"At last, a yacht club for the rest of us," I thought, "where boats are christened with longneck Buds and the chef can prepare a proper chitlin cocktail." But my vision, it seems, was more than a bit awry. My every call, every inquiry, was greeted first by a chuckle, and then by a quieter and slightly worried, "Where'd you hear about the NASCAR Yacht Club?" Bit by bit, the pieces of the puzzle came together.
First the background. Last year, auto racing surpassed football to take first place as America's favorite spectator sport. By far the most popular segment of that market is stock-car racing, the roots of which were planted decades ago in the transport of moonshine whiskey throughout Appalachia, often at high speed in souped-up sedans with the law in hot pursuit. The racing eventually moved off-highway to oval tracks, but modified family cars were still the vehicle of choice. Richard Petty, retired but still The King, recalls catching the bus back home with his parents and siblings after his father totaled their car at the track.
Stock-car racing, with NASCAR as its sanctioning body, is now big business with sophisticated professional management, yet its image as an excuse for country folk to get wild on a Sunday afternoon persists. Comedian Jeff Foxworthy has firmly reinforced the stereotype with his observation: "You might be a redneck if you think the last four words of the national anthem are 'Gentlemen, start your engines!'"
Thus, it comes as something of a surprise to learn that, yes, there really is a NASCAR Yacht Club, and furthermore, it is arguably the world's most exclusive. The club is quite small; its size kept in check by the requirements for consideration as a member: You must have a yacht, and you must be not only an active NASCAR driver or team owner, but one acceptable to the current members. Some rivalries, it seems, extend beyond the track.
Unlike other ultra-exclusive yacht clubs, such as the New York, St. Francis or Costa Smerelda clubs, the NASCAR Yacht Club has no clubhouse, no staff, not even a phone number or a fixed address. That made tracking down details a bit of a challenge, but my location in North Carolina proved an asset.
The heart of NASCAR country, North Carolina is home to many of the owners and drivers, including Felix Sabates. Sabates is a multi-team co-owner along with Chip Ganassi. He's also an avid yachtsman and one of the owners of custom yacht builder Trinity Yachts in New Orleans. First came the laugh, then the amiable Sabates filled in a few of the key details, the most important being confirmation of the club's shadowy existence.
With a keen interest in yachting and considerable involvement in NASCAR, Sabates co-founded the NASCAR Yacht Club in 1987 along with NASCAR's patriarch, William "Bill Jr." France, who shares Sabates' interest in yachting from his home base in Daytona Beach, Fla. Sabates currently owns the 126-foot, Trinity-built Big Easy (Yachting, December 2001) and previously cruised on a series of larger yachts all named Victory Lane. The France family fleet-NASCAR is now headed by Bill Jr.'s son Brian-includes two custom superyachts, each named Hi Banx, and a number of lesser but not insignificant vessels.
After nearly two decades of existence, the club's administration remains incredibly simple. There are no dues and democracy rules. In Sabates' words, "If you have a boat, you get to vote." One of the few items that come up for a decision each year is the location of the club's annual rendezvous. Typically held around the Fourth of July-the week after the Pepsi 400, still referred to as the Firecracker 400 by many-the yachts travel from Daytona Beach to "somewhere in the islands." This summer's event reportedly was held at Marsh Harbor and included about 40 people, but the exact venue and activities vary from year to year and are closely guarded secrets.
Sabates did share a few stories with me, including one about the late great #3, "The Intimidator," Dale Earnhardt Sr., and suggested, "Why don't you call your old boss and get his side of it?" By "old boss," he meant Alton Herndon, former president of Hatteras Yachts, who quickly responded to my questions with a query of his own: "Who've you been talking to? Felix?"
It seems the club wanted to do some fishing during its get-together but was short on fishing boats. Sabates had bought a couple of Hatteras yachts along the way, as had some other club members, so an invitation was issued to Herndon, conditional on his bringing Hatterascal, the company's tournament convertible. Earnhardt, a yachting novice at that point, boarded the multi-million dollar Hatterascal as the fleet prepared to depart the marina and, according to Sabates, "intimidated" Herndon out of the helm seat. After ascertaining what each lever did, he shoved the throttles forward and, without hesitation, headed for the fishing grounds at top speed, as if the prize was to be awarded for arriving first, not for returning with the biggest fish.
