Performance Boats Online Article: For the Kildahl Family, 4th of July is a Family TraditionJune 27, 2014
By Eric Colby
Stephen Kildahl is 23 years old and he’s spent every July 4th weekend at the same place — the Suncoast Offshore Grand Prix in Sarasota, Fla. His father, Steve Kildahl, started his offshore racing career 30 years ago at the race in his family’s hometown and when Stephen was born, the family brought him along to the races.
This year will mark the eighth season that the Kildahls have teamed up to race in their hometown, with Stephen driving and 56-year Steve throttling. Maybe it’s a hometown advantage or maybe it’s Dad’s 30 years experience running the course in the Gulf of Mexico, but the two have won their class in the hometown race every year since they paired up.
With a sponsorship from Sarasota Ford, Stephen (left) and Steve Kildahl, are hoping for another podium finish in their hometown race on July 6.
“Fourth of July weekend, the race is all I’ve every known,” said Stephen, who is graduating from Florida Gulf Coast University in January. “It adds a bit more pressure than all the other races.” The team also has sponsorship from Sarasota Ford automobile dealership for the first time at the July 4th event. The local business has long been involved with the weekend-long festivities and the Suncoast Foundation for handicapped children, but this is the first time it will be sponsoring a race team.
They’ve picked a good one to back from both a business and karma standpoint. Steve Kildahl formed the Scott Free Racing team to compete in the event’s famous Amateur Challenge race, the popular run-what-you-brung competition that introduced so many current competitors to the sport (Ed note: in my opinion, they need to bring it back). The team name holds a special meaning for all the Kildahls. Scott Kildahl was paralyzed after diving into a pool and breaking his neck. Then, when he was driving his specially equipped van, it caught fire and he was unable to escape. Scott passed away in the accident, but Steve believes his brother is now free, so he named the team accordingly.
Ever since then, Steve Kildahl has been offshore racing in various single-stern-drive powered V-bottoms, running in the Offshore A class for many years and setting the kilo speed record that still stands. In his 30-year career, he’s won four national championships and three world titles. He set three speed records and three endurance marks. The elder Kildahl has more than 75 career wins.
Stephen Kildahl started racing in “mouse” boats, little V-bottoms powered by 15-hp outboards. (The boats got their name because they’re the ones you can rent and drive around on a lake at Disney World.)
Stephen had his own mouse boat and practiced with it whenever possible. When the American Power Boat Association had a class for kids to race the mouse boats, 7-year-old Stephen was beating kids almost twice his age. “If he got to the turn first, it was all over,” said dad.
When the younger Kildahl turned 16, his father was throttling a 29’ Velocity VR-1 with driver Bob Spitulski. The team got special permission for Stephen to start riding as a navigator, which only served to further scratch his competitive itch. Steve Kildahl went to Super Boat International Chief Referee, the late Kevin Brown, and asked for permission to have his son drive for the team. SBI rules said that a competitor had to be 18 years old.
“Kevin knew that Stephen was in the boat for testing all the time anyway,” said Steve.
After navigating those couple of races, Stephen took the wheel and the two haven’t looked back. They started in the VR-1 with Stephen driving at St. Cloud, Fla., and then moved up to P4 class with a one-off 30’ Velocity. They had tremendous success in the class, winning frequently.
The team stepped up to Super V Light three years ago when they bought an enclosed-cockpit 30’ Phantom. Sarasota will be that boat’s last race. They bought a 2004 30’ Extreme that they will rig with the engine, drive and all the equipment from the Phantom, hopefully in time to get some practice in before Key West.
As the younger Kildahl has become more mechanically proficient — he works at a marina in Bonita Springs while at school and wrenches on the raceboat when he comes home — the team has been quite consistent. “We’ve been on the podium the last two years at every race except at Englewood, where we were fourth,” said proud papa Steve.
When asked about the possibility of something bad happening to him and his son on the race course, Steve Kildahl takes a pragmatic approach, saying, “Whatever happens is going to happen. Steven’s mom passed away from cancer and my new wife knows I’ve been racing forever. She worries about both of us, but she knows we’re doing what we love to do.”
Stephen Kildahl said the one regret he has is that his mother, Patty, who passed away 8 years ago from colon cancer, never saw him race. But he’s more of a here and now kind of guy than someone who looks at the past, and he appreciates the time he gets to spend with his father while racing. “My dad and I have a real special relationship in the boat. I have so much more trust when I’m in the boat with him,” said Stephen. “There are some laps when we don’t even talk at all. The father-son team and trust plays in our hands.”
Adds dad, “He’s got great coordination to the course in the turns. We rarely speak in the cockpit. A couple of times in Key West, “I said you might have done that a little better and he says if you slow down, I can turn the boat better.”
As for the upcoming race in their hometown, Stephen Kildahl was positive, saying, “I think we have a good chance.” Steve Kildahl, has a different perspective. Make no mistake, he wants to win, but the following statement from Steve sums up the Kildahl family racing experience: “There’s no better feeling in the world than racing with your son.”