Riding a wave: Talking global domination with Powerboat P1 CEO Azam Rangoonwala

Azam Rangoonwala, chief executive of Powerboat P1, tells SportsPro how a finely tweaked business model is helping the international promoter take marine motorsport to the next level.

Riding a wave: Talking global domination with Powerboat P1 CEO Azam Rangoonwala

To the untrained mind, the concept of powerboats and jet skis racing across the ocean at high speeds would likely rouse the imagination to conjure up a picture of something resembling Formula One on water.

However, as any marine motorsport enthusiast will attest, racing along the tarmac requires an entirely different skillset to competing on the sea, where participants are constantly battling the elements as much as they are their opponents and where every turn, every wave throws up a different challenge to the last.

“It’s consistently different conditions on every lap of the course,” explains Azam Rangoonwala, chief executive of Powerboat P1, the global marine motorsport promoter. “The water is constantly changing, you’re never going to hit the same wave - it really does require two people within the boat, because there’s so much to focus on while you’re racing.

“Visually, from a spectator standpoint, it’s one of the most amazing sports to watch, and it is different from all other motorsports because every corner the boats go around you’re seeing something different.”

Launched in 2003 by Rangoonwala’s father Asif, Powerboat P1 spent much of its early existence building the sport itself to provide a platform for its own business growth.

Then, in 2010, following seven years of significant investment, Asif Rangoonwala conceded that Powerboat P1’s business model was unsustainable even in the short term. What followed was a complete remodelling of the business, which grew out of a recognition that the racing product had to be built from the bottom up.

“Pre-2010 we called it ‘chequebook racing’,” reveals Rangoonwala, who was just 30 when he took over the reins from his father as chief executive in 2018. “It was very much about an individual who had a lot of money and was able to fund their own team and compete within the sport.

“What we did after 2010 was change the model to put greater emphasis on driver skill and turn it into a more commercial operation built around enjoyment of the sport and the competition, while also trying to attract younger participants. What we realised was that there’s a lot of grassroots work to do within the sport, and since 2010 we have really been focusing on that.

“People within the sport have also become more commercially savvy, and that’s really the focus – not just us becoming more commercially savvy, but also the riders and the participant teams that are working with us.”

Azam Rangoonwala (left) was just 30 when he took over from his father Asif (right) as chief executive of Powerboat P1

To date, Powerboat P1 has staged more than 600 races in 18 countries across four continents. In the UK and the US - both markets the global rights holder now considers strongholds - Powerboat P1 has formed one-design, single-engine national racing series, including the flagship P1 SuperStock Championships starring Panther race boats, which have become a mainstay of the organisation’s rejuvenation process.

Since 2011, Powerboat P1 has served up a double bill of powerboat and jet ski racing. Rangoonwala says participation in its P1 AquaX jet ski series has gone from ‘between 15 to 20 riders’ in 2011 to now having over 500 participants globally. P1 entered the jet ski arena in the UK and then took its offshore race series to the United States two years later in 2013, and now also races in a number of countries across Western Europe. It has just announced a World Championship event later this year in the Bahamas for the world’s leading professional riders, and Rangoonwala points out that AquaX racing offers a quicker and cheaper route to market.

People within the sport have also become more commercially savvy, and that’s really the focus.

Recent strides have undoubtedly been made across the business, but the impression is that these are still only the building blocks being put in place. This year the previously open-top fleet of Panthers underwent a significant makeover which saw them fitted with a canopy that is not only designed to improve safety and performance, but which Rangoonwala believes has made the boats “look a bit more race-like” from a commercial standpoint.

“The concept before was it was half pleasure, half race - now it’s at full race mode,” he adds. “It’s got a new 300R Mercury Racing engine, which gives it more power. We’ve put power steering into the boats which they didn’t have before, and really it’s just more of a technical boat. It’s not so much a boat that you can just get into and drive - you require a certain amount of training.

“We’re really confident in the product and we believe that’s going to grow within itself over the next three to four years.”

Rangoonwala says participation in the P1 AquaX jet ski series has gone from ‘between 15 to 20 riders’ in 2011 to over 500 globally

Much of that time will be focused on growing Powerboat P1’s presence outside its traditional hotbeds. 2019 brought with it the promoter’s biggest-ever international race calendar, with more than 20 powerboat and jet ski events from April through to November featuring events in the US, Western Europe and the UK.

Two years ago Powerboat P1 took its first steps into the Indian financial hub of Mumbai, which played host to the P1 SuperStock World Championship, benefitting from an unprecedented nine hours of live television coverage.

The concept before was it was half pleasure, half race - now it’s at full race mode.

Logistically speaking, though, Rangoonwala is quick to point out that there are countless considerations to be made before “creating a stadium environment” along a stretch of beach. Some of the challenges range from ensuring that races take place close to the shore to create an immersive experience for spectators and viewers at home, to even implementing a marine mammal watch programme to keep tabs on the whereabouts of local wildlife such as turtles and manatees to ensure no harm is done to the animals.

“The environment is something we have to factor into what we do,” Rangoonwala asserts. “Being able to put a big racecourse out into an ocean is not an easy feat, and to operationally do that and to stick to time has definitely been an issue for us in the past which we’ve worked hard to resolve.

