Nearly 24 hours before the Bradenton Area River Regatta begins, John Ludwig already has a spot staked out near the Manatee River in Palmetto.
Not long after, his brother, Tom Ludwig, will arrive and set up in a parking lot across the street. The tandem are among the first boats to set up at Regatta Pointe Marina for their third crack at Bradenton Area Regatta.
The budding dynasty of Rinkers will be a tough one to end, but the Ludwigs may be the best positioned to end it. Unseating the first family of the Bradenton Regatta is a two-man operation.
“It’s mostly individuals, except for Rinker racing,” Tom Ludwig said. “That’s why they’re going to be tough. They’re going to be really tough. They’re tough anyhow if just one of them is racing because they’re all unbelievable racers.”
For two years at the Bradenton Regatta, the Ludwigs have been the also-ran family. Tom Ludwig finished second behind Ashton Rinker at the inaugural regatta in 2015. Then, on a rain-soaked day a year later, he and brother John finished near the bottom of the standings while Ashton and his father, Terry Rinker, swept the top two spots in the American Powerboat Association (APBA) race.
Add Ashton’s brother, Rob Rinker, into the mix and the family creates an organized team unlike most of their competition in the Powerboat Superleague, which is an official tour of the APBA.
“The Rinkers are a tough team to beat, man. We all shoot for them, but they’re racing very competitively,” John Ludwig said. “My brother’s here with me, so the Ludwigs will do well.”
The Ludwig family was made for powerboat racing, even long before they knew what the sport was. Growing up in Ohio, the brothers spent their childhood fishing and driving performance boats on the Ohio River, racing go-karts when they were on land and competing as any two siblings would. It was a family trip to Lake Erie, though, that planted the racing bug for good.
The Ludwig brothers often made trips to the lake, and when Tom was 15 one of his parents’ friends offered a ride on a Sanger speedboat. None of the adults wanted to go, so Tom and a friend hopped on. By the time they returned to land he had the “need for speed.”
“We were doing 100 mph toward the land,” Ludwig said. “I thought for sure we would hit the land.”
Ludwig, who lives in St. Petersburg and runs a landscaping business, spends much of his free time on the water. John Ludwig, who still resides in Ohio (Millersport), found a hobby on the river, too. Five years ago, John sent the brothers on the path to competition. Ludwig heard about a tunnel-boat race on Buckeye Lake and got the chance to take a boat out for a trial run. The siblings had flirted with getting into offshore racing, but the $1.5-million price tag for a boat and maintenance kept them away. John called Tom to let him know about his trial. It could be another entry into boat racing.
When the race was finished, John called Tom again.
“It was exciting,” John told him. “I want to do it.”
Tom was one step ahead: “I just bought two,” he said.
So 2013 served as a soft start for the Ludwig brothers: Tom raced and John served as crew chief. John finally bought his own boat for the final race of the 2013 season and by 2014 both were full-time competitors in the Superleague.
And they’ve come a long way from the first time they were on the water against each other in the Superleague, when Tom remembers John ramming him. As the years have gone by, they’ve found a way to race as a team, as with any sort of high-level competitive racing. To upend a dynasty, it may be the best way to go.
“Now we’re trying to work more as a team,” Tom Ludwig said. “We’ll bounce people off and block them for the other teammate and stuff. We’re trying to work together now. We’ve got it down. We’ve been racing together for a few years. Now we’re playing together.”
10-11 a.m.: Formula 2 Powerboat Qualifying
11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.: Formula 2 Powerboat Div. 2 Races
2-4:15 p.m.: Powerboat Div. 1 Races