The Bradenton Area River Regatta first halted during the 11th lap of the championship race on the Manatee River, and when the restart came the regatta was guaranteed to have a new champion.
Ashton Rinker, the winner each of the first two years in Bradenton, had stalled in the middle of the course. He stood with his hands on his hips on one of his boat’s wings as a tow pulled him to the dock Saturday.
Rinker wasn’t the only casualty during the first race of the season. At the first stoppage, the 14-boat field shrunk to 10. Lee Daniel’s father, Billy, popped on his radio.
“Just take your time,” the crew chief said to his son. Daniel had led the whole way to that point, and with the field dwindling he had a chance to take it wire to wire if he was careful.
“We weathered through it,” Daniel said, “and we’ve done a pretty good job.”
The restart lasted six laps before another mishap arose. Terry Rinker, Ashton’s father and Daniel’s closest competition for the first half of the race, clipped Dean Durand as he attempted to lap Durand’s boat in a turn. Durand capsized, and the hull of Rinker’s boat was banged up enough to force him from the race. At the next restart, the field was reduced to five with Daniel’s two toughest competitors on dry land.
Daniel finished the victory with ease at the third annual Bradenton Regatta.
“I can’t say the boat didn’t run good,” the North Augusta, S.C. said. “It was running pretty good, so we’ll go home and do our homework because I know everybody else is.”
Daniel finished fourth in last year’s Powerboat Superleague F-2 standings and hadn’t driven his SST 120 since October’s season-ending event in New Martinsville, W.V.
“Back where I’m from,” Daniel said, “it’s still cold.”
He hadn’t tested his boat or put it out on the water since the end of 2016. He pulled it out of the garage and brought it down to Palmetto on Friday to get ready for the first race of the 2017 American Powerboat Association slate.
While others tinkered, though, the Daniels’ hands-off approach worked. Lee took an early lead, and Billy coached him the rest of the way.
“We just had to stay out front and be patient,” Billy said. “That’s what he done. A lot good boats broke down.”
They’ve built a trust beyond a father-son bond over decades of a pilot-manager relationship.
Lee first started piloting as an 18-year-old — “when someone had to sign for me to race,” he jokes — after watching his father serve as the crew chief for another racer. Billy has been involved with boat racing for about 50 years now.
Twenty-three years later, Lee and Billy have the early lead in the Superleague standings and the Rinkers, who have accounted for the last six championships, are well back.
“It’s a real good start,” Billy said.
For the first 17 laps, Terry Rinker gave the Daniels trouble and for those first 11 Ashton wasn’t much farther behind. Those two have the ability to work in tandem and if both had crept up close to Daniel, one could have blocked Daniel to set up the other for a pass.
And even when Ashton went down, Terry kept within a handful of boat lengths of Daniel for more than half the race. By the 17th lap, Daniel had created some separation and forced Rinker into a more aggressive approach. When the field opened up, Daniel could breeze to the finish line.
“We done pretty good,” Daniel said. “First race of the season. It seemed like a few people had bugs and we ended up not having any bugs and anything bothering us.”