Life at Full Throttle : Age Has Yet to Catch Up With Bob Nordskog,a 75-Year-Old Powerboat Enthusiast and Holder : of the World Record for S.F. Bay-to-Marina Run

Times Staff Writer

The yellow 39-foot powerboat looked like a prop from “Miami Vice” as it cruised into a slip Monday at the California Yacht Club. The three-member crew, dashing in matching jackets, stepped onto the dock and into a party. The bone-jarring journey that had begun six hours earlier in the San Francisco fog had just ended in triumph under hazy skies at Marina del Rey. They had set a world record.

Before TV cameras and friends, the crew toasted their stunning achievement--5 hours, 57 minutes, 22 seconds from the Golden Gate Bridge to the marina breakwater, more than an hour faster than the old record. Sipping Moet, Bob Nordskog accepted congratulations. He owned the boat, planned the run and hired the crew, a pair of strapping brothers named Norm and Bob Teague. Bob navigated and Norm kept the machinery together. Nordskog drove the 1,700 h.p. beast, a considerable challenge for a 75-year-old great-grandfather.

Nordskog is the Ancient Mariner of powerboating. While most men his age are content with hobbies they can do on the couch, Nordskog is heavily involved in a highly dangerous sport. “The career of the average powerboat racer is two to four years,” he said. “A few hang in there for five to seven. Going back 10 years, there’s nobody still around as a driver except me. Physically, they can’t take it. And the owners can’t take it in the pocketbook.”

A millionaire industrialist from Tarzana, Nordskog seems impervious to pain, danger and insolvency. He’s known in the sport as an “iron man” for running endurance races without relief drivers. Entering racing at the advanced age of 51, he has won more powerboat races and broken more records than any other racer in the world. He also says he has broken most of the major bones in his body.


“I’ve been in so many crashes I have aches all over,” said Nordskog, who considers himself a “sportsman” and competes for trophies, not cash. “It’s not like I have an old person’s aches. I don’t ache because I’m decrepit but because I’m doing the things I love. Besides, what’s the worst thing that could happen to me? I could get killed.”

Riding in the cockpit of a thrashing Cigarette boat isn’t like taking a spin in the family Buick. Powerboaters are punished to the extent that blood in the urine is a common occurrence after a race. During the 425-mile journey Monday, a combination of 10-foot swells and top speeds of 85 m.p.h. pounded bad vibrations through Nordskog’s 5-foot, 8-inch frame.

When he rode home in record time, Nordskog accomplished what movie macho man Chuck Norris had tried and failed to do six weeks before. Norris, driving a 46-foot diesel-powered boat, had run the same distance nearly two hours slower than a man 26 years his senior. After his attempt, Norris had complained of tired legs from standing in the cockpit for the entire journey. Other than a crick in his neck, Nordskog looked fresh enough to swim to Catalina. As his wife Elli combed his thinning silver hair and he posed for photos, Nordskog talked about the record run as though it had been a pleasure cruise.

“We didn’t have good water until Point Conception,” he said matter-of-factly. “It got a wee bit rough out there.”


There is more to Nordskog than hot boats and thrill-seeking. An inventor and self-described “gadgeteer” who holds about 30 patents, he presides over Nordskog Industries, a Van Nuys conglomerate with more than 500 employees and annual sales in excess of $30 million. He’s also a philanthropist who teaches blind people to water ski and the publisher of Powerboat magazine.

At his plant in Van Nuys, the company logo, naturally enough, is a drawing of the Earth overlayed with a large “N.” Down the street, the Nordskog Competition Center, a 10,000-square-foot warehouse and toy store for adults, contains “some of the things I’m crazy about,” Nordskog said last week, a few days before he left for San Francisco.

Alongside a customized 1963 Corvette with a yellow flame scorched into the metallic finish is a cherry 1955 Chevrolet Bel-Air, “the first new car I ever owned,” Nordskog said. Nearby is a Datsun Z with a 350 h.p. Chevy engine. “We make the conversion kit,” he said. “Some years ago somebody sold me a Datsun and when I drove it, I found out it didn’t have any guts.” The room also houses a Nordskog solar-powered boat, the world’s first, he said, adding, “I’ve been playing around with solar equipment for years.”

Then there’s the room’s centerpiece, a sister ship to the one that Nordskog had sent to San Francisco for the record attempt. Covered with Kelvar skin, the boat sat high on its trailer behind a large truck, the combined length of the rig about 80 feet. In the cockpit, a driver, flanked by a navigator and mechanic, is confronted with what resembles an airplane control panel--numerous gauges and toggle switches for such functions as “turbo boost.”


Considering Nordskog’s life, high-tech and high-adventure are in character. When he was 11, in 1924, he hung out at Eagle Airport, 90th Street and Western Avenue in Los Angeles, and ran errands for pilots. The pilots--"wild men who only thought about flying, girls and drinking,” he said--took him up in old World War I biplanes. By the time he was 13, he already had soloed. At 14, he was wing-walking, parachuting and doing stunts.

