• Happy 85th Birthday Don

    by Charlie McCarthy

    Editor’s note: Banana Powerboats CEO and HORBA founder Charlie McCarthy had a long and unique friendship with Don Aronow. In this two-part series, Charlie revisits the story of that friendship.

    Meeting Don Aronow
    I fell in love for the first time in my life during my freshman year at Saint Leo University, just north of Tampa Florida. But this relationship was no ordinary one- the object of my passion was offshore powerboat racing.

    My roommate at Saint Leo’s, who came from a family of boat racers out of Chicago, introduced me to this great sport and I was invited to join the pit crew of Mike Gordon. Mike raced an 18 foot Rayson Craft endurance boat with a big 427 Ford engine. As pit crew members our job was mainly to be gofers. We’d go for food, we’d go for beer, we’d go for parts, whatever was needed. We were only too eager to be a part of the excitement and the pageantry surrounding the race scene.

    Personally I was blown away. I’d never seen anything quite like it; the glamor, the money, the boats and the women. I was hooked for life.
    Mike took his racing very seriously and eventually stepped up from his endurance SK-type hull to a brand new, 27-foot deep vee from a new company in Miami called Formula. Mike bought his new boat just in time to race it in the upcoming Miami to Key West contest.

    When we arrived at the race site Mike was still working on the boat, but he took time to show it off to us. This gave him the opportunity to rave about this new boat company that was building the greatest boats in the world. He was obviously very impressed with his new purchase and talked about it to anyone that would listen. Mike had taken delivery of the boat just a few days previously and only got to run it a few minutes before leaving for the race. He was already making changes to the boat and needed some parts from Formula. So my roommate and I headed for the other side of town to pick up the parts at Formula.

    We arrived at 188th Street in North Miami about noon on Friday. There were only two buildings on the street- a cement factory on the left and a small, lonely two-story building on the right, with a canal behind it and cement trucks parked out front. There wasn’t a boat in sight and the rest of the peninsula they called 188th Street was still undeveloped. From Mike’s description I expected to see alot more than this. As we approached we spotted two boats behind the building and a small sign on the door that said Formula Powerboats.

    No one answered our knock, so we opened the door. The pungent odor of fiberglass resin hit us in the face like a brick wall. I’d never smelled anything so toxic before. Inside the Formula building we found a few more boats in various stages of construction and a few workers building a hull. Eventually a tall, friendly man who struck me as being somewhat shy, approached us. This was my first impression of Don Aronow. I had no clue who this man was or who he would become and neither did he.

    Don told us that Mike had called and that the parts would be ready in a few minutes. He told us to look around while we waited, so we poked into everything like little kids in a candy store. He had a sweet little stern drive boat with a 289 almost completed and a twin inboard 27 footer that was still under construction. There was also a 23 foot boat with the name “The Cigarette” on the stern. None of us realized what we were witnessing or what the future would hold for this fledgling company.

    When the parts were ready we loaded them into the car. Then, before we left, I asked this fellow, Don Aronow, if he was going to race in the upcoming event. He pointed tot he 23 footer that looked almost complete- the one with “The Cigarette” on the stern- and said “Yes, that’s my boat.” I laughed and told him he should stay home and save his money because my roomie and I were on the crew of Mike’s new boat and we were going to win. Everyone else would have to settle for second place or worse. Don just laughed and said, “You have the right attitude kid. Tell Mike good luck.”

    Don would race any style of boat anywhere. This is a 27 foot Formula with a cabin, to meet the rules of the class

    Don’s Formula
    Because of fate, timing and good fortune I not only met Don many times over the years we became good friends both on and off the racecourse. He wasn’t a legend when I first met him. At the time he was just some guy who was a very competitive racer trying to learn how to build raceboats. Don wasn’t an introvert, but he had a quiet confidence. He didn’t need to be the center of attention. In fact, whenever he met someone for the first time he seemed shy and withdrawn (This didn’t always apply when he met a woman). Don know that once someone got to know him they would quickly realize he was someone worth knowing. As for the women, lets just say he met a few of them too.

    My weekend visits to race sites continued on and off over the following years as I watched Don sell Formula and start up Donzi in the same building. He then sold Donzi and moved right next door, after which he built a new building and started Magnum Marine. Don like dot say he had a formula he followed. Build a good race boat with a new design; race it; win with it; then develop the production line off the race boat. When sales pick up, sell the company, move on and do it again. Brilliant!

