The following article is taken from Powerboat 83 yearbook and was written by Christopher Wright of The Telegraph.
Billy Seebold, from St. Louis, Missouri, is a mean American winning machine on the racecourse and an unassuming gentleman off it. He is definitely not a good loser and has been known to throw a tantrum or two in defeat. They don’t last long, but it is definitely possible to tell that Mr Seebold is not amused. On the other hand, he is perfectly willing to risk life and limb and anything else at his disposal if he has the slightest chance of getting past that chequered flag first.
Americans seem to live off fast machinery, ear shattering noise, the ‘all right’ spectacle sprinkled with a dash of showmanship and this is probably why Seebold and circuit racing suit each other so well. Take for instance the 1982 Embassy Grand Prix at Bristol Docks: the engine manufacturers are at loggerheads, Mercury insist that the engine capacity should be limited while Johnson and Evinrude say the bigger the engine the better. The result is, whatever the rights and wrongs, the drivers are forced to choose, not only between engines but between formulas.
There was a lot of controversy and considerable bitterness when it all began in 1980, and Seebold always has been a Mercury man and always will be. He is fiercely loyal. I once made the mistake of having a Johnson promotional team jacket in my suitcase while staying with Seebold in St. Louis. It wasn’t being worn, but Seebold spotted it lying there and went berserk. The ‘trash jacket’ was dispensed with out of the window and I felt lucky not to follow.
However, theoretically Seebold had to follow the Mercury line and that meant racing the limited ON class, while the OMC boys had a birthday in the big Formula 1 OZ’s. ON’s are fast, but the OZ’s are faster and they also sound particularly evil, and Seebold is not the sort of character who sits on a bank watching others have all the fun. He was determined to join in and before leaving for Bristol he had been busy playing with machinery at his factory in St. Louis. He came up with a ‘special little number all of my own’, which turned out to be a tweaked up engine of 2001cc, thereby qualifying him for the Formula 1 races. That made him able, by changing powerheads, to run in both categories. He strolled home in the ON series, but there was no great surprise in that, but there was when he lined up with the Formula 1’s and started ripping them apart.
It should be remembered that you can only go so fast around Bristol Docks. The walls are frightening for a start, and there are crosswinds and currents and a thousand other things to penalise a moment’s lapse in concentration. This all played into Seebold’s hands. He knows the Docks and was banking that power was not everything round that circuit. He had the crowd on tenterhooks before the start of the Embassy Gold Cup, the prize for the unlimited engine class. The ON series had just finished; Leo, his faithful mechanic, was working like a demon in the pits changing powerheads; would he make it on time? screamed the commentators. There were only two minutes to go before the start, and still no Seebold; one minute, and then out came Seebold and the crowd went mad.
It would have ruined the fairy tale theme if he had failed, but of course he didn’t. Underpowered at the standing start, he managed to thread his way through the field and later admitted that it was the best race of his life. ‘But I would never do it again’, he recalls. ‘None of the OMC guys were particularly keen to let me through and one or two damn near ran over me to stop me. I was tired, half the time I couldn’t see anything because of the rooster tails of the boats in front of me, and I kept thinking ‘Keep clear of the dock walls’. No, I wouldn’t do it again – but it was the kick of a lifetime to do it once.’
To understand Seebold you have to consider his environment and lifestyle. He lives in an old house, converted from two slaves’ huts, now in an upmarket suburb of St. Louis, and ‘parties’ at his home on the shores of the Lake of the Ozarks, complete with docking for two boats. This is where he really relaxes, swimming, water-skiing and messing about. He first met and instantly fell in love with his wife, a professional water-skier at the time, at a ski show. There was a powerboat race on at the same time, Seebold won, told Lynn to jump on the back of his boat for the lap of honour and the two have been together almost ever since.
His two eldest sons are machine mad – racing cars, boats, bikes, anything. Mike Seebold is a brilliant powerboat racer in his own right and young Timmie is catching up fast. Mike, just like Seebold Snr, has no respect for personal safety when it comes to racing and almost lost a leg in a horrifying accident in 1982. And this is how the Seebolds live, work and play, all out, no holds barred, come home first then relax and have some fun. It is an all-American style of action that Europeans find a shade aggressive but which is in-bred to many in the United States. Yet at the same time the Seebolds away from competition are quiet, reserved and (usually) exceptionally well mannered.
Seebold himself is under contract to Mercury both to drive and build boats. He has a small factory and a big reputation and seems to be known by most people in St. Louis, where he is the local celebrity. He tests his boats constantly on a nearby lake and has achieved a ‘feel’ for his craft unknown to ordinary mortals. This extends to such a degree that while other drivers hate the narrowness of Bristol Docks and privately would be happy never to see the place again, Seebold sees the whole thing as a challenge and actually seems to enjoy it. He has won the Duke of York Trophy there four times and it should have been five.
In 1980 he was leading by a street when on the last turn bouy his engine seized. He managed to get it going again but by that time his arch rival, Italian Renato Molinari, had squeezed past to win. Seebold finished second and by the time he crossed the line he was smashing the side of the boat so hard with his fist he was lucky he didn’t sink it.
Molinari, Cees van der Velden and Seebold have had running battles all over the world throughout their racing careers. Each is convinced that he is the best and they are all determined to prove it whenever they meet. Van der Velden treats the whole thing as a sort of serious joke; with Molinari it’s simply serious. I remember a time before the Parker Enduro on the Arizona River when Seebold and van der Velden almost literally ran into each other (in my hotel room) and what had begun as a quiet drink degenerated into pure mayhem. Ice cubes littered the floor, a polystyrene beer cooler was demolished into a thousand horrible bits and clothes were scattered everywhere as the grown up boys laughed and frolicked around. The next day, race day, was rather different and smiles were scarce. I forget who won that time.
‘Sure we joke around all the time,’ says Billy. ‘You’ve got to release the tension. But circuit powerboat racing is nowadays too dangerous to be funny. At the speeds we travel now only a fool would step into the boat if he has the slightest doubt whether he can handle it. People get killed out there. I’ve been lucky. The sport has made my life and I owe it a huge debt. I’ve met some great characters and made some great friends all round the world. No one could ask for more.’