Far from the pomp and prestige of the unlimited hydroplane racing circuit, John Peeters is quietly closing in on hydro history.
Earlier this month, the 31-year-old Stanwood man won his sixth straight national championship in OSY-400, a popular class of limited hydros. The six national titles in a row equals a recent string by Buddy Tennel of Buford, Ga., in the 125cc class for the longest consecutive runs of national championships in American Power Boat Association history.
A year from now, Peeters will go for No. 7 and the chance to have the record all his own.
The quest for an unmatched string of championships “is exciting,” Peeters said, “but it gets harder and harder every year. When you’re on top, you only have one way to go.
“It’s difficult because you know everybody is chasing after you, and you have a big target on your back.”
Raised in the Lake Goodwin area of Stanwood, Peeters started racing J stock (junior) hydros as a boy of 9. That lasted only a few years before he moved on to other interests, but in 2004 — the same year he graduated from Western Washington University — Peeters and his father Wayne decided to try the sport again.
By removing the restrictor plate from his J stock motor, Peeters had an A stock motor and he was ready to start racing and winning.
Since his return nine years ago, Peeters has nabbed 10 national championships in three classes, including his six straight titles in OSY-400. He also has eight world speed records in four classes.
And he does it all as the truest of amateurs. Peeters spends his own money to race, with expenses reaching around $5,000 a year. Most of that is the cost of traveling, with actual race expenses fortunately much less.
He helps keep the sport affordable by making his own propellers, and he has even made one of his boats. His father and other friends help with the engines.
Peeters says he is hooked on boat racing for two primary reasons. For one, he loves the camaraderie of the other racing families. Intense competitors on the water, they are otherwise amiable friends and sometimes traveling partners. With the utmost sportsmanship, racers will often donate their time and equipment to help a rival.
But as much as he enjoys the people, there is also a terrific thrill from racing. Going fast is a kick, of course, but even better is the drama and excitement of heated competition.
The pinnacle, he said, comes in the countdown of seconds before a heat of boats — perhaps a dozen in all — makes a sprint for the start line.
“In those last seconds (before the start), your heart is really pumping,” he said. “I sometimes don’t even know if I breathe for the first lap. Because when you go into that first corner, everybody is there. Water is spraying, boats are bumping. It’s very exciting.
“That first-turn exhilaration is better than anything. I’ve never jumped off a bridge with a bungee (cord) and I’ve never jumped out of a plane with a parachute, but it’s got to be better than that.”
In recent years, Peeters has entered fewer races. Time is an issue — he and his wife Jodi are expecting their first child in September — and the plan is to “set myself up to race less, but at the more important races.”
He races mostly in the Pacific Northwest, with a regional race circuit that covers Washington, Oregon and Idaho. But he also competes around the United States, with two races this year in northern California, the national championships in Kingston, Tenn., and a trip to New York planned for later in the season.
In addition, Peeters expects to be in Coniston, England, in November for the OSY-400 world championships
As for his future goals, he would like to extend his string of consecutive national championships another few years, maybe more. He also has an itch to drive an unlimited hydroplane someday, or one of the other “big boats,” as he calls them.
The drivers of the smaller limiteds, he insists, are every bit as skilled as their counterparts in the unlimited cockpits.
“I’m not taking anything away from their skill level because there are some really good drivers up there (on the unlimited circuit),” he said. “But everybody will say, hands down, that somebody who won C stock hydro at nationals is a better driver than somebody who won the Gold Cup.”
For now, Peeters is content where he is. And the reason, he explained, “is because of the fun level, pure and simple. We’re not getting paid to do this. In fact, we’re spending our own money. But we do it because it’s fun.”