• The Count of Offshore, Part 1 of 2

    by SeriousOffshore

    Just recently we lost one of the all time greats in Offshore Racing and Performance Boating History. Vincenzo Balestrieri as everyone knew him, his full name being Count Vincenzo Balestrieri Cosimelli, is one of the most accomplished offshore racers to ever hold a boat throttle and steering wheel in his hands. He not only won the World Championship twice, he also was the very first European to win an American offshore race. He started out his working life as a lawyer, but went into business early on instead of specializing in law.

    Vincenzo left 4 sons and two grandchildren behind when he departed this earth for other seas to run on. Two of his sons, Luca and Sergio, spent a lot of time at the races in Europe with their father over the years. Allessandro, aka Alex, lives here in the United States and maintains a website in honor of his father, and his father’s accomplishments. Luca, Sergio, and Vincenzo Jr. all currently live in Europe. Three of the sons, Luca, Vincenzo Jr., and Alex, are very fluent in English having pursued some of their studies in England as they prepared themselves for life.

    An all round sportsman, Balestrieri competed in boxing, football, basketball, Japanese wrestling, motor racing and he won a Gold Medal in Italian National Youth Sports in 1940 at the age of 14. He has been described as “diminutive” by some within the offshore sport because he stood 5’5” and weighed about 125 pounds. He was a successful and wealthy industrialist and land developer in Rome, Italy.The Count received two “Gold Medal of Honor” as the best driver of the year in 1969 and 1970 recognized by the Italian Olympic Committee.

    During the course of Offshore Racing History, there has been a total of four participants who won multiple world titles when the competition was actually an around the world competition, versus the one event world championships which evolved in the later years. Those four competitors, Jim Wynne in 1964 and 1966, Don Aronow in 1967 and 1969, Carlo Bonomi in 1973 and 1974, and Vincenzo Balestrieri in 1968 and 1970, make up four of the all time greats in the history of the sport.

    Balestrieri first began racing Offshore Powerboats in 1962 at the first Viareggio – Bastia – Viareggio race in the Picchiotti designed and built Cohete. He competed, and assisted, with boats of the Navaltecnica yard for a couple years, and then assisted and competed in boats from the Delta yard, “Delta Blu” designed by Levi in 1966 and 1967. He competed in his first race in the US, the Bahamas 500, in 1967. For 13 years Balestrieri was one of the foremost players in our sport, and won 28 major races.

    In the early to mid sixties offshore powerboat racing was emerging as a worldwide sport. Great Britain, France, Sweden and Italy were holding regular events that, along with the existing US venues, became part of the World Championship Tour.
    In 1968, after a four year dominance by Americans, Count Vincenzo Balestrieri was able to clinch the world title by winning 5 of the season’s races. Vincenzo became the first European to clinch the world title ever, partnered by his co-driver and mechanic Don Pruett.

    Driving his 28-foot Magnum “Magnum Tornado” powered by by Twin 450HP Mercruiser engines, Vincenzo opened the season by winning the Sam Griffith Memorial Race in Florida. He then placed second in the subsequent race, the Wills International in England, missing first by only 30 seconds. Then Vincenzo was once again victorious at first the Naples Trophy in Italy, and first again at the Viareggio-Bastia-Viareggio in Italy. After that, Balestrieri took his Tornado to victory at the French Douphin d’Or and followed it up with the win at the Swedish GP.

    Vincenzo’s luck changed late in the season when his Magnum ’28 sank at the Cowes-Torquay event in England …….

    And, in the following race at the Miami-Nassau event, his new ’31 Bertram “Yellow Tornado” suffered a flash-fuel explosion in the engine compartment nearly killing Don Pruett. Don recovered from his second degree burns and, two weeks later Don drove the “Yellow Tornado” to victory in the Miami-Key West race with Nick Fennerty and Tony Azzara , both from Miami. Because the race was not a UIM World Champion points race, Vincenzo had to return to Europe for business. However, two weeks later on December 4th, the Count returned to the US and entered the Hurricane Classic 200 in St Petersburg, Florida with Don and raced. The race was won by Odell Lewis if Fond du Lac, Wisconsin in his new 31’ Bertram with a course record average of 57.3 mph.

    There were a total of 11 races in 1968 on the World circuit, and the Count won those five listed above. In 1969, Vincenzo finished third in the World Championships. But, in 1970, Balestrieri repeated his 1968 world championship feat by again clinching the title.
    One of the most intriguing stories of that 1970 season was the agreement made privately between Bill Wishnick and Vincenzo as they battled for the world championship. Bill told Charlie McCarthy the agreement went something like this…If one of their boats was unable to race, the other boat would not run. Because, when they were racing in other countries like South America, the races were scheduled very close to each other. One race was in Uruguay, and then Argentina had their race only one week later.

