Top O’ Michigan Outboard Marathon coming Aug. 12 & 13

July 31, 2023
Top O' Michigan 1969 2nd place winner Bill Shorter

The Top O’ Michigan Outboard Marathon National Championship race is celebrating its 75th anniversary and race weekend is Aug. 12 and 13. The marathon covers 87 miles over two days and is known as the world’s toughest outboard marathon. Racers come from all over the United States (and even other countries!) to try their luck at racing the Inland Water Route. 

And – bonus – this race has close ties to Grandpa Shorter’s Gifts. Owner Jennifer Shorter’s father raced in the marathon three times and shares his first-hand account with us. Read on for more on this race and Bill’s (wild!) racing memories…

The Race

Founded in 1949, the Top O’ Michigan race is held in high esteem as being highly competitive and drawing a huge crowd every year. Most years there are about 90 boats, but this anniversary edition is expected to draw over 100 boats! 

The 2-day race starts and finishes at DeVoe Beach, but takes a different course each day. (DeVoe Beach is at the mouth of Indian River and Burt Lake, and is just a short walk from downtown Indian River.) Racers will take on Indian River, Crooked River, Cheboygan River, Crooked Lake, Burt Lake and Mullett Lake, and conditions vary from the tight curves of the rivers to the often choppy, adrenaline-inducing waves of the open lakes. 

Awards total over $8,500 and draws veteran racers and newbies every year. Spectators gather along all areas of the race course to watch these itty-bitty race boats skim along the surface of the water – to their joy, delight and sometimes disbelief!

Top o Michigan boat race 75th anniversary logo

The race is organized by the Top O’ Michigan Outboard Racing Club. You can read more info here. GSG is a 2023 Platinum Race Sponsor, and we’ve added a new product specific to the 75th race – a little nod to Dad and the rich history the race has brought to the area. See the cool wooden 75th Anniversary signs here: Top O’ Michigan Outboard Racing Club Signs

The Racer

William (Bill) Shorter raced the marathon for three years. We sat down with him to get a glimpse at racing boats – for 94 miles, in one day – back in the 1960s and 70s. We asked him to share his best (and scariest!) stories on the water, and he delivered!

When did you race?

I raced a total of 3 years in the marathon. The first year, I didn’t finish due to a mechanical problem that was in 1964 at age 21. The rules state you can’t refuel during the race, and back then, the course was a total of 94 miles. It was run completely from start to finish. Now they do it in two days.

What kind of boat did you race?  

At the time I raced, there were five classes of boats A, B, C, D, and the 36 class. The boat I raced was a Niki Craft Class AB 10 1/2’ which meant it could be raced in either A or
B. The difference was the size of the engine. I used a Mercury Hurricane engine and my top speed was 47 mph. The Niki Craft was built in Southern Michigan by an individual. He specialized in class C and D and made several of that class. My AB boat was a prototype and the only one ever built.

What happened that first year?

The engine was gravity fed from a small tank containing 1.5 gallons of fuel on the top of the engine. I had an auxiliary tank carrying an additional 3 gallons. There was a hand pump used to pump fuel to the engine tank. During the race, while pumping the fuel, I hit a huge wave and bent the pump handle and eventually ran out of fuel and didn’t finish the race!

What made you go back to try again?

After racing in 1964, I put my race boat in storage and pursued an aviation career as a pilot. In 1969, at age 26, I came home to visit my parents on vacation and my nephews (ages 12 and 11 at the time) asked me to take my race boat out of storage and give them a ride. My parents lived on Crooked Lake, so I agreed. They also told me the Marathon was in a week and said they would be my pit crew.  

So – I entered the race on short notice. When we arrived at the race, the current national champion was entered. His pit crew consisted of a team dressed in white coveralls and he had two boats and engines to choose from. My pit crew consisted of my nephews and a high school friend! 

What kind of competition happens during a race?

I was held back in the Crooked River for about 20 miles of the race by a racer running interference for his brother and wouldn’t let me pass. Finally, I faked a pass on his right side, then immediately passed him on his left. He apparently couldn’t make the turn – and the last I saw of him was him going through a group of cattails off the river on the bank. He never finished the race. (His brother later was disqualified for illegally fueling during the race on the river.) 

Later, when I came into Burt Lake, I saw the national champion ahead of me by about 3 miles! I closed the gap to about 200 yards at the finish line in Mullet Lake and came in 2nd. A big achievement to me, as conditions were brutal with large waves on Burt Lake with a following sea the entire 18 miles to the Indian River.

Yes! And my adrenaline is peaking as I’m telling this. 

I raced again the following year in 1970 while on vacation. The course was different that year and we ended by going to Cheboygan, turning around at the lock, where there was a recording boat that kept track of the boat, then back to Burt and Mullet Lake to the finish line.  When I made the turn at the buoy, my life vest strap had tangled around the throttle. In order to turn sharply at speed, you needed to cut the throttle and roll the boat up on its side – otherwise it skids sideways. 

Needless to say, I skidded sideways and impacted the recording boat! The impact jettisoned me out of my boat and I landed on my feet in the recording boat. My downhill ski racing experiences had taught me to land on my feet after a crash! 

I was in the process of apologizing to the people on the boat until someone said, “Your boat is filling with water!” There was a large hole in the forward side of the boat, a little above the water line. I jumped back in and started to get it back up on plane while draining the water. I had been in third place prior to the crash and now was in 21st. 

After surveying the damage, I decided I could finish the race and continued through Mullet to Burt and back to the finish. I moved up to 4th by the time I was back in Mullet… however the extra distance it took me to get the water out and get back on plane used extra fuel and I ran out about 300 yards from the finish line! It was disappointing but I was proud I remained a competitor.

Where is your boat today?

I’m not certain when my Niki Craft was built, but I purchased the boat from a local person who had quit racing. The boat was repaired and re-stained and varnished in the 70’s. I just found out that in 2012 she raced in the marathon driven by Molly Lauer with the Lauer racing team, Harbor Springs, in the Vintage Class. 

And, last but not least, how did you handle the risk?

All speed events are dangerous, however you calculate the risks to reduce the danger. The thrill in any sport to me is the adrenaline flow. When I was 18, I loved downhill ski racing and especially the downhill vs slalom and giant slalom, the faster the better!

At this year’s big 75th Anniversary, we wish all the competitors and family well and good luck!