Boats are pure whimsy. As much as I’m into cars, most of the time you drive it’s because of the banal need to get somewhere. But if you’re on a boat, chances are you’re there just for the sake of the thing itself. It’s like the difference between the house you live in and a fun summer rental — you may love your house, but being there isn’t the same as being on vacation.
If boats are inherently frivolous, then go-fast boats are the epitome of indulgence. Truly fast boats, like truly exotic cars, sacrifice luxury and versatility on the altar of performance. And Cigarette Racing Team is the brand that’s come to define the genre. Cigarette is known for two things: winning races and concocting hilariously unsubtle ad campaigns. One print ad from the 1990s depicts a topless blonde in a postcoital embrace with a very satisfied-looking gentleman. The tagline reads, “Does this mean I get a ride in your Cigarette?” Porsche should be so honest.
Back in 2002, a Chicago businessman named Skip Braver bought Cigarette, which is based in Opa-Locka, Florida, just north of Miami. Braver is also a car guy, and he’s tight with Mercedes-Benz — his personal stable includes an SLS AMG, a CLK63 AMG Black Series, and a brand-new S63 AMG. He’s one of the few people who have driven the SLS E-cell. So Braver and AMG got talking about collaborating, since their products appeal to a similar audience — people with a penchant for speed and enough money to indulge it on a grand scale. Thus was born the “Inspired by AMG” boat, a 46-foot Cigarette Rider XP finished in a sinister white, black, and silver AMG palette. Mercedes, for its part, presented a matching SLS AMG. The two items make quite a handsome set. Like the SLS, the AMG boat packs a little something special under the hood. Until now, most high-power boat engines have been based on a supercharged General Motors big-block. This 46-foot Rider, however, features Mercury Racing’s newest creation, a 1350-hp, twin-turbo, 9.0-liter DOHC V-8 (see page 10). Actually, it features two of them. Even in the demented world of go-fast boats, this is an insane amount of power. For instance, Mercury had to design new propellers, because the V-8’s 1370 lb-ft of torque demonstrated an alarming ability to snap the blades off even the beefiest stainless-steel props.
Now, when I learn of the existence of a 2700-hp boat that’s paired with a 563-hp car, it doesn’t take long before I’m plotting a way to race the two. And, to my pleasant surprise, it turns out that both Cigarette and Mercedes are willing to put their very expensive machines on the line to make this happen. In my mind, I’m already surrounded by bikini ladies and rocking out to the musical stylings of Mr. Jan Hammer.
The question is, how do you make this a fair fight? Simply racing from Miami down to the Keys doesn’t make sense, because the boat would destroy the car. “These days, pretty much everything that goes out our door does at least 100 mph,” says Cigarette COO Hector Rodriguez. The vee-hull AMG boat is good for more than 135 mph, and catamarans can go faster than that. In fact, there’s an informal pissing contest among the Florida boat crowd to set the fastest time for the 105-mile trip from the dock to Bimini (in the Bahamas) and back. The current record stands at about forty-five minutes. So clearly, you’re not going to jump in a car and beat a boat to the Keys. However, there is a way that we can make this interesting, a way we can even the odds for our poor, mismatched 563-hp Mercedes SLS. We’re gonna make this thing a poker run.
On a poker run, the contestants go from point A to point B while making stops along the way to pick up a total of five cards. At the end of the day, the best hand wins. Poker runs are popular among the fast-boat crowd, because they give everyone a chance to get together en masse and go somewhere fun, at high speed, often accompanied by throngs of cheerful ladies whose clothing has mostly fallen off. Around here, the maestro of these events is Stu Jones, president of the Florida Powerboat Club. Jones plans the routes and ensures a fair game, placing all the cards in sealed envelopes and making sure there’s no illicit deck stacking. However, when competitors don’t like their hands, they can buy another one for $50 or $100 a pop, with the proceeds going to charity.
By stopping to pick up cards, we’ll be handicapping the mighty Cigarette, since it’s much quicker to park a car than it is to dock a boat. We’ll go from Miami down to Duck Key, about 100 miles south by car, keeping track of the cumulative time. The low number wins. And the concurrent poker game will be either a consolation prize or salt in the wound.
