Mike Zamparelli was the last man to win a powerboat race in Bristol’s Floating Harbour the very last time it was held.
Following Marvin Rees’ surprise bid to bring powerboats back to the city, we spoke to the racer at his home in Clifton, looking back at his time in the sport and the likelihood of the races ever returning to the docks.
Did you know that the race you won in 1990 would be the last race in Bristol’s harbour? Did you have any idea that the sport would be leaving?
I had no idea that the sport would leave, and I was hugely disappointed to hear the news at the time. A small investment would have kept the sport alive in Bristol – the investment necessary to implement a crumple zone to protect racers. However, there was a recession at the time and Bristol council couldn’t be seen to spend money when other industries were a priority in their eyes.
Do you think its absence has been a lost opportunity for the community, including racers, fans of the sport and potential spectators?
Yes, definitely, Bristol lost an opportunity to be kept on the map in terms of being a diverse sporting city. It has two football teams and a rugby team, but no motorsport opportunities. When it was at its height, powerboat racing would attract 300,000 people to the harbour, locals and those from further afield. This was hugely beneficial for local businesses; the hotels were always full on racing days. I remember travelling to Malaysia and the revelation that I was from Bristol when I was racing used to elicit excitement and recognition. The Bristol Grand Prix made the city known across the world. This doesn’t happen anymore as motorsports, now gone, put Bristol on the map internationally.
You spoke of the implementation of crumple zones to protect racers. Marvin Rees has pledged that he intends to attempt to reintroduce the sport to Bristol. Do you think safety precautions would have to be a priority?
There used to a jetty on the Bristol course with pillars about three-foot thick. As you came around the bend, the wind would take you into these pillars and there were many crashes – I can recall at least 4 or 5 deaths. The small boats would travel at around 80mph, the bigger ones could reach 120mph, so you can imagine the impact. The last death I remember was in 1986 or 1987 and the pillars were subsequently removed. The next year when I was racing, I went up the bank where this jetty used to lie. I’m here by the grace of God.
It’s a dangerous sport, deaths happen occasionally, but one death is one too many. All motorsport participants are aware of the dangers of their respective sports, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt to reduce the dangers. To reduce dangers to racers, you have to install crumple zones or shock absorbers to reduce the impact of crashes. When I was racing, Technophone intended to sponsor the implementation of these crumple zones, but they went into liquidation. It then became Bristol City Council’s responsibility, but because of the recession public spending had to be redirected. Today, racers could be protected cheaply by fitting road tyres along the concrete banks, for example.
Are there any problems you foresee with the potential reintroduction of the sport to the Floating Harbour?
Nowadays, there are lots of boats anchored up on the harbour. Due to the possibility of collisions, racing on the harbour would put aquatic residents at risk whilst increasing the risk of damage to other boats. If the mayor is able to satisfy the complaints of boat owners and successfully relocate them away from the harbour whilst protecting the lives of racers, then these issues could be resolved.
How do you think its reintroduction would benefit Bristol?
In the same ways as it did before – it would stimulate the growth of local businesses and would benefit Bristol’s position internationally. The sport has been gone from Bristol for a long time, so all the old boating families are disappearing and moving away. If it returned, those interested in the sport would return, and it would create greater sporting diversity. Bristol is a big city surrounded by water! These conditions are ideal and this potential ought to be maximised. At the moment, the bigger boats are being lured away from the UK by higher investment opportunities in places like Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but the reintroduction of races for smaller boats, which are also less dangerous, would be good for the city I think.