Time Out – Catching up with Sonny Hawkins – Tiger Performance

25 years of innovation in boating and aviation safety.

By PRA’s Bill Taylor

Bill Taylor, publisher of Poker Runs America magazine, had the pleasure of visiting Tiger Performance at their new headquarters in West Seneca, New York.

Tiger Performance will celebrate their 25th anniversary in 2024 – here is a synopsis of our visit with Sonny and Tina Hawkins, and the Tiger Performance team.

Tiger Performance has so much happening in the performance-boating product world and both aviation and marine safety equipment for boats – we kicked off the visit by asking Sonny, “What’s new and happening here today?”

SONNY: Before I get into what’s new and happening, let me explain how Tiger Performance was born out of powerboat racing. My original vocation was in the construction market, and I have a mechanical engineering background. I went into boat racing first on a local basis, and then expanded into national racing.

The Tiger Performance Flying Tiger race boat – a 40-foot catamaran with a fully enclosed, reinforced cockpit.

It all started with my wife and I visiting the Miami Boat Show in 1984, where we saw a brand-new Chris Cat. It happened to be hull number one – the very first Chris Cat, and I said to her – well it would be wonderful if we could have a boat like that someday… and two months later I owned it.

That first boat came with 400 horsepower engines – it could go 80 mph, and we ran it for a year or two as a pleasure boat, and started entering it into local racing, then regional racing, and then I ended up converting it to a full-on race boat with twin F-16 canopies following the Lean Foundation guidelines for safety.

It was highly competitive in the modified class, so that boat went from a pleasure boat to a race boat. We set two world speed records – kilo speed records in Sarasota – APBA UIM World Speed records.  We were very proud of that back in 1992 and ’93. 

Here’s a picture of Sonny and Tina in the early years with the open cockpit boat – regional racing with Flying Tiger.

From there we went on to win the National Championship, and we finished several years in a row second nationally in high points, and we raced a total of 18 years on the national circuit.

During that time, safety was always at the forefront – people were getting injured on a regular basis – some people were dying – and safety was a big concern.

The F-16 canopy was a step forward after Mark Lavin died in the Jesse James boat. The double F-16 canopies eventually evolved into the double wide Lavin canopy, which now is the fully enclosed cockpit in race boat configuration.

We evolved with that concept – our later boat had an enclosed cockpit – it is a 40-foot catamaran with a fully enclosed, reinforced cockpit.

I was proud to be on the committee that developed the Super Cat rules, and we raced in the Super Cat class in its beginning years.

These steps forward in safety were enormous in helping to save lives and encourage people to take a risk in racing.

Along the way, it became evident that emergency breathing systems were an absolute necessity – you know as in hydroplane racing and tunnel boats and so on and so forth. Some boats would inevitably end up upside down, and people would have to quickly escape out of a fully enclosed submerged cockpit, with water rushing in. So, we developed an emergency breathing system back around the year 2000 – I developed an emergency breathing mask.

This mask was developed around the F-16 fighter jet mask.

I went to Gentex, the manufacturer of the F-16 masks, and asked for permission to use the face piece and hard shell as components to build an underwater breathing mask for powerboat racing. I went through a critical design review with Gentex, got approval, it was a big task in itself, and I was approved to purchase those components and build an emergency breathing mask around their face piece and hard shell. 

Over the past 25 years, we have built countless numbers of these masks, that are used around the world in offshore racing, tunnel boats, hydroplanes, drag boat racing – every form of boat racing – and closed cockpit boat racing, and we have been credited with saving many lives over the years, which I am very proud of.

The mask is fed with compressed air – this is a simplified version of it – this happens to be a high pressure 4500 PSI carbon-fiber bottle – it’s miniature and lightweight – it would provide about 3 minutes of breathing. You know this is in itself is not enough for an offshore race boat, but it can be used quite effectively as a secondary breathing source, tied in with a primary breathing source of a much larger capacity. A similar configuration is utilized in aviation, for helicopter crew members to escape during a crash of a helicopter in water.

Tiger Performance has evolved over the years – we first started by introducing aviation jet pilot helmets with our mask, used in powerboat racing so the aviation side helped the powerboat racing side in the beginning.

Later on, we became national distributors for the MSA helicopter and jet pilot helmets in North America, and we evolved into the aviation market – first bringing aviation products to marine and then in reverse. We went back and grew into the aviation market. 

The aviation market is big – we specialize in and currently supply the aviation community in safety and communication products at a very high level, and in the powerboat racing sector we’ve continued to innovate and to develop new products.

This particular mask is a variant of the original mask, where it has a miniature lightweight scuba regulator fastened to the outside of the mask. The original version, which we still offer, has the regulator integrated inside the mask, but we are always innovating new products. 

This particular DTG helmet, made in Australia, is lightweight, comfortable, has built-in ear cup cavities for advanced communications, and it is made to fit ear cups, the result is a really high level of communications quality, as well as being Snell rated.

