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Days of building boats and racing

By Brenda Locklear

Dry-docked, a large saltwater craft sits in the front yard of Richmond Kennedy’s Lake Panasoffkee home, lending a hint to his interests.
Inside the house, a wall lined with bookcases is filled with trophies and a collection of aging black and white photographs that give a visual history of his career in speed boat racing.
Former owner of two companies, Kennedy Craft, Inc. and Panacraft, Inc., Kennedy is a winning boat designer and speed racer. Now 80, he’s still fishing, still quick with a joke and unassuming about what he’s achieved.
One of the photos shows Kennedy in a plywood race boat with a US E-1 painted on the side of the hull. That was the mark that he was number one in the 50 HP division, he said, noting that the high points champ didn’t have to qualify for any of the races the year of their win – already guaranteed a spot to run.
“There are a lot of advantages to being number one,” Kennedy said with a laugh.
And the ranking not only went to him for his piloting skills, but also for his boat building skills. He designed everything he raced.
Originally in construction with his dad and from Crestview, Kennedy built his first boat when he was only 17.
“I couldn’t find a boat like I wanted,” he said, so he built his own. It was a johnboat and it was back in 1953 when he was only 17. He created the design, bought the plywood and built the boat.
“Everybody liked it and wanted one,” he said.
His interest in boat making grew and his ability to design was honed – certain he could design a faster boat than what was out there.
“I decided if a 50 HP would pull a 200-pound man on a single water ski,” it could do that with a boat, he said.
He said he designed the boats with a wide spot at the bottom, just like a water ski. As the speed increased, “it would step up there on that water ski.”
Recently, Kenney got a visit from an old racing buddy who piloted one of Kennedy’s boats to a national championship.
Newspaper clippings and photos on memorabilia boards tell the story of Bob Bressette’s national win.
While Kennedy took the victories in the 50 HP division, it was Bressette who piloted Kennedy’s 100 HP boats to win after win, eventually achieving the world championship and setting a national record in outboard pleasure boat racing.
That was in 1965 and Bressette was later inducted into the Gulf Marine Hall of Fame as the North and Southeast Divisional Champion
Prior to that race, Bressette was practicing in some extremely rough water and managed to turn the boat over. There was damage, but Kennedy took it all in stride. He patched the hole with more plywood and Duct tape.
“Now get out there and see what this thing’ll do,” Kennedy told Bressette.
They won – it was Mobile Bay 1965.
Kennedy, Bressette and five other men formed a prop riders club. There were seven members, “but it was all built around him (Kennedy),” Bressette said. They would travel around the southeast racing. Back then, boats were plywood and paint – fiberglass came later and 100 HP was as big as the motor got.
“If there was a race within 700 to 800 miles, we were there,” Kennedy said, noting they were also winning most everywhere they went, in both divisions.
Bressette took the National High Points Championship in the 100 HP division of the American Powerboat Association’s Outboard Pleasurecraft Association.
But, “I never had to race against Richmond (Kennedy),” he said with a smile.
“The whole idea was to get to that buoy first,” and to do that, they knew “They had to take Richmond out.”
Dangers and near misses were typical and racing was rough.
They recalled one six-hour race in particular. In the 100 HP division, Bressette took two hours, traded with a second pilot for the second two hours and then took the third set.
But Kennedy did all six hours in the 50 HP by himself, winning the championship. At the end of the race, they had to literally pry him out of the bent position – he had to drive on his knees, using a hand throttle.
“We dragged him out. He didn’t know he had won – he thought he was just out of gas,” Bressette said with humor.
Bressette stopped racing after about two years, but … “I ran 10 years consecutively. If there was a race anywhere I could drive to…” said Kennedy of his consistent effort to race and win in the southeast racing arenas.
And long after Kennedy quit racing, he continued to build boats – for bigger motors, higher speeds. When he was at home, he spent hours in the shop working, late into the night and long after everyone else was gone – even as he grew older and turned his focus from powerboats to airboats. The last year that Kennedy Craft, Inc. was in operation, they put out more than, 1,200 boats.
“We built sometimes 20 boats a day.”
Then he moved on to making airboats and created Panacraft, Inc., based in Lake Pansoffkee.
“Whenever I started they were all small boats — they weren’t big boats like they are now.”
They had aircraft engines with 65-125 HP.
They eventually quit making the smaller engines.
“With bigger engines, you’ve got to have a bigger boat,” he said, adding that he “hit right” with his design on a 14-foot boat. He was among the first to begin making airboats with color and created custom boats for local residents.
He said he got so many orders that he stayed behind in filling them for 14 years.
“I never did catch up.”
Even today he has people ask him to build for them, but he just can’t do it anymore. He said he’s worn out his back, knees and hip joints.”
These days, he still tries to spend time out on the water, fishing and of all the boats that he’s piloted, he said the airboat is his favorite. He loved the race boats, but was even more enamored of the airboats. Used for hunting, fishing and riding, “You can go wherever you want to go,” he said.
Even now, locals have requested that Kennedy design them new boats and a couple of them joke over who would get any Kennedy built boat in the future.
But he was quick and clear on that point.
“Ya’ll might go riding, but you’ll have to go with me,” he said with a smile.
The crank on his outboard needed repair earlier this week and with a laugh, he said if he had an airboat right then, “I’d take this outboard out there and burn it.”