Sterndrives vs. Outboards: The Ultimate Challenge

For the last three years, one of the greatest battles between a sterndrive- and an outboard-powered boat has been waged at the Lake of the Ozarks Shootout. In 2009, Ken Gouty, driving a single-engine sterndrive-powered boat, tied Brad Rowland, who piloted a boat with twin Mercury 300s, at 96 mph. In 2010, Gouty beat Rowland to the coveted 100 mph mark, which Rowland tied later that day. In 2011, the tie was finally broken, with Rowland setting a record that they’ll probably beat again this summer. So what’s the big deal? They’re both luxury pontoons, complete with the full array of niceties that make them so popular. Of course, at 60 mph, all the hors d’oeuvres went flying overboard.

Ken Gouty likes going fast. Al­though he has raced cars and snowmobiles, he loves boats best and had a lot of success racing drag boats. He liked pontoons for recreational boating, because of the room and comfort they afford, and it wasn’t long before he got the idea to up the performance factor a little. His first performance pontoon was powered by a single Mercury 300, and it would run in the low 50s, but this wasn’t fast enough for the man from Antioch, Ill.

His quest to build the ultimate pontoon began with a PlayCraft 2700 X-Treme, because of its sturdy build and NASCAR attitude. It features triple high-performance U-shaped tubes with RAC-R FINS. Gouty worked with Mason Aron of Skunkworks Marine, and they started with a Dart 540 motor (GM block). Aron suggested they take this engine to the max by adding a pair of Whipple superchargers. Using twin screws to compress air so more of it can be jammed into the combustion chamber, along with a larger charge of fuel, the superchargers create 10 to 11 pounds of boost. The result is an engine that can produce up to 1,350 hp, but, amazingly, it still idles pretty well. To handle all this torque, Gouty installed a Max Machine Works lower unit, one of the strongest and most expensive on the market. (Yes, all this will void your warranty, in case you were wondering.) Here are the enhancements on Gouty’s PlayCraft X-Treme, named Little Putt-Putt: Other than a modified cushion to accommodate the blower it was good to go.

In the 2011 Shootout, Gouty picked up where he left off by running 100 mph. Then, on the next two runs, he hit 104 mph, the fastest a sterndrive pontoon has ever been clocked at a time-trial event like this. On his last run, his GPS showed 108 mph before his engine hiccupped right ahead of the finish line, costing him a new record.

Maybe the state of Illinois’ nickname should be the “Land of Hot Rod Lincoln,” since it has produced two go-fast guys like Gouty and Rowland. After Rowland, from Sullivan, near Lake Shelbyville, ran 96 mph with a pair of twin Mercury 300 Pro X EFI two-strokes on his South Bay 925CR in 2009, he wondered what he could do to beat Gouty. He showed up at the 2010 Shootout, and his boat, Tooned In, seemed to be running low in the stern at idle. As he got even with my spectator boat, I saw why: He had added a third Mercury 300 Pro X.

So what do you have to do to modify a luxury pontoon to accept 900 horsepower? Actually, not much. The only thing he did different was add power steering, since he had two props spinning in the same direction, which were pulling him offline. The only other modification was an all-new interior courtesy of Tom McCuddy of Forest River Boats in appreciation of his success. He claims his outboards are basically stock as well (his good friend Gouty is skeptical). He does have them mounted on Hydro Dynamics jackplates to raise them up for reduced drag. Many go-fast pontoons use running pads, lifting strakes or hull-shaped logs, but surprisingly, the triple 25-inch tubes on Rowland’s are round. They are air-filled, and he checks them religiously before each run, because without 6-7 psi in each to keep them rigid, he says they could crumple like beer cans at speeds like this.

Rowland has carried as many as five people at a time at speeds up to 102 mph, and most of them are amazed at his pontoon’s stability and soft ride. Rowland says one of the tricks to going fast with passengers is to keep them toward the rear of the pontoon to keep the bow from diving.

During the 2011 Lake of the Ozarks Shootout, he finally got the best of Gouty with his new setup. His first run was 104 mph, and then he had record-busting runs of 106 and, finally, 107 mph. He said he’s had it up to 111 mph and sees 120 mph as the limit with his current technology.

Like Gouty, Rowland claims to never have had a scary moment when running time trials, which is a testament to PlayCraft and South Bay and also to the incredible skill of these drivers. They’ve been going fast for years and, like ski jumpers, have worked their way up to the top of the pontoon-racing food chain. Boating World Magazine has this bit of advice: Don’t try this at home!