    Bill had trouble with one of his engines at the earlier race and there was no way he would be able to run in the Argentina race just one week later. So now their agreement was coming into play. Bill said Vincenzo found a fairly competitive boat that could be rented and secured it for Bill. That way they were both able to race in the second event and neither had an opportunity to win the championship with, what they felt, was an unfair advantage. A lot of money was spent transporting their boats all over the world, so they both wanted to compete on an equal footing and not take advantage of a breakdown. Can you imagine something like that happening today in most of the classes? What an incredible gesture, from great competitors, during an important time of the sport’s surge to popularity. The boat that Vincenzo managed to rent for Wishnick in South America was the outboard racer campaigned by Juan Fernandez, a 28’ Magnum called “Boar Hog”. Fernandez had come down with a kidney stone between races and was unable to race. It has been said there was no way the boat was anywhere close to as competitive as the Count’s, but could you imagine what would have happened if the Count had broken down? I wonder if he’d regret it, or be glad he had stepped up to try to make it so Bill actually had at least an opportunity to compete?

    Another story from the 1970 season, the Hennessy Key West Race, shaped up to be the decisive event of the year for the championship of the Union of International Motorboating. The course was 162 nautical miles to the Dry Tortugas and back. Twenty boats answered the call to race, 12 made the finish line.

    One of the race entries was the British sportsman, Tommy Sopwith, whose dad won World War I fame by building a fighter plane called the Sopwith Camel. Another was the Italian, Vincenzo Balestrieri; aboard the boat he called the Black Tornado. There was what could be called some slight tension between the two of them. Sopwith had won the Miami-Nassau race the previous month, first having added superchargers to the 475-horsepower engines of his Avenger, Double-O-Seven. Balestrieri had finished second, and then there was a protest filed over the superchargers. The race promoter disallowed Sopwith’s victory, moving Vincenzo up, putting the two in a virtual tie for the season’s championship. The Key West race would most likely decide it all.

    “The race promoter that had ruled against Sopwith in the Miami-Nassau event was the famous Red Crise. He claimed after the 007 boat burned and sank that he was correct by not allowing the superchargers as they were a fire hazard”. Charlie McCarthy

    At the start of the race, in the lead were Sopwith’s Double-O-Seven and Balestrieri’s Black Tornado. Then trouble struck off of the Rebecca Shoals area of the course, Sopwith’s Double-O-Seven suddenly erupted into flames, and a black plume of smoke rose into the sky. The captain and crew bailed out, wearing life jackets, and were bobbing in the water. At least one racer churned past the three men without stopping to help, but not Vincenzo.
    Balestrieri whipped alongside, stopped and picked up the Sopwith crew while the race went on around them. “Bad, very much fire,” Balestrieri said later. “You understand, those men maybe 100, maybe 50 feet from the boat. If she explode…….” He waved his hands in the true Italian fashion and looked heavenward. Vincenzo took Sopwith and his crew to the nearest checkboat. “Sopwith told me to go on,” said Balestrieri. Vincenzo did, and finished fifth. The Double-O-Seven burned to the waterline and sank—aluminum hull, supercharged engines and all. Balestrieri became the toast of the racing world, and the darling of two continents, because he stopped to stage a dramatic midrace rescue that very well could have cost him the world championship.


    “I have a short anecdote, that my father told me, about Sopwith rescuing; He was speeding trying to reach Tommy Sopwith, currently first, when he saw fire and smoke coming up from Sopwith’s boat. The other competitor, who was slightly in front of Vincenzo’s Black Tornado, passed by without stopping. Dad slowed down and got near to see what had happened, while the other two members of the crew yelled at him:”noooo, Vincenzo, we’re gonna get killed, nooo Vincenzo we’re gonna die…!”. Despite of this, Vincenzo reached Sopwith and his crew and picked them up on his boat, leaving them, shortly after, on a jury boat, where Sopwith, after thanking him, shouted “go, Vincenzo, go and win the race..” (!!!).
    The race went on, and when he arrived (fifth), he saw that at the port of the winner there were very few people who celebrated the actual winner, and when he landed a huge crowd waiting for him for what he had done. As this event was on TV and on all evening papers, along with his picture, the next day he was recognized on the road and celebrated like a hero!” “Not many people remember that in 1962, during the Viareggio-Bastia- Viareggio (his first race) he stopped with his Cohete to rescue another competitor and his crew whose boat was sinking.” Vincenzo Balestrieri Jr.

    Stay Tuned For Part 2

    I cannot give enough thanks to Vincenzo’s family and friends who were so kind as to help with this story. I am honored they were willing to take the time. Hopefully they enjoy reading it as much as I have enjoyed working on it. Paul “Ratickle” Rose