The Sheikh also had a humorous side. "He looks over and has these pink granny glasses on," cackled Haggin. "He said I have to be in touch with my feminine side."
Haggin will do his best to keep you laughing, but he's all business when it comes to his drive to unify offshore racing. He's been in love with the sport ever since his father took him to see Miami-Nassau-Miami race when Haggin was a boy. He can turn on one of the ESPN networks and see women's billiards, but he can’t find offshore racing televised on a major channel which frustrates him.
Rather than gripe about it and go off and form his own racing organization, though, Haggin wants to bring all the splintered groups together. Others have tried in the past, but the difference is that Haggin has no individual agenda.
Haggin's neutrality and his resources are his greatest strengths in his quest. Having recently picked up GEICO as a sponsor for his AMF team, he's going to compete on the Super Boat International, Offshore Super Series, Offshore Performance Association and even the Pacific Offshore Powerboat Racing Association circuits. He coordinated and sponsored the satellite uplink and large screen TV's in the pits that let fans watch the 2006 OSS world championships live. Now that he's working with the European racers, he pans to provide the same uplinks from overseas so fans i this country can watch the Class I action. Think, "We Are the World," offshore racing style.
"I often wonder what the world of power boating would have been like if John Haggin were around 30 years ago", said world water speed record holder and AMF team member, Ken Warby of Australia.
Added Tom Abrams of Reliable Carriers fame, "His introduction and support of live high definition television race coverage, and his personal involvement as a board member of the new WPPA, are just a few examples of John's commitment to the sport."
At Haggin's request, this story will not chronicle his racing endeavors or his private history. He finds a listing of the boats that a person has owned or a record of his achievements in the sport boring. Instead, here are some highlights. He was born in New York City, but was immediately uprooted and moved to Mexico City. His father who invented the Dictaphone, moved the family again to Charlottesville, VA where he was a successful cattle rancher. Eventually the family moved again to Palm Beach, Florida, where Haggin grew up as a child of privilege. He even had a short (52 days) marriage to novelist and society party girl Roxanne Pulitzer, whom Haggin still calls a good friend. His grandfather had been a printing magnate, forming one of the most successful book and magazine printers in U. S. history.
But it was while he was growing up in Virginia on a 900-acre ranch, that Haggin's father taught him how to entertain on a grand scale.
"Sunday was a day of everybody getting together," Haggin explained. "All of our neighbors were so far away, so my dad would strip down a steer and start barbecuing it on Saturday." The hammocks strewn around the party site were for the people who enjoyed themselves a little too much to lay down, recover and get back to having fun.
As many successful men did in Florida in the 1970's, the senior Haggin got into performance boating, buying a Donzi and befriending the late Don Aronow. In his late teens John Jr. bought his first boat, an 18' Donzi with a blown 454 Chevy. Haggin's first racing experience was in the Jersey Speed Skiff, Dazed and Confused and he and partner Tom Sayward won numerous titles throughout the Southern United States. He was also a successful mountain motorcycle racer in Mexico, but was involved in a harrowing accident when he flew off a 300' cliff and landed in a tree. The accident left Haggin in the hospital for three months and ended that career.
He switched to polo and that became his obsession until he suffered a severe leg injury after colliding with a corner board. Today, instead of playing polo, he and his wife, Angenita (Princess) Grande, have a large farm where they breed Dutch Warmblood horses.
"I have 26 horses, 9 dogs, 30 birds and a fish," he said. "To me it's the greatest heaven coming back here after a race." He explained that when he lays in a hammock, "The little baby horses put their heads on my stomach and fall asleep standing here."
During his recovery from the polo accident, Haggin showed that he an also be successful in business, launching a successful public broadcasting promotions company selling media and press equipment world-wide.
But it was a love for offshore boats that was instilled at an early age. When he was 6, Haggin went to the Miami to Nassau race and saw a boat crash into the docks. The crew came off bloodied and battered with broken bones and a plethora of injuries, but the young Haggin noticed something else on the transom of their boat. It said "AMF," which Haggin explains with a wry smile, means America Moving Forward.
Cancer took Haggin's father's life when his son was young, so the whole AMF Racing concept is dedicated to his dad. His affection for the regular guy is reflected in his sponsorship of 13 Production class teams. These categories are also known as ‘run-what-you-brung’ classes and are often made up of competitors who scrape up enough money for entry fees and sleep in their trucks.
One of the teams is made up of members all over the age of 65 running a classic 42" Apache, Haggin got his first offshore ride in a P-3 class boat, Wazzup Racing, campaigned by Ed "Smitty" Smith and his son/throttleman Anthony.
"I had more fun in that little boat," laughed Haggin who holds the distinction of being the only navigator to last a season with the Smiths. "Anthony was the best throttleman and Ed drives the boat with one hand."