On a morning in December, we rendezvous at the Grove Harbour Marina in Miami. Automobile Magazine senior editor Joe Lorio will take the SLS. I’ll be in the boat with Cigarette’s wheelman — and customer service and parts manager — Bud Lorow. Lorio and I each choose our first envelope from Jones and, after a moment’s pause, make a Le Mans sprint toward our respective transportation. Here’s the outrageousness of this situation: Lorio will spend the day driving through the Florida Keys in a gull-wing Mercedes supercar. And he got the raw end of the deal.
OK, so I realize that the SLS AMG has a 2137-hp and 1-engine disadvantage compared with the Cigarette boat, but this car does have a certain power of its own. Even in Coconut Grove, where flashy, megabuck rides are everywhere, the SLS confers a certain status on its driver. When I pull up to the marina, for instance, and emerge from the theatrical gull-wing door, a burly gentleman in a black suit strides over from his black SUV and hands me his card. “If there’s anything you need, or anything I can get for you, please don’t hesitate to call,” he says. So what, exactly, does an SLS AMG say about a person? It says, “This person needs a bodyguard.” – Joe Lorio
Leg 1 : Grove Harbour Marina to Alabama Jack’s
Bud takes it easy at first. But “easy” is relative. My own boat, with its 150-hp outboard, tops out at 40 mph. The Cigarette doesn’t even climb onto plane until it’s going 40 mph. At 60 mph, we’re going faster than I’ve ever been on a boat, and we’re at less than half throttle.
But if we’re going to beat Lorio to our first stop, a honky-tonk biker bar called Alabama Jack’s, we’ll need to step up the pace. I have no idea what triple-digit speeds will feel like on a boat, but I imagine it’ll be like sticking your head out the window of a mobile home in the middle of a tornado. I’ve heard that Cigarettes are hazardous to the survival of sunglasses, so before Bud opens ‘er up, I don eyewear that won’t peel off in the slipstream: a swim mask. Or, as I now call it, “speed goggles.” Of course, I removed the snorkel. I don’t want to look like some kind of idiot.
When Bud jams the throttles, the twin V-8s issue a noise like an F/A-18 going off the catapult of the USS Enterprise. The motors don’t roar, they hiss — it’s the dominant sound track of truly enormous turbochargers inhaling through low-restriction intakes. The water behind us boils, the contrail of our wake stretching into the distance as the speedometer climbs. And climbs. And climbs. Eventually, we’re hurtling toward our destination at a perfectly composed and perfectly legal 120 mph. The pocket of air in the cockpit is relatively calm, but when I peek over the windshield it feels like my face is being exfoliated by the very air molecules of the atmosphere. I notice that my teeth are dry, and it dawns on me that this is because I can’t stop smiling. This is a massive quad-turbo endorphin rush the likes of which I’ve never experienced. I hope this isn’t addictive, because this brand of addiction would make Keith Richards’ lifetime expenditures on pharmaceutical debauchery look affordable.
We reach a narrow channel, and Bud slows to a prudent 70 mph. Gazing out at the horizon, it looks like we’re in the wide-open ocean, but the GPS shows that the water outside the channel is only two feet deep. This fact is foremost on my mind when Bud steps aside and hands me the wheel. I fear I may have overstated my boat experience to him, because my résumé does not include “keeping 46-foot boat within tight channel at 70 mph.” Well, now it does.
Navigating a boat at 70 mph is a different ball game than it is at, say, 30 mph. One minute, a set of channel markers looks like twigs in the distance. Then they morph into goalposts, and then you’re sailing through, a $1.3-million football that better not be wide right. The good thing is, the boat reacts slowly. The bad thing is, the boat reacts slowly. If you’ve lined up your approach properly, you’re all set. If you have to swerve — well, you’d better not, ’cause 14,300 pounds of Cigarette doesn’t like to swerve.
Or bang a U-turn. Alabama Jack’s is perched precariously on the edge of a narrow canal, so our final approach is at idle speed as Bud threads the Rider through the channel. At the dock, we face a conundrum: we have to turn around, but this waterway looks narrower than the length of the boat, and those two $6000 propellers would make poor rototillers. Somehow, Bud manages to make a twenty-point turn without grounding the props or sending the bow across the bar at Alabama Jack’s. I step onto the dock thirty-eight minutes after we left, and Lorio is nowhere in sight. Braver predicted that the boat would win this segment but that the car would make up time farther down the route. We’ll see about that.