We come out with new products all the time – we have many new products in development right now for the future… one very exciting product has new microphone that has been in development for two years with a world class manufacturer of microphones – it’s called the Viper – this microphone is targeted to be the world’s best microphone for aviation and for marine. One variant of it will be submersible to 4 meters – rated for submersion, and other variants of it will be for military and commercial aviation applications. It has been tested by the U.S. government at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base – it has gone through extensive independent ISO lab testing in comparison to currently available microphones on the market, and it has a great advantage when it comes to speech intelligibility and resistance to wind.

This is going to be a very, very good product going forward for Tiger Performance.

For the marine side, we have developed Wireless Communications. This here is a marine wireless headset that has Bluetooth capability and it has built-in squelch control for tightening up the microphone and higher wind applications. It also has radio capability for communicating to the onboard radio with radio push to talk and volume control this can be linked up to as many as 20 headsets or other devices of similar nature that we offer and can give group  communications for on board multiple people or for search and rescue in certain law enforcement or military applications as well.

We’ve also developed a helmet mounted version. This particular helmet is what I would call a cutaway helmet where it has attached ear cups rather than a full helmet. This is an excellent helmet for high-speed boats you know for added safety say in poker runs – it gives EN966 impact protection for your head, has eye protection, has the integrated wireless headset communications and provides all the same features as the headset.

For aviation we are currently developing a fully integrated aviation flight helmet now this is a very advanced helmet – at the moment does not have, but it will – it can have integrated Wireless Communications with all the same features as the headset or the Cutaway helmet – this particular helmet right here has our plug-in Communications with Bluetooth – it’s modular Plug and Play – all the components plug into each other and provides a great deal of flexibility for configuring for each type of application and or maintenance.

This particular helmet is the MSA helicopter helmet that has a Maxillo polycarbonate face shield for further facial protection, and it is easy to operate – it swings open, has provisions for the microphone to fit behind it. We also offer a similar face shield that is see-through polycarbonate, offered in multiple colors – chrome, dark smoke, clear, yellow, and blue iridescent. This particular helmet has a dual visor – the two-visor system can be very helpful. When I raced with a helmet very similar to this with a mask attached to it, coming out of the Key West Harbor, for example, and the bright sunlight late in the afternoon with the sun right on your face and salt on your windscreen – I couldn’t have gotten through some of the very tight situations racing without the smoke visor. This helmet is also fitted for mounting night vision goggles as well for aviation – it is a multipurpose helmet.

Tiger Performance today is growing on a rapid basis. We worked our way through Covid with no problem. I developed a Covid mask for aviation with filter systems and so on and microphones that were used around the world.

We’re moving on now to a number of new and exciting products including helmet cooling for the answer to global warming with the high temperatures that helicopter crew members, for example, are subjected to – they have an opportunity with our new product to have helmet cooling that they never had before, which will enhance their operations. 

Most recently, we came out with a capsule jacket for enclosed cockpit powerboat racing as an answer to the new rules in APBA offshore where they no longer can wear the inflatable or a manually inflatable vest – they have to wear a permanent flotation vest – this has minimal flotation but nevertheless there is no action required for flotation. The traditional method of wearing a capsule suit wasn’t really welcomed by a lot of the crew members, so we developed a capsule jacket which has now been approved by APBA offshore for enclosed cockpit power boat racing – this is your basic orange configuration – we make these in a wide array of custom colors and custom graphics, sublimated graphics, embroidery – you name it we can make it as fancy as you want – it can look like your boat or your logo.

BILL – You are a legend and I mean a legend in performance boating, aviation, boating products, safety products – you’ve got an unbelievable record.

Where are you going to go to keep on the cutting edge – how do you take it down the road…  

Our new facilities at Tiger Performance include 8,000 square feet of office and warehouse space – we’ve done quite a bit of personalizing the building for the type of work we do and the type of products that we develop and sell, and it’s got the latest wiring for example, high-speed internet, the best in computer communications, engineering and development – scanning of parts, 3D printing and modeling for new products and components.

Tiger Performance’s new facilities include 8,000 square feet of office and warehouse space.

We also have a five-bay shop in the back with 14-foot roll-up doors, which we use for overflow of inventory, storage of boats, product development of some sorts in the back as well.

Where are we going next – well we take it down the road with the Next Generation.

Frankly, I’ve laid the foundation – you know there’s a lot of tools to work with. Tiger Performance is steadily growing on a continuous basis with new product development and the potential is very, very bright. The next generation is my son Sasha, and my two nephews, Joey and Bobby Dubill – they’ve been with me for more than 20 years – Sasha is a little bit younger, but he graduated from college, and he has been with the company now since he was 16, so now that amounts to 8 years of experience already.

It’s a family affair, and they all are very capable in their own departments. Bobby is my general manager – he was also my crew chief when we were racing. My nephew Joey is our sales manager, and my son Sasha is our marketing and media manager, so everybody has a role to play and they’re all busy.

We have quite a team to continue this legend – and I hope that they will carry the torch in a very good way for themselves in the future.

On behalf of Poker Runs America and the entire racing scene we wish you all the very best of success!

Left to right: Bobby Dubill, Joey Dubill, Sonny Hawkins, Tina Hawkins, Sasha Hawkins.
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Poker Runs America is North America premiere promoter of poker runs. Their website and magazine showcase the latest in offshore racing and high-performance powerboats, along with event listings and a rundown in all the latest racing tech.