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John Gray's boat build for speed, tight turns, not fishing
Mechanic turns horsepower into racing trophies

If you have a need for speed, and tight, hairpin turns with thundering horsepower don’t bother you, you needed to be in Marsing on Saturday (June 7). That’s where you’d have found the United States Sprint Boat Association (USSBA) setting up for afternoon races, and that’s where you’d have found District 3’s John Gray, waiting in his Super Modified #611 boat. 

Because of engine problems, Gray didn’t compete in the later rounds, but he vows to have all of the bugs worked out in time for the next race.

Sprint boats can make a 90- or 180-degree turn while traveling more than 50 mph on a corner just 12-14" wide.

Gray has been a mechanic with ITD for more than 19 years. He works as a “light-duty mechanic” on smaller gasoline engines or equipment such as chain saws, mowers, air compressors, weed trimmers message boards as well as cars and pickups.

He often works on the bigger equipment, too. “In winter, I do the sanders and big trucks, because that’s the big concern at that time of year,” he explained. Gray also performs routine maintenance and does basic repairs for District 3.

 “The adrenaline rush in this sport is intense!” Gray explained. “Things happen so fast, and a little mistake can ruin your day… but generally driver mishaps do entertain the crowds.

“I’ve always been competitive. I also raced dirt bikes when I was a teenager,” he said.

Gray’s sprint boat is a 13½-foot aluminum beast. It weighs 1,350 pounds and tops out at 70 mph, but with 600 horsepower, can reach top speed in just 100 yards. “If you don't have at least that much engine power, you have no chance in seeing the winner’s circle,” John explained.

The winner’s circle is a place John has become familiar with in his racing career. In 2004, he won the season-long “Stock” division of the USSBA racing series, placing in all six races that year. In 2005, he placed third in the six-race Super Modified class. Two years ago, he was second in the Super Modified class again, in a seven-event season. Last year, he placed fourth in the series, including a third-place finish in St. John’s, Wash., his best finish of the year. 

John often takes his family into the winner’s circle as well.

“I am the driver, my son Tommy, 30, is the navigator, and my wife Cindy is the crew chief,” said Gray. “My wife and one of my daughters Mia, 23, have also taken their turns as my navigator.” Daughter Monica, 24, is not inflicted with sprint boat fever and isn’t active in the sport.

Gray started racing seven years ago. It was his father who got him in to it, and kept him in it.

“My dad sponsored this boat and also raced it,” he said. “He talked me into being his navigator. He later retired and gave me the race boat if I was going to continue racing.”

Gray has been at it ever since, racing 6-10 times per year, he estimates. He won the National stock class championship in 2004, and his goal is to win titles in the Super Modified (he has two second-place finishes nationally in the class) and in the Superboat (Stock) categories.

The Marsing race was the first of eight on the USSBA 2008 regional schedule, which also includes tracks at several places in Washington and Oregon. Series events usually attract 1,000-4,000 fans, depending on the venue, according to USSBA Webmaster and historian Jim DeFord.

It is a racing series in which most competitors know each other well, having raced against each other regularly over the years; even the fans are “regulars,” traveling from place to place each week, like they have each summer.

This year, with gas prices skyrocketing, some of those loyalties will be tested. Gray feels the pinch as well and relies on local sponsorship to defray some of his overhead costs. 

The race season generally extends through late September, ending with the USSBA Nationals. After he slipped down the leader board last year, his goal is to shoot back up into the top tier this year.

Those within the USSBA have no doubt he can do it.

“John's a great competitor,” said DeFord. “He's also more than willing to help out with the other teams and drivers. He always says thanks. You couldn't ask for a nicer guy.”

That is a common sentiment among the other drivers.

“John’s a great guy,” said Sprint Boat Racer Kyle Patrick. “He’s a great racer and competitor. He loaned me parts to keep my boat racing.”

“John has been a great help for all the incoming racers and from that point now he has become a great friend,” said Scott and Lori Ackerman. “He is a very good competitor and we love him.” The Ackerman team won in the Super Modified class in Marsing.

“John is a heck of a nice guy and a hard racer,” said sprint boat driver Doug Hendrickson.

Gray said he would like to participate in all of the races this summer, but may not be able to because of financial constraints. “The costs of fuel and staying in motels have grown out of control,” he said. “I am planning for all of the races, but if there is not enough money when the date comes up, I will have to stay home.”

He has learned patience, good sportsmanship and persistence in his racing career, which was tested last year as he sank to fourth, the lowest place in his career.

“Last season was a comedy of errors on my part, and bad luck (mechanical failures) … but that’s racing,” he said.

If John is fortunate enough to compete in Nationals again this year, he can find comfort in the surroundings. The race is scheduled for Sept. 20 close to home.

“All of the USA competitors are in the northwest states - Idaho, Oregon, Washington,” Gray explained. In fact, Gray said that Marsing and Boise have even hosted international events in the past.

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Note: Gray is a member of the USSBA Board of Directors. To see the schedule of races Gray might participate in this year, visit

Published 6-13-8