The AMF team came about in something of a roundabout way. Haggin participated in a poker run in an OuterLimits 51' Sport Yacht called Animal House. The boat was owned and operated by Bruce Bookbinder and at the start of the run, another OuterLimits broke down. "Everybody went ahead of us, and we towed home another OuterLimits and they gave us the trophy for first place," said Haggin. He liked the camaraderie so much that Haggin bought the boat, but he didn't like the number of rebuilds required 1200-hp supercharged engines. During his poker run experience, Haggin also met John Arruda from Turbine Marine and placed the first set of 1,340-hp Lycoming T53 marine turbines in a V-bottom offshore boat.
Haggin decided to name the boat AMF and he quickly built a team to go with it. In addition to the V-bottom, which holds the record for the world's fastest yacht at 126.39 mph, AMF Offshore Racing has two state-of-the-art turbine-powered catamarans, a Platinum and a four-seat MTI. Both will be sponsored by GEICO insurance this year. The team also set an APBA/UIM, houseboat - yes, houseboat-speed record of 8.2 mph.
When Haggin put together his team, he wanted more than just another group of offshore racers, he wanted people who liked to have fun as well. And the team roster reads like a who's who of hell raisers in the sport. First came racing director Scott Begovich, whom Haggin met at the APBA Crescent City Kilo Runs. Begovich has won multiple championships and holds the unofficial distinction of being half of the largest team to run in the smallest boat when he ran in the 24" Pantera, Kean University. He throttles the Miss Geico with driver Marc Granet.
The most popular member of the team among fellow racers might be the one who never even gets out on the water, the chef who feeds everyone in the pits, Tom Schnieder. “He feeds 200 people breakfast lunch and dinner every race," said Haggin. "He can make stuff out in the middle of the dirt and the sand and the mud. He's just a godsend. I love him to death."
The reason why Haggin started feeding all the teams in the pits has pragmatic roots. The first race Haggin went to was in Miami and he went out to dinner with about 12 other people including Augie Pensa. Getting that many people fed took hours, wasn’t cheap and cost the team extra time that could have gone toward getting ready for the next day's race.
"We've got 60 people on the team." said Haggin. "To have somebody there to serve breakfast lunch and dinner, you don't have to spend an hour. It's almost like you've got a captive audience there." Of course, he takes it to the extreme by also providing his own working lavatories and a mélange of hammocks, even a small pool. My wife says to me every race, "I've never met anybody who wants to leave the house and live in mud and sandpits and grass," cracked Haggin.
He calls the originator of over-the-top parties at offshore races, Dave Branch, a mentor and recently, there was one menu change for the AMF team. Since he was 18, Haggin had always drank Coors Light. "One day in the pits, I turned my back a second and Dave Scott was smashing the cases of beer and said you're going to drink nothing but Budweiser Select from now on."
In addition to the Godfather of offshore racing and co-founder of the Jersey Boyz, Pensa, Bob Teague was added to the team in 2006 because, as Haggin put it, "He's the only other person who looks good in my flowered shorts." On a more serious note, Haggin respects what Teage has accomplished in the sport.
From Australia comes world water speed record holder Warby, whom Haggin asked to come out of retirement. The duo would love to see Warby break his own record at the site the original mark was established, Blowering Dam in Australia, but the water levels are too low.
Despite his being uninterested in telling of his own history, Haggin does respect the history of his chosen sport and in 2005, he created a program to re-introduce some legends of offshore racing. Billy Martin of Bounty Hunter fame as AMF's guest at the Point Pleasant race. Martin was so moved by the scene that he dusted off his old 36 Cigarette and went back out racing with his son. They are now a part of the AMF team.
Annually, the AMF teams have won more than 50 races and claimed numerous national championships since 2005 and set three world speed records. AMF is the only team to campaign three boats in a single event at the OSS world championships in Destin, Fla.
Haggin's generosity continued when he donated a turnkey $75,000.00 race boat to the OPA that was auctioned off on Offshore Only.com with the proceeds going to The OPA's The Shore Dreams for Kids Charity and to Cancer research. Last Christmas, Haggin's team donated 500 bicycles to Toys For Tots and AMF sponsored the Policeman's Benevolant Associations golf tournament at Trump Mira Lago Resort in Palm Beach.
Now with GEICO on board, Haggin himself will run 27 races this year, primarily in the MTI. He wants to attempt to break some endurance records and would even like to try his hand at the Baja 1000 and Paris-Dakar off-road rallies.
His team is considering leasing a Class I boat to campaign in Europe this year until the turbine issues are ironed out. That's actually good for the sport because it means Haggin will be around at least two more seasons. "I'm going to stay in this as long as I can or until I go broke," said Haggin, ever jovial, but with certain conviction in his voice. The sport needs him. He's the best chance it has to reach the level so many loyal competitors have dreamed it could. If Haggin has his way, the abundance of acronyms for all the sanctioning bodies within the sport will be replaced by a single slogan, "United We Race."