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How champion boat racer Tim Ciasulli came to own 40m Rebeca

29 July 2021• Written by Cecile Gauert

The former powerboat champion has learned to slow down – sort of. He tells Cecile Gauert how he found the meaning of an Oasis on the water

He’s known as the Planetman, as in Planet Honda, the name of his car dealership and several go-fast boats that clinched him a Powerboat World Championship title. That’s a bit easier for most to pronounce than his Italian surname, but Tim Ciasulli doesn’t mind teaching people just how to say his family name – the right way. He’s always ready for a quick lesson. “It’s pronounced Cha-Sue-Lee, easy,” he says.

His family has roots in Tuscany, and it was his grandfather, Giuseppe (Joseph) Ciasulli who first came to the United States and eventually settled in Brooklyn, New York.

The vast beach area of the Benetti Oasis attracted the Ciasullis to the concept
Credit: Benetti

Ciasulli has lived in New Jersey most of his life. He does not speak Italian fluently, he says, but his wife, Rebeca, teases him that with the 20 Italian words he does know, he could run the country. “I know all the important ones,” he says, “and the bad ones,” he adds with a frank laugh.

That Italian connection is not what drove this hugely enthusiastic boater to buy his first Benetti – in 2020 he took delivery of the first Benetti Oasis, the 40-metre Rebeca. “They came up with that name before the pandemic,” he marvels. “It’s the perfect name – it is an oasis.” He liked the concept and he got along well with the Azimut-Benetti team.

Despite the pandemic and following a period of quarantine, the Ciasullis were able to enjoy  a bit of coastal cruising in Italy before a big debutante ball for the Oasis and the year’s other new models, which Azimut-Benetti organised in Portofino in late summer 2020. The yacht just managed to fit in the quaint harbour, where it attracted quite a few admiring looks. “This boat gets more eyes than an optician,” Ciasulli says with characteristic humour.

Ciasulli set many records and won many trophies in offshore racing
Credit: Tim Ciasulli

It was the styling that attracted the couple to their new yacht, with that giant open back end offering strata of leisure spaces from the open main deck saloon to the water level. The exterior styling by RWD has some automotive touches built in, which did not hurt its chances with a man who has made his living in the car dealership business. Ciasulli liked the renderings he’d seen, but when he had a chance to take a look at the concept in 3D, he was sold on the idea. Then again, he found kindred spirits in the family-run Azimut-Benetti group. “We share similar values,” he says.

He describes himself as a pioneer and perhaps as a bit of a risk-taker – easy to believe since the man has been known to drive offshore catamarans to the limits of their horsepower – and he found that quality in Benetti. “I was wowed by how bold Benetti was in taking such a huge leap in yacht design to appeal to a younger, more energetic outdoorsy yacht person. That was the closing point for me.” Building something as different and bold as the Oasis, he says, took what he calls “testicular fortitude” on the part of the Italian builder. The calculated gamble, he points out, has been handsomely rewarded. “The boat is an absolute winner,” he says, and they’ve sold quite a few.

Credit: Tim Ciasulli

Ciasulli, a member of an entrepreneurial family, would admire that; he himself has a real knack for marketing. His business partner in Planet Honda, one of the United States’ largest Honda dealerships, said as much. “He’s a great partner and an upbeat and optimistic person, in addition to being one of the most creative marketers I know,” Bill Feinstein, president of Planet Honda, said in an interview for Dealer magazine a few years ago. The company had emerged looking healthy after an economic downturn, thanks in part to its consistent marketing through the thinnest years post 2008.

Earlier in his life, Ciasulli was able to indulge his taste for going fast on the water and draw attention to his family’s car dealership business, which was started by his father, Robert Ciasulli Sr, in the 1950s with a single petrol station. The Maxon Auto Group grew into one of the first mega car dealerships in the United States.

Credit: Tim Ciasulli

Tim Ciasulli, who had learned to love the water as a child growing up in a family of six children – five boys and a girl – cut his teeth in boat racing early in his life.

“I started in fast boats very young, before I had my driver’s licence. My first boat was an unsinkable Boston Whaler, a 13ft [four-metre] Whaler with a 50hp Mercury on it,” he says.  He proved the moniker wrong. “The problem was, I would jump boat wakes with it. These big sportfishing boats on their way out to the inlet would throw up this huge wake and I’d get right behind them and then skirt off the wake. I was at the same level as they were on the flybridge with this Whaler. And when I came down, the transom would literally peel off.”

It was more than the unsinkable Boston Whaler could take and so it was time to move on. A Mod VP, “which essentially is a surfboard with a big outboard on it” came next, and the boats only grew from there.

Reggie Fountain congratulating Ciasulli after Tim passed him in a turn doing 240km/h for the win in Key West
Credit: Tim Ciasulli

His father, although a successful entrepreneur, only had a high-school education and was keen for his children to pursue higher learning, so in the late 1970s Tim enrolled in law school in Florida. It was a boating paradise, of course, and he also talked his father into buying a boat with room to keep passengers comfortable and dry on the busy Intracoastal Waterway. He knew just the one. “It was a 29ft Mirage, which happened to be the winner in its class and modified that year. This boat was set up with small twin blocks and went 110km/h, and while it did accommodate what I said, it was clearly a boat to go fast.”

Fuel was cheap and plentiful at the time, and Miami was the unofficial performance boat capital of the world, with powerboat builders such as Cigarette, Magnum and Donzi opening shop there. Ciasulli raced friends on day trips to the Bahamian island of Bimini without the help of sophisticated electronics. “We would find Bimini during the day by compass and came back to the US at night because it was easy. Once you got outside of Bimini, you could see two well-lit areas – the one to the south was Miami and Fort Lauderdale was the one to the north.”

