by Bob Wonders
Donald Joel Aronow – for those who appreciate wickedly quick, absolutely spectacular deep vee offshore boats, it’s a name that carries almost mythical status.
2008 Powerboat P1 Championship. 23rd-25th May. Marseille, France. Luca Formilli Fendi/Lino Di Biase, C.R.T.E Cigarette Racing Team Europe-Boat 10. Action. World Copyright: Drew Gibson/Powerboat P1. ref: Digital Image _Y2Z3184
Don Aronow was a giant among men, a walking, talking legend, one of only two Americans (the other was Gar Wood) to be honoured with the Gold Medal of Honour by the UIM, a driver, designer and builder of boats that won more than 350 races.
Sadly, I was never to meet 'the myth', I was just 12 months (almost to the day!) too late.
I did have the opportunity to visit the original Cigarette plant and I eagerly grabbed the chance to sit at the great man’s desk, as his office had been left as it was.
We’re indebted to Erika Braver, daughter of Cigarette CEO Skip Braver, and the company’s own superb publication, ‘Smokin’ ‘ for the following story on Don Aronow, the King of Thunderboat Row.
One of the downsides to owning a Cigarette is that you get these sort of people hanging around.....somehow I could tolerate that!
Legends are built, not born
When Don Aronow left the New Jersey construction industry and went to Florida to build boats, he had a plan – retirement and rest; heal the ulcers he had earned in his prior business and spend some quality time with his family.
But men like Aronow don’t retire – they recycle their energies and take on new challenges.
As Michael Aronow, Don’s son, recalled in his biography, ‘Don Aronow, The King of Thunderboat Row’, designing powerboats was his true love and he couldn’t escape it.
Don Aronow, pictured at the original Cigarette Racing Team factory on Thunderboat Row, circa 1970s.
Aronow’s interest in the boat building business was born out of his rapture with powerboat racing.
He was sucked into the adrenaline rush of the competition and open water and was dedicated to winning races.
To do so, he believed, he had to create his own boat, so he set about the task by surrounding himself with the best in the industry.
A successful and clever businessman who knew the ‘ins and outs’ of non-compete contract clauses, he founded Cigarette Racing Team after he built and sold Formula, Donzi and Magnum Marine, each factory in the shadows of the other.
The string of factories was situated along what was then North East 188th Street, North Miami Beach, and it was to become the notorious ‘Thunderboat Row.’
Since he was not supposed to be building boats in 1969, according to his non-compete clause following the sale of Magnum Marine, Aronow built the first Cigarette boat under the name ‘Cary’, with the help of his good friend Elton Cary.
A 28’ and a 32’ were produced at Cary’s Miami Beach facility and Aronow was to proudly name the boats ‘The Cigarette’ after a prohibition era rum smuggler’s boat.
This smuggler, known for his high-speed getaways in his ‘Cigarette’ boat had been a legend in the Sheepshead Bay area of Brooklyn, New York, Aronow’s hometown.
The notoriety held special appeal to Aronow, so once he was able to formally open his new company he commemorated his ‘hero’ by naming the new organisation ‘The Cigarette Racing Team, Inc.’
His new Cigarettes were powered by Carl Kiekhaefer’s inboard-outboard engines, continuing a long association with another legend of powerboating and the founder of Mercury Marine.
The 32’ Cigarette with its dual 475hp MerCruisers started the long list of racing championships and records and at 67.2mph (108.4km/hr) it was considered very fast, winning the Long Beach, California to Ensenada, Mexico race, first time out.
Cigarette Racing Team was more than just a boat builder, it was virtual racing machine!
Though Aronow personally retired from racing a year later, with every championship title under his belt and all the accolades and adulation as the most celebrated powerboat racer and builder – ever – his drive continued in the design and development of new boats.
In 1970 his famous 32’ was purchased by the renowned Italian star Vincenzo Balestrieri, who was to continue racing Cigarettes for many more years.
Aronow then focused on a sleek and mean 36’, touted as the best deep vee ever built and bought by Carl Kiekhaefer.
He named it ‘Aeromarine’ for his engine company and won the Key West World Championship with his 475hp MerCruisers.
Aronow then added the 28’ Open Fishing Boat to his line and it became the first production Cigarette marketed as ‘The Standard’ with the famed 165hp MerCruisers.
As with most of his boats, Aronow always left an available option for bigger engines; speed was his aphrodisiac.
In 1973 a 28’ SS (for Super Sleek) was added, capable of speeds, depending on engines, from 50mph (80.5km/hr) to 80mph (128km/hr).
One purchaser was the then US Ambassador to China and later President of the United States, George Bush.
He named his boat ‘Fidelity’ and it was the beginning of a long friendship with Aronow.
That same year, a 40’ prototype with 600hp MerCruisers was built for none other than Roger Penske.
During this period the Cigarette facility on N.E. 188th Street had become a ‘hangout’ for celebrities; Aronow himself was quite a celebrity, having ‘starred’ in a variety of advertising for products ranging from spark plugs to Rolex watches to Hennessey cognac.
The 35’ ‘Awesome’ was the next model to go into production at Cigarette and in 1974 it was the company’s #1 seller.
King Juan Carlos, of Spain, Kick Hussein, of Jordan, the King of Sweden, Princess Caroline, of Monaco and other assorted member of European royalty were among the buyers.
Even former US President Richard Nixon wanted one and racer Red Adair bought two, one for racing, and one for pleasure.
Indianapolis winner Marc Donohue bought one as did brewer Augie Busch and other corporate tycoons.
While speed boating was turning into pleasure boating, Cigarette Racing Team boats kept winning races, racking up titles, speed records and victories in every model.
The racing circuit was Cigarette’s ‘proving ground’ as legendary names like Rocky Aoki, Carlo Bonomi, Billy Martin, Tom Gentry and Bob Nordskog chalked up victories.
Nordskog, founder of the US publication ‘Powerboat’ clocked 90.55mph (145.72km/hr) in his 35’ named ‘American Viking’, establishing a straightaway world record during the Catalina Speed Trials.
Australia was not immune from ‘Cigarette fever’ and Melbourne’s Peter Dean and his 40’ Cigarette ‘Slingshot’ won 11 races straight and went on to capture seven Australian championships.
Also, in 1976, Gene Lanham and Bob Magoon, aboard a 40’ Cigarette with twin 500hp MerCruisers, set the Miami – New York record 22hrs, 42mins, 15secs.
In 1977, Aronow added a single engine 20’ to the range and a 39’ Kevlar race boat, which was to register 95mph (152.88km/hr) for Bob Nordskog with his own 650 Nordskog engines.
Another ‘newsmaker’ for 1977 was a refined and more4 slender version of the former 35’ marketed as the ‘Mistress’.
'She performs like a mistress should,' was Aronow’s description.
In addition to numerous celebrities buying Cigarettes, it was racing that kept the company to the forefront of the industry, despite the fact that Aronow had produced no new race boats in response to his ‘spat’ with the American Power Boat Association over its method of calculating championship points.
In 1978 aboard his 35’ and 39’ Cigarettes named ‘Bounty Hunter’, won eight race straight, while Betty Cook shook up the racing world becoming the first women to win the prestigious British Cowes-Torquay-Cowes race in her 36’ Cigarette, ‘Kaama.’
She would later win the first World Offshore championship staged in Australia (Melbourne, 1980).
Aronow now decided he needed a break; he had accomplished all he could as a racer, designer, manufacturer and sportsman.
He sold Cigarette Racing Team to Halter Marine, at that time the world’s largest builder of offshore vessels for the oil and gas industries.
No holding the man, however and he built a