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As a kid growing up in northeastern New York, Jason Saris spent his summers at Lake George. After working his way up the ranks to become a service manager at the marina and finishing up his college degree, Saris decided to move to Florida, a region where he’d have the opportunity to work on boats year-round rather than seasonally. “My degree was in marketing, but I had years invested in marine mechanics,” he explains. “I was fortunate enough to have met a gentleman who was involved in offshore powerboat racing before I moved down there. I was, of course, always enthusiastic about the performance end of it, and he got me a job at the shop that built and maintained his race boat.”
It was there that Saris learned the intricacies of the powerboat engine building and expanded his overall knowledge of the trade. He also took home a Modified class APBA championship along the way, and that success did not go unnoticed. “We had built a boat for a racer from Lake George, and one day he called me up to offer me a job. I politely declined,” Saris recalls. “But the following year he called me again, and this time around he offered me a partnership. So I moved back up to Lake George, and in 1987 we opened up Performance Marine.”
While Performance Marine specializes in building application-specific powerplants for race boats, they also cover the gamut of marine services beyond competition-focused machines, and that breadth of knowledge has helped inform the team’s race strategy throughout the years. “One thing about going fast in a boat is that horsepower isn’t always the answer," he says. “It doesn’t do much good to wedge more power into a boat if it isn’t controllable – you can’t use it. It has to be a balanced package.”
Team Saris’ Class 4 boat is powered by a pair of 572 cubic inch Chevrolet big blocks, each of which dish out about 750 horsepower.
These days Jason races alongside his son Johnny in the team’s Offshore Powerboat Association Class 4 efforts, who also helps campaign a boat in single-engine Class 6 racing. Since opening Performance Marine, Team Saris has gone on to win four national championships and six world championships. “It’s been a dream come true to be able to share this with my son,” Jason tells us.
Class 4’s format is sort of like an offshore version of bracket drag racing. The rules specify twin engines on a V-bottomed boat that’s 30 to 39 feet long, and top speed is limited to 85 mph. The teams are monitored by GPS and if a boat in the class exceeds that speed for more than three seconds, they’re penalized. But other than that, just about anything goes in terms of boat setup. Saris notes that while most races cover roughly 70 miles in total and are about 45 minutes to an hour and a half long, depending on conditions, the format and challenge of Class 4 racing has a lot in common with off-road endurance events.
Jason and Johnny first teamed up to campaign this boat (left) in Class 5 racing, which they ran from 2009 to 2012. Along with his racing efforts in Class 4 with his dad, Johnny is also a throttleman on Team Moderation’s single-engine Class 6 boat (right).
“You’re racing against the ocean more than you’re racing against the other boats,” he says. “At the end of the day, you’re doing your best to get around the course without destroying your equipment while also maintaining the right pace for that particular event. There’s been days where our average speed was 84.5 MPH, and there’s been days where it’s been 55 MPH.”
In the case of Team Saris’ Class 4 boat, that pace is maintained by a pair of GM-based 572 cubic-inch aftermarket big blocks. Outfitted with a Callies stroker cranks, Isky camshafts, and AFR cylinder heads, each mill dishes out roughly 750 horsepower. “Lightness isn’t necessarily the priority when we’re selecting components for engines like these,” he points out. “Acceleration isn’t really the focus here – it’s durability. The RPMs are relatively high and the load is constant. We’re never really lifting off of the throttle, so it’s like running the engine on the dyno at wide-open throttle for an hour.”
Jason says that for many customer builds they will opt to throw a Whipple supercharger into the mix rather than relying on massive displacement to make the power required. “For a race motor, the engine obviously has to fit the rules of the class,” says Saris. “But in a pleasure boat application, there are other factors to consider – not only the client’s budget and the client’s maintenance schedule, but also the vessel it’s going in. For instance, if you have a hull that would be very sensitive to added weight, you might be better off with a supercharged small block than a naturally aspirated big block.”
And given the abuse that these components see, Saris says that switching over to a Holley HP EFI system a few years back was definitely a step in the right direction. “Everything ran more or less OK with our old system, but it runs noticeably better with the Holley system, and it has expanded our tuning capability significantly. The Holley system’s design really stands out, too – it’s a fully potted ECU, so you don’t have to worry about corrosion there, and it uses Weatherpack-style connectors, so that’s all sealed really well also. Corrosion is always a concern with a marine application, even in freshwater, but we haven’t had a single ECU failure since making the switch.”
The father and son team are fresh off of a win at their first Class 4 race of the season, which took place at Point Pleasant, New Jersey back in June. “I think part of why we’ve been successful is because DNFs are a pretty rare occurrence for us,” Jason says. “Over the years we’ve developed a pretty robust maintenance schedule, and we follow it. These things take a serious pounding, and Point Pleasant this year was no exception. We seem to run well in rough water and I think that, generally speaking, more teams are able to run competitively in calm water. So there tends to be a learning curve for teams who don’t spend as much time in those kinds of conditions. But we know our setup, and we spend a lot of time working on that. It’s not that last five horsepower that gets you the win, it’s the setup and the team’s technique. Nobody’s going to go out there and clear the course of all the waves for you.”
Performance Marine recently helped get this custom-built wooden boat by Van Dam Woodcraft up to snuff with a bespoke powerplant. The vintage-style racer is an homage to Gold Cup competition, which dates back to the 1930s.