I was known as a very good starter and the other racers would do what I did. So sometimes, I played tricks. I would accelerate towards the starting line, then at the last minute slack off and let the other boats pass the start before the gun went off, disqualifying them. That’s the kind of psychology you had to use!

Especially in those days, boat racing was a very dangerous sport and I had a couple of close calls. There is one photograph of me with the boat -- a tunnel boat -- pointed straight up to the sky. This happened at the start because I got cut off. Another boat moved in front of me and the wind and spray off the back of his boat was enough to make my boat go airborne. My boat rode up and twisted, but luckily fell back up right. I went swimming; I was thrown out of the boat.

Johnny Reed mid-crash at the start of the Gold Coast Marathon in 1971. Courtesy Friends of Miami Marine Stadium
Johnny Reed (l.) mid-crash at the start of the Gold Coast Marathon in 1971.

A second crash was scarier. It was the start of the Gold Coast Marathon in 1971. The owner of the boat, a guy named Stu Gray, told me to take the boat out, run a couple of laps, and bring it back because the boat was going to be sold and the buyer wanted to see it run.

Just before the race, I flipped the bird to another boat racer, Buzz Taylor. It was a friendly thing; he smiled and I laughed. There were about 65 boats total at the start and about six of us were out front, going about 100 miles an hour.

That’s when Don Pruitt cut in front of me. The way he did it, it lifted my boat up and blew it over backwards -- this is called a “blowover.” I’m still in my seat while I am upside down, I saw Buzz Taylor’s boat getting ready to hit me head on.

What was it like? I’m gonna tell you. I’m sitting in the boat and I’m seeing everything -- and it’s dead quiet (those engines were [usually] so loud that they were ear-piercing). I turn my head and it is quiet, slow motion. I saw a white light, I pushed myself into the light, and then I was out. I’m not a religious guy, but someone was riding shotgun that day.

Boat racing at the stadium, date unknown. Courtesy Friends of Miami Marine Stadium
Boat racing at the Stadium, date unknown.

The Marine Stadium had about 4,000 people that day, and when I came to, (in about a minute) it was quiet. All the scorers (the scorers were women) started crying because they thought I was dead. But because it was Johnny Reed, they didn't even stop the race!

I was in the water for a minute and I got picked up by the rescue boat. I was numb and couldn't feel anything. I looked down to make sure that both legs were there and when I was in the stretcher, I saw that I was missing one boot. I had just bought the boots at K-Mart the night before so I said to the aide, “I don’t want to go to the hospital with one boot on, one boot off!” So he swam over and got my boot.

When I got back to the pits, Stu Gray said to me, “Are you alright?”

I replied “Next time, I’ll build them, you drive them.” And then I got into the ambulance.

It may sound like all Johnny ever did was crash boats, but I was fortunate to have a great career. I won three High Point Championships and three National Championships. I loved racing at the Marine Stadium.

David Weible was the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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