The 1990s was a golden era in water ski racing. The Southern 80 had just introduced two-day racing and each year over 300 entries would show up in fine form.
However, amongst the hoards of racers, two teams stood out in particular. Two boats that would dominate the decade and go on to become icons of the sport.
This is the story of the fierce rivalry between God’s Gift and Gotta Be Crazy.
Originally driven by Noel Kelly, Gotta Be Crazy started racing in the early ’90s. The yellow terror from Cairns boasted an 18ft 6inch shallow vee Stephens hull and was powered by a 460 cubic inch Big Block Chev with twin turbochargers, intercooler and electronic fuel injection.
According to Ray Hall Turbocharging, “The engine produces 1150hp at 6200rpm and drives via a Vee dive with a 70% step up to an 11 1/4" X 15" pitch two-blade prop. The boat carries 55 gallons of aviation fuel, weights 3/4 tone and has a top speed of 132 mph.”
God’s Gift is perhaps the most famous race boat in Australian water skiing history. It was slightly longer than Gotta Be Crazy. In fact, it was the first 21ft Stephens hull. On board, it was powered by a fuel-injected 500 cubic inch Rodec motor with twin turbochargers.
Owned and built by Graham Ritchie, this fluro beast (painted by Racepaint) first burst onto the scene in 1991 and set the standard for how a boat should look and race!
In 1991, when Gotta Be Crazy first made the 3300km journey from Cairns to Echuca/Moama, driver Noel Kelly had never even seen the Murray River before. Only 2 days later, he was racing in what some call “the toughest race on Earth” - the Southern 80.
Determined to be one of the best performing teams in Australia, Gotta Be Crazy completed the 1991 Southern 80 with an average speed of 140.3kph and a time of 35:04. Unfortunately, they didn’t make it to the podium though. Mercury Bullet (one of the most legendary Bullet Boats of all time) took outright winner that year. But that didn’t stop the Cairns team from returning for another crack…
Not right away, however. In 1992, Gotta Be Crazy did not appear at the Southern 80 event. Instead, the crowd was enthralled by a shiny newcomer, God’s Gift, who finished 4th in the Bakers Blitz (7:44 and 131.89) and 6th in the Expert Class (44:44 and 109.98kph).
When Gotta Be Crazy did return to the Murray in 1993, they did it in style, becoming the first-ever team to finish both 1st in the Bakers Blitz (7:25 and 137.52kph) and 1st in the Expert Class (33:48 and 145.56). They were only 14 seconds off the record set in the previous year by Thundernuts (33:34). The team consisted of driver Noel Kelly, observer Peter Sharp and skiers Ray Brennan and Mark Pickering.
Gotta Be Crazy had landed a historic first one-two punch combo.
After finishing 6th outright in both the 1992 and 1993 Southern 80, the team at God’s Gift knew they had the potential to become champions but couldn’t seem to find their groove.
However, the fact that they were up against the unstoppable Warlord in 1994 didn’t help their chances of a win. This iconic 2100 Bullet Boat twin rig won all the major races in Australia over a three year period, including the 1994 Southern 80 with a time of 33:44 and an average speed of 145.85.
Just to rub salt in the wound, Gotta Be Crazy also took the Bakers Blitz in 1994 with a time of 7:18 and an average speed of 139.72kph.
However, the team at God’s Gift had a trick up their sleeve. Local skier Jamie Oliver had already enjoyed back-to-back Southern 80 victories with Island Cooler in 1989 and 1990, before joining driver Graham Ritchie behind his twin-turbo in 1995.
Everything seemed to fall into place for God’s Gift when at the 1995 Southern 80 they won the Bakers Blitz (7:03 and 144.68kph) and set a new winning record in the Expert Class (32:38 and 150.76kph). In doing so, they beat both Gotta Be Crazy (scratch) and Warlord (33:30) and knocked a whopping 56 second off the previous 1992 record held by Thundernuts (33:34).
God’s Gift had become only the second team in history, behind Gotta Be Crazy, to win both events in the same year.
They weren’t messing around anymore - this team meant business.
Check out our brand new Southern 80 1996 God's Gift merch.
In 1996, the Southern 80 was anyone’s race. The talent in the field was outstanding - Argo, Thundernuts, Showdown, Mercury Bullet and triple rig Mr Walker were but a few of the big names on the drawcard.
However, it was Gotta Be Crazy that outshone the lot of them, stealing back the outright record with a time of 32:33 (151.15kph) - defiantly knocking another 5 seconds off the record set a year earlier by God’s Gift. Plus, they even took second in the Bakers Blitz with a time of 7:22 (138.46kph), finishing just behind Argo (7:15 and 140.69kph).
God’s Gift didn’t finish the 1996 Southern 80, having to retire early. However, they certainly finished the 1995 Sydney Bridge to Bridge in style, claiming first over the 110km race with a time of 35:33.
Gotta Be Crazy had won their second Southern 80 outright and set a new record.
Little did we know that that was the last time that we would see Gotta Be Crazy for a long time - 14 years in fact.
Gotta Be Crazy did not return to the Southern 80 in 1997 due to the increasing costs of running a superclass ski race boat.
Instead, Argo returned to win the 1997 Southern 80 outright (32:42), with God’s Gift finishing a fair way behind in 6th (35:06).
By the time 1998 rolled around, God’s Gift was rearing to obtain that elusive 2nd Southern 80 outright win.
And so they did.
Finishing in first place with a time of 32:02 (and an average speed of 168km/h), God’s Gift set a new record and took a substantial 31 seconds off of the previous 1996 Gotta Be Crazy record.
This earned skier Jamie Oliver his 4th outright win at the Southern 80, a record for a skier at the time which later led to his induction into the Hall of Fame.
To top things off, God’s Gift also won the 1998 Blitz with a time of 7:08. This made them the first team to win two double-doubles (Outright + Bakers Blitz) at the Southern 80.
A fitting end to a legendary rivalry.
Check out our custom-designed Southern 80 1999 God's Gift range.
After winning the 1996 Southern 80 outright, Gotta Be Crazy did not return to the Murray River until 2010. Under new ownership, the boat never seemed to find its winning form again. By the looks of things, it still races occasionally in various social events but it is hard to tell exactly where the boat is today.
God’s Gift is a different story.
For years, rumours swirled online about the whereabouts of the glorious God’s Gift. One forum contributor suggested that the boat had been sold to a wealthy Japanese man and taken overseas, only to be bought back and returned to Australia a year or two later.
We can’t validate the truth behind this claim.
What we can tell you, however, is that God’s Gift met a rather unfortunate end in 2001. During a high-speed testing session for the Mildura 100, a blade came off the propeller and went through the bottom of the boat. This sent the boat barrel-rolling across the surface of the water and destroyed it. Luckily, driver Graham Ritchie was pulled from the water unhurt.
After the incident, God’s Gift was cut in half down the middle. Half of the boat now sits on the wall of the American Hotel in Echuca - Graham’s favourite drinking hole. The twin-turbo motor was sold off and used in God’s Rival, the spiritual successor to God’s Gift.
Savage Force carries a huge range of vintage Australian water ski racing merch. Head to our homepage to find all of our custom-designed collections, including: