Entering the first turn of a race last year, offshore-boat throttleman and Sarasota resident Steve Kildahl was concerned his son and driver, Stephen, might be a bit gun shy. This was the first time the father-son team had competed together since experiencing their only serious crash on the water. In the previous race, an unexpected wave launched their boat 30 feet into the air, which resulted in a violent crash — the only one in Steve Kildahl’s 29 years of racing.
“In offshore racing, your track changes every lap,” says Steve Kildahl. “What was a flat area on your previous lap might be rough water the next time around. We did a lot of damage to the boat, but, thankfully, it was canopied, and nobody was hurt.”
But, as the men approached the turn, Stephen Kildahl fell back on the trust he and his father had built throughout their six years of racing together.
“I just said, ‘Let’s get through this first turn, and everything will be fine,’” he says.
In a sport with such high potential for danger, the Kildahls say trust is everything. The two-man team shares the duties of operating the boat’s throttle and steering systems. As the driver, Stephen Kildahl’s job is to steer the boat and keep count of the laps.
“I put nine pieces of tape in the cockpit and tear one off after each lap,” he says.
As throttleman, Steve Kildahl controls the boat’s throttle, which he must disengage each time the boat bounces out of the water to avoid damaging the motor. Both men constantly monitor the boat’s mirrors and communicate about what they see. Traveling at speeds averaging nearly 90 mph in cockpits with essentially no peripheral vision, they rely on each other to have a clear view of their surroundings.
“In racing, you really have to trust the guy next to you,” says Stephen Kildahl. “I trust my dad more than anyone in the world, so it’s a real confidence booster to have him in the boat next to me. It allows me to focus purely on racing.”
His father agrees.
“A team has to be able to gel,” Steve Kildahl says. “Some teams go their entire careers without having that.”
Steve Kildahl, 56, began racing 29 years ago. As the owner of Sarasota-based Central Marine, he was raised in the business and followed the race circuits, which he eventually joined in 1985. In 2007, he says he fulfilled one of his lifelong dreams when his son, now 22, earned a special exemption to join him in the cockpit two years early, at the age of 16.
Together, they’ve won 15 races, including two world championships, two national championships and two at the state level, and they say their chemistry in the cockpit is the secret to their success. As they prepare for the Suncoast Superboat Grand Prix, in which Steve Kildahl has competed every year since it started in 1984, the men are thankful to share a passion for racing.
“To be able to do something like this with my dad is great,” says Stephen Kildahl. “I like the family aspect; we’re so close and we share this as our passion. A lot of families don’t get an opportunity like that.”
By the numbers
$125,000 — cost of the Kildahls’ current boat
5 — number of races they’ve competed in this year
94 mph — top speed of the Kildahls’ boat
29 — number of years Steve Kildahl has been racing
30 feet — length of boat
600 — amount of horsepower in the boat