“Then my mother asked me to quit,” Nordskog said. “I was a good boy, so I did. But then I got into cars--building and racing them. After a while, my mother got so exasperated she said to me one day, ‘I should have let you kill yourself in a plane.’ ”

In 1935, at a site that is now Edwards Air Force Base, Nordskog set a world record of 125 m.p.h. in a Model T Ford that he had modified. But his racing days came to end a few years later when he met “this beautiful Italian girl.” He and Elli were married in 1937 and Nordskog “decided not to drive race cars because I wanted to live long enough to enjoy this marriage.”

Nordskog always had a passion for speed--"If somebody pulls up next to me at a stop sign and guns his engine, I’m ready,” he said--and it didn’t stop when he was married. After World War II, a friend put him in a powerboat for the first time “and I was hooked,” he said. He built his first boat in 1947, a 15-foot inboard Luxor from a kit, but shortly after its maiden voyage it barrel-rolled and sank at Hansen Dam.


In 1951, after working years for Lockheed Aviation, Nordskog took the advice of a friend at TWA and started his own business building kitchen galleys for airplanes. He raised a few thousand dollars by selling the family house, and the Nordskogs also did without movies, new clothes and desserts for a year. But eventually the company became the biggest of its kind in the world. And as his prosperity increased, so did his involvement in the expensive sport of powerboating.

In 1964, Nordskog entered his first endurance race, nine hours on the Colorado River at Parker, Ariz. Fortified with a quart of milk and three peanut butter sandwiches, he ran the entire race by himself, unaware that relief drivers were allowed, and finished 11th. The next year, he built his own boat and won despite 46 minutes in the pits.

Aside from Nordskog’s competitiveness, what makes him so successful in powerboating is the sturdy, near-invulnerability of his boats. A natural tinkerer who studied aerodynamics and structural design in night school as a youngster, Nordskog customizes almost everything he drives. He comes up with the plan, and Norm Teague implements it.

“I always try to create a better-designed product to get better performance,” Nordskog said. “You can’t win as many races as I have (165) without reliability. It’s rare that I break anything.”


Except himself, that is. Punctured lung, ruptured kidney and spleen, broken ribs and collarbones and brain concussions have accompanied the hundreds of trophies he has won. In a 120 m.p.h. crash in 1974, Nordskog suffered a shattered left elbow, among other injuries. Doctors said he’d probably lose the use of the arm, but two weeks later, his broken arm lashed to a support, he set a world offshore speed record of 86.77 m.p.h.

And the arm is fine today. “I made a deal with myself that I wouldn’t have a martini until I could drink with that arm,” said Nordskog, who swims twice a day, lifts weights and does chin-ups.

His wife has never discouraged him from racing. “Even when I was a broken, bloody mess and she was riding in the ambulance with me, she never asked me to quit,” he said. She did put her foot down once, however. That was when Bill Muncey tried to talk Nordskog into racing an unlimited class hydroplane. Unlimited is the most dangerous class in powerboating--Muncey himself was killed in 1981.

Nordskog’s son doesn’t think his father will ever give up boat racing. “He’s a Viking,” Gerald Nordskog said. “It’s in his Norwegian blood.”


Although Nordskog won in every powerboating class he tried, including drag, inboard, outboard and marathon classes, he focused on offshore racing. With hotel magnate Bill Marriott sharing driving time, he made a record run from Seattle to Alaska. He also shaved nearly two days off the Canada-to-Mexico record and set five different world records when he rocketed 600 miles on the Sea of Cortez in 10:34.

In 1978, he set a record of 7 hours, 2 minutes, 39 seconds from San Francisco to Marina del Rey, the same record both he and Norris attempted to break this summer. Nordskog had become dissatisfied with that time when he found out what he could do from Long Beach to San Francisco, a longer distance. He ran 6:49:21, shattering by nearly two hours the record set by Michael Reagan, the President’s son.

A year ago, Nordskog began to plan an assault on his record San Francisco-to-marina run. Coincidentally, Norris had the same idea. A few months ago, they were introduced at a dinner in Sarasota, Fla. Not being a moviegoer, Nordskog didn’t know who Norris was (and today refers to him as “the karate guy”). But Norris knew him.

“He told me, ‘I’m going to break your record,’ ” Nordskog said. “I was disappointed when he didn’t. It would have been more of a challenge to me.”


As it was, the weather proved almost as challenging. Nordskog had to abort his initial attempt Sunday because of heavy fog. Then on Monday morning, around 7, the fog had come in again, but Nordskog “had a hunch” it would lift a few feet off the water by the time they reached the open sea, and he was right. With a spotter plane above, the boat ran down the coast, often venturing as far as 35 miles from land.

Afterward, with the champagne flowing, the celebrants talked about Norris’ plan to try again for the record, but Elli smiled knowingly and said, “He’s going to have to work to beat this one.”

As for her husband, he had hardly downed his first gulp of bubbly when someone asked him what he was going to do to top his latest feat. Without missing a beat, he said, “I’ll figure out something.