“A lot of places we go to, most people haven’t heard of the fact that they race jet skis or they even race these boats – they might have seen them in the past, but how does that all take place in a clean environment? So they assume that we don’t operate that way.

Powerboat P1 recently announced Atlantis, Paradise Island as the host for the P1 AquaX Bahamas World Championship in November

“It’s not like we’re going to a racetrack; we are building the racetrack in the water for a few days and then we’re taking it out of there, so that in itself has been a learning experience over the last ten years, but now it’s clockwork and we’ve definitely overcome that.”

The end result, he adds, is “very much a family spectacle” which attracts both casual and avid marine motorsport fans to a day at the beach. Event-goers are encouraged to tune into a Facebook live stream of races, which uses drones to follow the action so that fans do not miss anything when the boats fade out of view.

Powerboat P1 also produces a post-event show that airs in more than 150 countries worldwide, including on CBS Sports in the US and pay-TV powerhouse Sky Sports in the UK.

“That international television coverage provides some great value for those host venues, and a lot of the initial conversations arise from that international television coverage that we do provide,” Rangoonwala (right) discloses. “The local stimulus from the events that we put on has really started to increase as this series has grown. We have started working with promoters in venues, rather than just staging events in venues ourselves.”

Indeed, buying into Powerboat P1’s long-term goals is something that has already reaped benefits for some of its event hosts in Florida, where Cocoa Beach has seen attendances rise from 80,000 to around 150,000. Meanwhile St Pete Beach, which is located on the south eastern US state’s Gulf coast, not only features on the international race calendar, but as a partner and competing team in the SuperStock series has a wider scope to promote itself as a potential tourist destination.

Beyond one-off events, though, Rangoonwala has already set about identifying where he would like to take Powerboat P1’s repurposed brand of marine motorsport next. Speaking to SportsPro from the company’s US office in Orlando, he says he is not purely interested in destinations that want to stage a standalone international race, but would rather partner with tourism boards and locations that have the sport’s long-term interests at heart.

The Visit St Pete/Clearwater boat races in the P1 SuperStock series against the backdrop of the Don Cesar Hotel in Florida

“We’ve been working with the Malaysians for the past four or five years, and there’s definitely a large opportunity there to take an entire series of both the P1 AquaX and the P1 SuperStock,” Rangoonwala says, adding that Powerboat P1 is also in discussion with Russia and Saudi Arabia.

“It’s very much a global reach,” he continues, “and we’re always open to talking to different international opportunities, but the key behind that whole aspect of becoming international is explaining to all of our partners that, yes, it’s all good to come on board and have an international event, but it’s also about building the grassroots and ensuring that there is a local series running – not just an international event.”

Clearly then, for what is ultimately a niche sport, there is already an international feel to an organisation with the objective of breaching its comfort zone and establishing a genuinely global racing platform.

The local stimulus from the events that we put on has really started to increase as this series has grown.

At the start of this year Rangoonwala, an engineering graduate and former racer himself, embarked on a hugely significant partnership with OPA Racing to create the American Power Boat Association Offshore Championship. A key aim is to strengthen the future of racing in the United States by delivering an expanded, cohesive, world class race series running from May to October and split equally between northern and southern states.

The six championship venues feature major, high-profile events in Florida, Missouri, Michigan and Indiana with an international field of race teams that includes the Victory Team from Dubai, 222 Offshore from Australia and iconic American boats such as Miss Geico. These famous teams compete in Class One, the premier race class in the new offshore series, as well as globally within the sport of powerboat racing.

The inaugural Offshore Championship will feature six championship venues in Florida, Missouri, Michigan and Indiana

Powerboat P1 also boasts successful partnerships with marine manufacturers such as Yamaha, Kawasaki and Mercury Racing. Bringing on board consumer brands as sponsors, though, is a challenge Rangoonwala is keen to address sooner rather than later. With that he believes Powerboat P1 can start to seriously consider setting up its first truly global series.

“In terms of the manufacturers, this is a viable commercial opportunity for the industry itself,” Rangoonwala begins. “In the marine industry, essentially you have a boat show, you have the boating industry magazines, but there really aren’t many other avenues for them to promote themselves, and we’re the avenue for that.

“I mentioned our challenge in terms of getting a national partner, national sponsors, working with national brands. We’ve overcome that, but the next step is getting into that global level, where we can bring in a true global entity which brings together the whole series, and that’s where it stems into having a global series, and really that next step over the next few years is to build that.

The next step is getting into that global level, where we can bring in a true global entity which brings together the whole series.

“We’ve got the international flavour and the global market playing into our hands – we need those other countries to come in. We’re literally at the tipping point where bringing one or two of those on board will really cause us to take it to the next level, to expand our team and provide the end goal.”

And in terms of what that end goal might be, Rangoonwala does little to mask the scale of his ambition.

“Global domination,” he laughs, adding, “in the sense that we want to be a global platform. I think our challenge is how to cross borders between the UK and the US. Really it’s stepping into the other markets and creating a stronghold there – we don’t want to just go to another market, have a single market and come back. We want to create a stronghold there and create some consistency, and then that’s going to take us to the global level.

“What’s happening in the sport right now is that we’ve got a lot of people coming together because of the commercial mindset we have for the business, and it’s giving us a chance to exploit what we’ve been building on over the previous years of putting it out there.”