He went from racing for free cocktails to bigger stake races under the name Maxon, a sure way to draw attention to the family brand.

Ciasulli got his start in fast boats racing friends to Bimini on day trips
Credit: Dominic Cox/EyeEm via Getty Images

His optimism, composure and desire to go ever faster, earned him a following. Chris-Craft, which at the time was keen on raising its profile in the performance arena, picked him as one of their champions, and he did right by them. He set two world speed records and was a national champion in Open Class on a 9.1-metre balsa-cored Chris Cat with Mercury engines. “This boat was just a little rocket ship. We basically won every race we got involved in,” he says.

One of the records he established was an APBA Class 2 world record of 117.81mph (189.6km/h) on the Detroit River in Michigan in 1984. Asked what it took to go that fast, Ciasulli told the reporter, “All it takes is machinery, luck and guts.” He seemed to have all the right elements, guts especially. He even went after the infamous, eight-tonne, 15-metre aluminium catamaran Popeyes (owned by Al Copeland, founder of the fried chicken restaurant chain), which was powered by four 700hp Mercury engines with 9.4 litre Chevrolet blocks. It was a literal race monster with few opponents in its class. Ciasulli was not intimidated and went after it on a particular race. “I really think I was faster than (Popeyes) was, but Mercury, taking care of both boats, made sure that even as I set the record, I wasn’t going to beat Popeyes that day.”

His 40-knot Baia
Credit: Tim Ciasulli

In the 1987 Offshore World Championships, he was still in hot pursuit and was in the lead on a 145-kilometre course off Key West when he blew an engine in the last lap. He had averaged 166km/h and, according to a post-race article published in the local Sun-Sentinel newspaper, “He still managed to limp in second (after Popeyes) with an average speed of 86.72 mph (139.56 km/h).”

Ciasulli raced offshore from the early 1980s to 1989 and took a breather that lasted a decade after witnessing too many accidents. “I lost many friends. Listen, the boats were getting faster and the safety technology wasn’t keeping up,” he says. By then, he was a husband, a dad three times over and was running a large business.

Ciasulli and his wife
Credit: Tim Ciasulli

His father had died in March 1984, shortly after Tim had moved back to New Jersey with his young family and graduated from an intensive six-week, “eight to faint” (his words) dealership management development course run by the General Motors Institute. He went to work straight away for his father’s dealership.

Ciasulli got involved when interest rates were becoming more palatable for people seeking to finance big-ticket items – they went from the low 20s to around 10 per cent in a matter of a few years, which helped fuel the appetite for new cars and boats. He took over a Pontiac Honda dealership with 80 employees and, within five years, the business had 800 employees in four states.

Ciasulli’s Planet Honda is one of the largest Honda dealerships in the US
Credit: Tim Ciasulli

He also became a dealer for Chris Craft, who owed him much of its notoriety on the race circuit, and other brands, including, Donzi, Black Fin, Mako, Cougar Boats, Contender, Kawasaki Jet Skis and Johnson Outboards. The luxury tax imposed on boat purchases in the late 1980s put an end to that side of the business, but he continued opening car dealerships and established and grew the Planet Honda brand.

In 1999 he went back to offshore racing for one last hurrah. “I was runner-up world champion while I was building a 46ft, fully enclosed, capsulised raceboat with full-time air. I could be upside down for an hour in the water unconscious and still have air, so it was very safe,” he says. “You go a lot faster when you feel safe, and the boat was a rocket ship with twin 1,550hp sterndrives.” He named the 14-metre Skater catamaran Planetman.

Rebeca’s chase boat is a spectacular 13-metre Midnight Express in carbon fibre with five 450hp Mercury Racing outboards
Credit: Tim Ciasulli

The champion was back, and he set a couple more speed records. “The reason I finally got  out was a collision in 2001 at the world championships that I was winning. A boat in a lower class literally rammed into me and I was doing 150 miles an hour.” It was a close call, and he decided to step out for good. “I got out of the boat, kissed it and I said, ‘That’s it, I’m done. I’ve won everything, so let me sell this boat before I change my mind.’ I did and have had no regrets.”

He also enjoyed fast boats outside of the racecourse. He had the first Sunseeker sold in the United States in the early 1990s, a 17-metre Sunseeker Camargue 55, then a 19-metre High Tech that he took all over the Bahamas and a sleek Italian-designed 24-metre Baia 80, which cruised at more than 40 knots, among others.

Credit: Tim Ciasulli

“It’s pretty much when I learned you can’t have a fast boat and a yacht at the same time.” After breaking a few plates and glasses, he realised he had to compromise. “I’ve learned through yachting to slow down. This is an oasis to get away from everything, to unwind, get comfortable and take in everything I have been missing out on, especially nature,” he says of his new Benetti. He loves nothing better than the feel of teak on his feet when he gets up in the morning and marvels at the ability to be able to be near the stern and enjoy a noise-free cruise.

Of course, he has not quite given up on going fast. Rebeca’s chase boat is a spectacular 13-metre Midnight Express in carbon fibre with five 450hp Mercury Racing outboards – his second. It can reach 160km/h. “I can still run very fast and very safe.” So he has the best of both worlds.

When the need to speed hits, Ciasulli takes his chase boat, a 2,250hp 13m Midnight Express, out for a spin
Credit: Tim Ciasulli

“Yachting has been a transition for me. It’s nice to slow down when you’ve been in the fast lane all your life,” he says. “I get my jollies in the Midnight Express, but I can enjoy life in the larger boat.”

This feature is taken from the June 2021 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.

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