Mark Tate

Mark A. Tate : A Smokin' Unlimited Racer [1996]

By William F. Keefe

Mark Tate
Mark Tate

The stock outboard races were getting under way on Ford Lake near Ypsilanti, Michigan. "Dad," said 12-year-old Mark, "look, they've got kids driving those boats."

The year was 1972. "Dad listened," Mark A. Tate recalls, "and we started investigating equipment and checking all the do's and don'ts of outboard racing. The following year I got into my first race."

Tate remembers that first race in 1973. "It was kind of funny. I was running, I think, fourth when a boat ahead of me flipped.

"I had been watching inboard racing as a kid. In that kind of race, when a boat flips you stop. So I stopped, pulled into the inside of the race course. Everyone else kept on racing. They told me later that I should have kept on going--outboard rules. It was a bit of a learning experience."

Twenty-three years later Mark Tate is entering his sixth season as the official driver of the Unlimited hydroplane racer known as Smokin' Joe's. He's looking forward to a 1996 season in which he hopes to pad the record that has made him one of the nation's leading race drivers.

The record tells its own story. Tate is a three-time national champion and a key figure in the Camel-powered team that finished second in the Eagle Snacks presents O'Doul's High Point boat championship competition in 1994 and 1995.

Qualifying as a full-time Unlimited hydroplane driver in 1990, Tate was named the (then) Unlimited Racing Commission's "Rookie of the Year" after that initial season. The (now) Unlimited Hydroplane Racing Association (UHRA) crowned him as driver's national champion in 1991, 1994 and 1995.

In '94 and '95 he earned another accolade, induction in the American Power Boat Association's Hall of Champions. That award "goes to the driver who has the highest standing in Unlimited racing over an entire season," Tate notes. In all he has the earned the distinction five times, twice while driving limited inboards.

Among his cherished records, Tate remembers that in 1993 he became the first Unlimited hydroplane driver to exceed 170 mph on an official 2 1/2-mile qualifying lap. It occurred during qualifying runs for the Gold Cup in Detroit, an annual event that draws as many as a half-million spectators.

The Detroit race, ranked by Unlimited hydro drivers as the "Indy 500" of powerboat racing, gave Tate his most thrilling victory in 1991. He had just joined the Competition Specialties race team to drive the Winston Eagle, since renamed Smokin' Joe's, owned by Washington state businessman Steve Woomer.

"It was a great win for me, coming in my first year," says Tate, "and coming especially in Detroit. That course on the Detroit River is egg-shaped at one end -- turn one has more than twice the width of the second turn at the other end. So you've got to figure out how you want to set your boat up.

"You have to decide whether you want to concentrate on getting through the first turn real fast, or get through the second turn and then accelerate off of them. On the straightaway, you're traveling at a little more than 200 miles an hour."

Sitting in the cockpit of Smokin' Joe's this year, helmeted and suited like an auto race driver, Tate will be guiding 6,200 pounds of purple and gold lightning powered by a Lycoming T55-L7C turbine engine. The horsepower rating is 2,750. The custom- designed propeller measures 15 inches in diameter and turns at 10,000 rpm. Twenty-nine feet long, the hydroplane has a 14-foot beam.

The grueling 1996 Unlimited Hydroplane Thunder Tour '96, presented by LAS VEGAS, includes 11 stops from Phoenix to Honolulu, with Detroit second on the roster between May 30 and June 2. The Motown race is known officially as the Chrysler Jeep APBA Gold Cup. Before each race, generally on the preceding Friday and Saturday, the race organizers run from two to four qualifying heats.

In addition to Tate, the Steve Woomer team includes seven full- time specialists who tend the boat year-round. Tate shares the team's '96 ambitiion: to win a world championship.Tate is living, breathing proof that the apple falls close to the tree. His late grandfather, Joe Tate Sr., drove racing boats. So did -- and does - - his father, Joe Tate Jr. Mark Tate's wife Sandy is a former powerboat racer and holder of national high point championships and world records in limited inboard racing.

A manufacturer's representative when he's not pursuing his "No. 1 profession" as a race driver, Tate still makes time in his grueling schedule to spend time with his family.

"Sandy and our two boys, Andrew and Brent, sometimes go with me to the races. Sandy is one of my best fans!"

(Reprinted from Lakeland Boating, 1996)