Heading out of the marina, I resist the urge to do a theatrical burnout, as I’m essentially out on the dock. I have to carefully pick my way back to the parking lot and then onto the palm-lined street that skirts the edge of Coconut Grove. I’ve preprogrammed the first destination into the nav unit; the car is at enough of a disadvantage dealing with city traffic that I certainly don’t need to compound it by getting lost. After only four minutes, I’m out of Coconut Grove and heading south on US-1. It takes fifteen minutes to get onto the first freeway, 878 West, where I’m finally able to open it up a bit. The
6.2-liter V-8 is addictive, as are the full-throttle upshifts from the dual-clutch transmission. The seven-speed, paddleshifted box is a perfect fit for this car. Unlike the speedboat, there’s really no learning curve to driving the SLS AMG.
After ten miles we’re onto the Florida Turnpike. I see my first police car, but at that moment I’m only doing 80 mph or so. Still, I am conscious of the fact that this is one conspicuous ride, even in Alubeam silver. There’s a toll plaza up ahead that accepts SunPass or cash. I have my New York-based E-ZPass with me, but does it work here? (It does almost everywhere else.) To be safe, I pull up to the booth and learn that, unfortunately, SunPass does not mean E-ZPass, and I cough up a dollar. Tollbooths: one more handicap for the car.
After twenty-nine miles, we’re done with the Florida Turnpike and back onto US-1, where I see my first sign for Key West. Nearing our first stop, I turn onto a two-lane through the swamp, exactly what you’d expect to see in this part of Florida. It’s straight and empty, so I open up the SLS and hit 120 mph-as it turns out, for the first and last time. But I do prove that the car is rock solid and totally mellow at triple-digit speeds, which I’ll bet is more than can be said for the boat. I pull into the parking lot and am disappointed to see the boat sitting at the dock. I nestle into a parking space and climb out of the car, just in time to see a Florida state trooper go racing by. Coincidence?
Leg 2: Alabama Jack’s to Gilbert’s
Back on the open water, the second card in my pocket, Bud once again hands over the wheel. This time there’s no restricted channel, so I can experiment with the throttles. I nudge the levers forward a millimeter at a time, creeping up in speed. Sixty. Seventy. As we approach 80 mph, I glance over at Bud, expecting a reprimand. Instead, he says, “Do a hundred.” Aye aye, captain. I shove the throttles all the way forward and revel in the giddy command of 2700 hp. It scrambles your brain a little bit to be in control of an object this large, accelerating this hard. You’re keenly aware that there are massive forces at work to make this happen and that you’re not entirely in control-it’s not as if there’s a brake pedal. This is less like driving a car and more like putting a steering wheel on a mudslide.
When the GPS hits 100 mph, I pull back on the throttles, at which point the Cigarette does something unexpected: it keeps accelerating. The GPS climbs to 101 mph, 102 mph, eventually hitting 104 mph before slowly creeping back down. This is what happens when you’ve got the momentum of a 46-foot boat moving at 100 mph, plus the rotational inertia of two huge V-8s spinning those stout stainless-steel cleavers-if you’re heading back to a dock on the East Coast, you’d better chop the throttle as soon as you see land, or you’re liable to dig a Cigarette-sized trench halfway to Omaha.
I’m sitting down for lunch at Gilbert’s, listening to a live acoustic version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” when the SLS roars into view. The boat won again, but not by much — a minute, maybe. The race is shaping up.
Leaving Alabama Jack’s I immediately encounter a tollbooth (another dollar) for the bridge onto Key Largo. As I approach the bridge, I can see, between the trees, the boat gliding by in the canal off to the right.
On Key Largo, we’re still on the two-lane road, but with other cars around we’re forced to roll pretty mellow. I leave the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox in fifth and enjoy the snap and crackle on each throttle liftoff.
I contemplate my surroundings: One might think that a car whose color scheme inspired a speedboat would be the worst kind of garish, but this SLS interior-in off-white (“porcelain”) and black-is actually quite tasteful. The headliner is full Alcantara, the trim accents are carbon fiber, and the instrument cluster has a brushed metal finish. Nice. The only thing that could ruin the mood is thinking about the boat whipping across the open water at 100 mph . . .
Leg: 3 Gilbert’s to the Tiki Bar at Holiday Isle
This leg takes us on the sheltered west side of the Keys, where the water is flat but the hazards are everywhere. Drain the ocean about five feet and a lot of this would be dry land. For our own safety and that of the citizens of Florida, I won’t be helming the boat around here.