    Don knew everyone in Miami and had the ability to tap into their talents to get the very best then bring them all together to create a new and amazing boat. He could see that his team, his “formula” would produce designs and records that would stand for a long time.

    In typical Aronow fashion, Don had again quickly discarded his "required" helmet.

    In the early years, before he became known as “The Legend”, Don was very much involved with the day-to-day running of the business. He had a restless spirit that alwats forced him to seek a better way of doing things. Proven methods meant nothing to Don. He knew he could do it better if he did it himself. As an example, in 1966 Hugh Doyle commissioned Jim Wynne and Walt Walters to design a new offshore racer. The result was Ghost Rider. A 28-foot deep-vee with twin engines on v-drives and a single rudder. The engines were turbocharged and could give the boat a top speed in the mid to high 80 MPH range for short bursts. The strategy was to get out in front then back off to race in the 60 MPH range while holding the lead. The cold-molded plywood boat was made in England by Souter. Ghost Rider was undefeated in 1966, winning every race it entered in the U.S., the Bahamas and Europe. Jim Wynne was the driver and became the 1966 Wold Champion. Don’s response to this the following year was a 27-foot fiberglass race boat that was barely more than a simple hull and deck. He built two versions of this boat. One with a single stern drive and th eother with three outboard engines. No turbocharging or exotic cold molding for Don. The straightforward, no-nonsense 24-degree deep vee hull with reliable powerplants gave him the World Championship in 1967.

    Work Hard, Play Hard
    Don loved having fun. He always had a big smile on his face and a great sense of humor. He loved to play jokes on people and never seemed to mind when they returned the favor. Don loved winning races more than anything. That’s what he was all about- winning. After winning a race Don would become the life of the party. I recall one particular night in Key West after Don had just won a race. We were having a poolside party and Don wanted to start some trouble. He grabbed a young waiter, stuffed a fifty-dollar bill in his hand and told the boy to accidentally/on purpose push one of his best customers into the pool. A little later the kid came back and tried to get out of the deal. He was afraid he’d get in trouble with his boss, so Don pushed him and the customer into the pool. By the end of the night everyone had gone into the pool.

    Don and Carl Kiekhaefer

    Don was very involved with is workers and in return they were very loyal to him. One time he found out a worker had been a fisherman back in Cuba and was working as many hours as possible at Formula to save enough money to buy a fishing boat. Upon hearing this, Don gave him the money to buy the boat. Another time in the early 70′s, when the fuel crisis had long lines at the gas pumps, boat sales came screeching to a halt. Don gathered his workers and said “No one gets laid off. Keep building boats and put them in the yard. No overtime but no layoffs either. People will start buying them again when the gas flows”

    Banana Boats
    I enjoyed a unique relationship with Don Aronow because I wasn’t an employee or a customer. We were simply friends. When I first met Don I couldn’t afford one of his boats. I could barely afford to feed myself. I often told him that one day I would come back and buy a race boat. Don just laughed and shook his head. When the day came that I felt my business holdings gave me enough spare change to go racing, I went to see my old friend Don with the intention of buying a 35 Cigarette race boat. But that’s not the way it turned out.

    Don was always a hell of a salesman and he was about to do a number on me. He said “No, I won’t sell you a boat”. He laughed and said “What I will do is put you into the boat business”. Now it was my turn to say no. I knew I couldn’t afford to buy one of his boat companies. And I knew nothing about building boats, much less race boats. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I could afford to go racing. Don said, “I’ll sell you some extra molds from Cigarette and you can start a company and then write off all your racing expenses as research and development costs.”
    And so, with Don’s help and the molds, the Banana Boat Company was born. I was instructed to go home to Rhode island and hire some workers, then bring them back to Florida where they would be trained along side the workers at Cigarette.

    Don advised me to start with the 24-foot boat, make the first one and then bring it to Florida where his guys would rig it for me. Over that time the 24 foot Banana became a real popular model along the Northeast coastline. Don even had Stan Irwin build special engines for me. Don helped me with everything from deciding the name of the company to designing the advertising.The natural color for the boat would have been yellow, but Don advised me to make my race boat black and use white lettering on the side. He explained first of all that the boat would look longer in black and that when the time came to cover a race, the press would always print the sharpest photo. In those days press photographs were always black and white. The photos that stood out the best were selected for print. I sent Don the newspaper clipping from my first race. The only photo used was of my boat. As usual, Don’s insight, for even the smallest of details, was spot on.

    Tomorrow- Part 2 continues

    Don racing the Donzi 28 wearing #4, his lucky number