Gary Smith’s historic 204-mph run in the shootout had the Desert Storm Poker Run buzzing.
By Gregg Mansfield
The Desert Storm Poker Run and Shootout is a spring boating rite of passage. Every April boaters from around the country come to Lake Havasu City, Ariz., for the weather and the party in the desert.
As popular as the poker run has been for the past 25 years, the Desert Storm event was in jeopardy of going away in 2023 until Lake Havasu City residents Jim Russell and Steve Ticknor stepped in to purchase the poker run.
From the packed street party on McCulloch Boulevard to the bustling Bridgewater Channel at London Bridge, it’s a reminder of how popular the poker run and events are for the boating community. The 2023 version was a success and organizers are already looking forward to April 24-27, 2024.
“We wanted to get through this year and put on a good show,” said Ticknor, an owner and organizer with Russell. “We tried to keep things status quo and not reinvent the wheel this year because we had no time.”
Closing the deal less than six months before the late April event, organizers had to scramble to bring in sponsors, work with city officials and plan a party for 20,000 people. Russell was the right person for the job as he’s produced more than 100 events, mainly in Lake Havasu.
Russell organizes the Lake Havasu Boat Show the week prior to Desert Storm and used the existing infrastructure from the boat show to stage the poker run. One of the biggest changes was moving the registration and event parties from the convention center to under a large tent on the lake at Windsor Beach State Beach.
The move to the waterfront created a different vibe for Desert Storm and the participants took notice. Gary and Rosemary Colledge have attended the Desert Storm Poker Run for more than 20 years and this year brought the 40SS Skater to run.
A group of six guys were in the Colledgewood catamaran while Rosemary and her friends hung out on land for the poker run.
“This is the start of the West Coast poker runs, so we’ve always tried to come here,” Rosemary said. “The street parade is probably the best thing to start it off. No question.”
The Street Party was a huge hit taking over 1 mile of McCulloch Boulevard with boats, trucks and trailers lining both sides of the street. City officials estimate as many as 20,000 people turned out for the street party that started at 1 p.m.
XINSURANCE founder Rick J. Lindsey surveyed the crowd as the sun was going down on the warm spring evening. His company was displaying the new XINSURANCE/Good Boy Vodka boat that will race Class 1. The 50-foot Mystic Powerboats with turbines drew a crowd checking out the canopy boat.
“It’s a lot bigger event than I expected,” said Lindsey, adding with a laugh, “Walking from one end of the street party and back I almost had a heart attack.”
Friday’s Desert Storm Poker Run presented by Anderson Powerboats started with the parade through the Channel before the 115-plus boats ran on Lake Havasu. Participants had a three-hour window to visit the card stops that included Havasu Springs, Steamboat Cove, Havasu Riviera, Kiowa Drain and Havasu Landing.
The poker run wasn’t without incident, however. Three people were seriously injured when a 43’ Outerlimits V-bottom lost control and capsized while traveling the North Basin of Lake Havasu, according to the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office. All three occupants were wearing life jackets and pulled from the water by passing boats. Two of the victims were taken to the hospital in serious condition and have since been released.
Organizers retooled Saturday’s Shootout, bringing in Ross Wallach of RPM Racing Enterprises to grow the event. The shootout has had a run of bad luck in recent years with strong winds either canceling or limiting the runs. It looked like the 2023 Shugrue’s Shootout might suffer the same fate, but the winds cooperated, and it turned out to be one of the best shootouts yet
One of the biggest changes Wallach made to this year’s shootout was allowing the participants to hit the “trap” or start at full speed. Shootout competitors returned along the California side, keeping the event flowing.
We allowed them to spool up on their way into the trap and they could hit it at full speed all the way through,” Wallach said, “so they could carry speed all the way down the course.”
Thousands of fans lined the shore, many having a beer and listening to music, watching the boats do speed runs with the desert mountains in the background. There were nearly 80 passes before Gary Smith in Predator III, a 388SS Skater catamaran, got the town buzzing with a 204.1 mph pass.
The run not only earned Smith the 2023 King of the Desert crown, he laid down the fastest run in the history of the shootout, which was added to Desert Storm in 2008. Smith’s fiancé, Patty Rich, won Queen of the Desert with a 193.2 mph run in the Skater powered by two turbocharged 2,500-hp Brummett Marine engines. The engines have a “shootout tune” producing 2,500 hp apiece, while the “lake tune” produces 2,200 hp apiece.
When organizers announced they would allow a hot start, Smith knew that 200 mph was within reach on the 3/4-mile course. Previously, shootout organizers allowed a 40-mph top speed at the start, and as a result Smith’s fastest speed was 187 mph.
Smith said the Skater still has top speed left and he would have changed the setup if the new starting procedure was announced prior to Desert Storm.
“I would have had a taller propeller on there or even a taller gear in my outdrive because what was happening was as we’re going down the course I’m hitting my rev-limiters of 8,000 rpm,” Smith said. “It’s hard on the drivetrain. It’s a lot of banging, cutting in and out and all that stuff on the drivetrain, and it hit the rev-limiters all three runs. The boat could have run faster and with a lot less knocking going on with the motor.”
Tim Kranz was joined by family and friends as they ran a 28-foot Magic in the Desert Storm run. The group had received their poker run hand and were enjoying the lake glowing in the late afternoon sunlight.
“I like it down here,” said Kranz, a Southern California resident who has attended Desert Storm three times. “It’s the whole ambiance, it’s nice. The way they put it on was first class for the drivers meetings and silent auctions. It’s a good place to go and get away from everybody.
With the on-water activities done for the day, Russell and Ticknor found a few minutes to catch up outside the event operations trailer. They had just pulled off a successful Desert Storm Poker Run, saving it from an uncertain future.
“We know a whole bunch of things we could have done differently if we had more time,” said Ticknor, praising the staff and volunteers from the Lake Havasu Marine Association. “We’ll share our notes and come up with a game plan for a better next year.”