We log a few minutes of 80-mph cruising before Bud follows the channel into a stand of mangroves. He throttles back and leans the Rider into big, sweeping turns, the impenetrable foliage crowding in on both sides. I feel like we’re searching for Colonel Kurtz. “Your mission is to proceed up the Nung River in a Navy patrol boat . . . “
We round a corner to find a family fishing off a small center-console boat, and Bud slows to idle speed. No point in antagonizing the populace with our not-inconspicuous vessel. After a brief run back up to 70 mph, we throttle down again. Bud gestures to a waterfront edifice that looks vaguely dour and official. “That’s the Coast Guard station,” he says. What, we can’t just buzz the Coasties at a buck-twenty? It’s not like they could catch us.
We pass under US-1 and back out into the open ocean before hanging a hard left to dock at the Tiki Bar. Lorio arrives almost simultaneously. By my calculations, we still have the lead, but whether it will hold up depends on the final leg of the race.
I have yet to beat the boat, but I supposedly have a better chance on these last two legs. I’m feeling hopeful heading out from the lunch spot, but immediately there’s a holdup. A delivery truck is unloading, partially blocking the way out of the parking lot, and cars are inching by it one at a time. The SLS is one wide machine, which you really notice only when looking at it from the rear. But unlike many supercars, you can actually see out of it pretty well, and I get past the truck without making any really expensive scraping sounds.
This leg is only twenty-two miles, and, according to the Cigarette guys, the car should start to have an advantage. That’s because the boat will be slowed by mangrove swamps while the car will have a straight shot. Unfortunately, that straight shot is on US-1, which is more like a straight slog.
We pass the Caribbean Club, which claims to be where the 1948 movie Key Largo was filmed, and also some other tourist spot with a giant crustacean in the parking lot. One advantage when you travel by car: you have more opportunities to buy T-shirts, although I resist the temptation. Then construction narrows US-1 to one lane, and I wonder if there’s any construction out on the water. Probably not.
Leg 4: The Tiki Bar at Holiday Isle to Duck Key
When we chose our fourth card back at the Tiki Bar, I got the notion to tempt fate: Lorio and I picked our cards and then traded envelopes. Our poker destinies thus altered, it was back to the race.
For the final sprint to Duck Key, we’re running on the outside, in the open ocean. It’s a fairly flat day, but even the mild chop makes this a different experience from the protected western side of the Keys. We’re not going to hit 120 mph on this leg. Even cruising at 70 mph is inviting some major impacts, because a calm day can still serve up the occasional wake or rogue swell. “It’s like trying to drive a car 200 mph,” Bud says, “and knowing that somewhere on the road, there’s a bunch of potholes.”
I roar out of the Holiday Isle and immediately head up onto a bridge into Upper Matecumbe Key. The wind seems to have picked up, and on the long causeways I see that the water isn’t so smooth anymore, a hopeful sign.
The causeways are getting longer, and the bits of land are getting smaller. Out on the water there are now whitecaps, which have to be slowing down the boat — but probably not as slow as I’m going, which is about 50 mph in a single-file line of cars.
As I cross the final bridge onto Duck Key, I spot the boat far off in the distance to the south. I see a sign for the resort just ahead on the left. It looks like the car might win a leg after all.
It takes about forty minutes to reach Duck Key, but we’re not done. The approach to the marina includes a long no-wake zone, and our assigned slip is subject to both the wind and the current, which are fighting to toss us into the pilings — imagine trying to parallel park in a spot six inches longer than your car while the road randomly moves a few feet to and fro. Fortunately, someone comes down to the dock to toss us a line. Unfortunately, that someone is Lorio, and the clock doesn’t stop ticking until I set foot on land.
We tally up our times, and it was a photo finish. However, the boat’s first-leg lead was ultimately negated by the car’s run from the Tiki Bar to Duck Key. According to our numbers, the car was the winner — by a thin two minutes. If I’d been willing to put on my swimmies on the approach to the Duck Key dock, this might’ve ended differently.
But there’s still the matter of our other contest, the poker hand. We turn our envelopes over to Jones, who opens them with an air of proper gravity. And while Lorio narrowly won the race, my two pair trounces his weak hand. And yet I don’t take the AMG-Cigarette Cup, an actual trophy that Jones commissioned for the occasion. You see, our whole sordid band of travelers participated in the poker run, and Mercedes photographer Greg Jarem beats my jacks and deuces with a pair of jacks and threes. The real kick in the Cup? The card I traded to Lorio back at the Tiki Bar turned out to be a two. Which would have given me three of a kind-the winning hand. I tempted fate, and fate punished me for my insolence.