Earnhardt drove all day and brought Hatterascal back for a flawless docking. Herndon confirms most of the story, but says Earnhardt was quite polite, his "Intimidator" persona on hold-mostly-and repeated the consensus on #3: "If it has a steering wheel, he can drive it." Ron Locke, longtime Hatteras company captain, says it took Earnhardt some time under his tutelage to become really proficient-"about ten minutes, as I recall."
A number of peripheral players-after being assured that their names would not be mentioned-divulged stories of their own. Like any good club, there are traditions to maintain, such as sending a rookie captain off each year in search of a Harbor Island pig for the greased pig chase to be held on the teak decks of his yacht. The horrified captain's question is the same every year-"But who's going to pay for the damage?"-and brings gales of laughter and a "welcome to the club" slap on the back from the veterans.
One captain happily recalled a series of personal watercraft races that were every bit as hotly contested as any duel on the track. When Roger Penske's PWC sucked up a slug of sand and stalled, he quickly drafted a pit crew, personally tore the waterjet down and returned to the race. "Can you imagine," asked the captain, "being Roger Penske's tool man?"
In addition to votes on the club's rendezvous plans, there are also votes on other matters of importance. One such decision was making Michael Waltrip an honorary member, not because he's such a nice guy -which they all agree he is-but because his wife, Buffy, "is so good-looking."
Yes, the scent of high-octane testosterone hangs as heavy over the yacht club as it does over any NASCAR track, but this is not Augusta National. The women can take care of themselves just fine, thank you very much. At one gathering, the men boarded a few of the boats for a day of competitive fishing, "no women allowed." The ladies simply waited until the men were a mile out, commandeered the remaining boats and, at the end of the day, had boated more fish than the men. The tournament is now coed.
The summer rendezvous is usually a relaxing time of fun and games, but it has also served as the catalyst for critical business. Following the death of a pit-crew member at a race one year, members drafted new safety rules while at a gathering in Bimini. Another time, Tony George joined the group to meet with Bill France and others, discuss the formation of the Indy Racing League (IRL) and bring NASCAR racing to the Brickyard.
While the July gathering is the highlight of the club's calendar, coming as it does in the middle of the racing season when tensions are high and a diversion is most welcome, it is by no means the only time the boys get together. Any NASCAR race held near water is reason enough for several of the yachts to show up-the Ford 400, for instance, in Homestead next month. Another best bet for fans is February's season-opening Speedweeks in Daytona Beach.
I stopped off in Daytona twice last February, once en route to the Miami International Boat Show and once returning, to check out the scene before and during the Daytona 500 (yes, I love this job ). With a few hints from my sources on where to look, I found the mother lode, and the father lode, too.
Daytona Marina and Boat Works, on the south end of town, is a historic site with a race history of its own. The four engine TX-41, designed by Jack Hargrave, was built here in 1964 by Bob Sherbert and held the Miami-New York offshore speed record for ten years. Today the basin holds no fewer than six NASCAR superyachts-including Sabates' 126-foot Big Easy and Jeff Gordon's 106-foot 24 Karat-and one dedicated race fan in his 33-foot cruiser, living the dream of a lifetime. Transient slips are usually available to the general public, according to Harbormaster Gary Roberts, but you need to book early (386 252-6421). If you're not coming to town afloat but still want to do a little NASCAR yacht spotting, reserve a waterside table at the adjoining Chart House Restaurant; again, book early (386 255-9022).
At the other end of town, in the shadow of the Seabreeze Boulevard Bridge, is Caribbean Jack's Restaurant and Marina (386 523-3000, www.caribbeanjacks.com), recently rebuilt and with new face dockage for larger yachts. It was here I spotted Detroit Eagle, Roger Penske's 153-foot, 13,000 hp Feadship. From the marina, I could also see Hi Banx secure in France's private compound just to the north.
Midway between the two, on South Beach Street, is the restored heart of town that is home to numerous shopping and dining establishments, as well as the Halifax Historical Museum (386 255-6976, www.halifaxhistorical.org). The museum is small but interesting, with a fabulous collection of race memorabilia that will captivate fans.
If you decide to go on your own search for the elusive NASCAR Yacht Club, here are a few clues that may help. Yachts with checkered flags, whether as part of the boat's name or logo, or flying from the mast, are good bets. So are race-related boat names, such as Sunday Money, Checkered Passion and Shifting Gears. And a sure sign that you've found the place is the the Sabates-designed club uniform-a T-shirt with a stylized boat sporting four wheels and a checkered flag.