by Bob Wonders
Cancer has claimed the life of one of offshore powerboating’s most colourful characters, with news from Germany that American powerboat racer Al Copeland, 62, had lost his battle with the disease.
Copeland, a native of New Orleans, was the founder of the 700 store Popeyes Fried Chicken chain
The word ‘Popeyes’ was always written without an apostrophe, because Copeland, who came from very much the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ always said he couldn’t afford one.
Chicken King - Al Copeland in 1989
Fast boats, equally fast cars and, apparently, some very fast women tended to be dominant forces in the life of Al Copeland.
Within his New Orleans hometown he was a larger than life figure, regularly seen driving through the city in his Lamborghini or charging along the Mississippi in any number of very quick boats.
With a fiery southern chciken recipe Copeland turned Popeyes into a giant national chain and made himself a multi millionaire in the process, but was later to lose most of his fortune in various takeover battles.
His offshore race team was at its height in the 1980s and there were very few races in which Copeland was not the first to greet the chequered flag.
In 1981 Copeland was involved in a tragic incident that claimed the life of former 1976/77 US champion Joel Halpern.
Popeyes, then a 38’ Cigarette with Copeland at the wheel and the highly experienced Bill Sirios on throttles, collided with Halpern’s unraced 38’ Cougar catamaran, Michelob Light.
Unfortunately, Popeyes made contact directly at the drivers’ cockpit. Two others aboard the catamaran were unhurt. No blame was attached to the Popeyes crew.
In following seasons Copeland became involved with what the Americans termed the ‘Superboat Series’ and graduated to a 50’ Cougar Catamaran powered by four700hp MerCruiser engines mated to the company’s new surface drives.
Named ‘Popeyes Pepsi Challenger’, the Cougar proved unbeatable, with much of the credit going to the Bill Sirios-led crew.
Copeland’s ‘big rig’ proved capable of speeds in the region of 130mph-plus (210km/hr).
They were the days when Miami Vice was television’s most popular show, when Don Aronow reigned as ‘The King of Thunderboat Row’, when offshore powerboat racing attracted millionaires, movies stars and an unlimited supply of Playboy models.
They were days when Al Copeland, the kid from the wrong side of the tracks, became a legend of New Orleans.
Here is the list of Popeyes Racing Team wins
1982 Pan American Championship
1982 U.IM World Record - Fastest Lap and Average Course Speed Offshore Class 1
1982 International British Harmsworth Trophy
1983 Chrysler Laser Classic
1984 APBA Average Speed Record - 97.469 M.P.H.
1984 Chapman Challenge Miami to New York V-Bottom Speed Record -61.1 M.P.H. 20 hours 31 minutes
1984 U.I.M. Class I Speed Record - 125.006 M.P.H.
1984 UPBA Speed Trial Record - 130.401 M.P.H. 1986 U.IM. Class n Speed Record 1986 APBA Open Class
Speed Record ~ 103.176 M.P.H.
World Course Speed Record - 1987 -106.797 M.P.H.
APBA Hall of Champions - 1984,1985,1987
APBA World Champions - 1986
Straightaway Kilo Record- 1987- 138.512
World Course Record - 1988 - 109.69
APBA National Champions- 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 199O