Call me a glass-half-full guy, but I’m still pretty chipper for someone who just conceded both a race and a poker hand by a manatee’s whisker. It’s hard to get too upset on any day that you got the chance to unleash 2700 hp, in the open air, without traffic or radar traps.
I’ll always love cars, but boats offer a palate-cleansing respite from the structure — both physical and legal — of the road. You can go over that way, or maybe the other way. Rip some donuts if you want. See what’s on the other side of that island — nobody’s stopping you. I’d argue that you can still have a transcendent experience in a car, but generally you have to go looking for it. With boats, those moments just happen. And on a Cigarette, they happen fast.
Cigarette Racing Team AMG 46′ Rider XP
PRICE : $1,335,000 (as tested)
Accommodation: 5 passengers
Construction: Fiberglass hull and structure
Engines: Two 32-valve DOHC twin-turbo V-8s
Displacement per engine : 9.0 liters (552 cu in)
Horsepower per engine: 1350 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque per engine: 1370 lb-ft @ 2500 rpm
Transmissions: Two dry-sump hydraulic
Length: 547.0 in
Width : 96.0 in
Height: 78.0 in
Weight: 14,300 lb
Cargo space : Small sitting area/changing room with closet below deck
Fuel capacity: 304 gal
Est. fuel range : 400 miles @ 4000 rpm
Fuel grade: 91 octane
Fuel mileage : 1.3 mpg @ 4000 rpm
Top speed: 135+ mph
PRICE: $227,275 (as tested)
Accommodation: 2 passengers
Construction: Aluminum spaceframe
Engine: 32-valve DOHC V-8
Displacement: 6.2 liters (379 cu in)
Horsepower: 563 hp @ 6800 rpm
Torque: 479 lb-ft @ 4750 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Length: 182.6 in
Width: 76.3 in
Height: 49.3 in
Weight: 3573 lb
Cargo space : 6.2 cu ft, trunk
Fuel capacity: 26.2 gal
Est. fuel range : 420 miles
Fuel grade: 91 octane
Fuel mileage : 14/20 mpg EPA city/hwy
Top speed: 197 mph
Turn It Up To 1350
A brief history of the most powerful production engine in the world.
Question: What’s the most powerful production gasoline engine that comes with a factory warranty? It’s not the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport’s 1200-hp W-16; it’s the new Mercury Racing QC4v 1350. The 9.0-liter, quad-cam, four-valve-per-cylinder twin-turbo V-8 produces 1350 hp and 1370 lb-ft of torque from 2500 to 5250 rpm. It does so on 91-octane pump gas and comes with a one-year warranty. And it’s built in Wisconsin. U-S-A! U-S-A!
Mercury Racing president Fred Kiekhaefer says that the QC4v project sprang from the reality that pushrod big-block V-8s have reached their limits, power-wise. “The valvetrain is the weak link at these power levels,” Kiekhaefer says. “When you get into the really high loads, it’s hazardous duty for the valves and springs. We’ve built 2000-hp pushrod V-8s, but they’re not pretty for very long.”
So Mercury Racing engineering director Erik Christiansen got to start with a clean sheet of paper for the new monster motor. The original target was something in the 1250-hp range, but dyno tests revealed that there was more power to unlock. “The engine was just so happy at that power level that we realized we could get more out of it,” Kiekhaefer says. “The air got down into the cylinders and said, ‘Wow, I’ve never had an easier time getting into a combustion chamber.’ ” And that’s surely the last thing the air said. The 1350 also uses a trick from two-stroke motors to eliminate turbo lag. “I’d tell you more about it, but we’re still waiting for the patent,” Kiekhaefer says.
So why did Mercury have to design its own motor from scratch? Why not just marinize, say, the Bugatti W-16? “The duty cycle of a marine engine is so much harsher than for an automotive engine,” Kiekhaefer says. “It’s like you’re towing a semitrailer over the Continental Divide with intermittent drops off a rooftop. So you’ve got to build the engine for that, but the volumes are very small.”
And that’s why the GM V-8 dominates the boat world — the marine market is too small and technically demanding for other companies to bother with it. “Porsche made a run at it,” Kiekhaefer says. “There was Bugatti, with the W-16. BMW was going to go into it in a big way in the early ’80s. I told them, ‘If you’re not prepared to go all the way, don’t start.’ They said, ‘Good advice — we won’t.’ “