Charles Marks is the best at what he does, but it might not be enough to keep him doing it.
Marks is the reigning world champion powerboat racer. He competes in superboats, which cost about $750,000, travel at better than 100 mph and test your concentration, driving skills and nerve every second of every race.
Despite his victory at Key West, Fla., last November, Marks has not found any sponsors for his boat. It could drive the top driver in the sport out of the sport.
"I have absolutely nothing and if I don't get one real quickly, I'll have to get out," says Marks, 51 and in just his second year of competition. "I won seven out of eight races last year and the sponsors didn't come talk to me."
Don't get the idea that Marks is claiming discrimination.
"I've gone through the 'Charles Marks, the black,' rather than being 'Charles Marks, the motorboat racer.' In my case, because of my visibility, there is no way I can deny what I am, nor any reason I should or would," he says. "I resented it at first. Then it dawned on me: why resent it? I feel I should get recognition as a driver, but I am in a unique position.
"We have quite a few racers who are in a similar situation. Don Johnson, Kurt Russell and Chuck Norris are celebrities, but they are serious boat racers.
"Don hates the fact people look at him as an actor and celebrity and not as a racer."
At least Johnson has sponsorship. His boat, which includes Russell as his navigator and test driver, is supported by Samsonite, which also helps sponsor the tour.
"The realization has come to me that, with the exception of the big name people, the possibility of getting a sponsor won't be happening until the sport is a known entity," Marks says. "The perception of powerboat racing is that it's a rich man's hobby or sport. A sponsor says it's too much money to sink in when we ask for a million dollars. The educational mindset we have to bring about to these people is how much money is involved in a commitment."
First, Marks says, the Offshore Professional Tour committee, of which he is a member -- along with Johnson and fried chicken magnate Al Copeland, the 1988 world champion -- must bring more visibility to the sport. That means increased television coverage -- four races, including this weekend's event at Miami, will be telecast on tape by ABC, while the first two races, at San Francisco and Los Angeles, were shown by ESPN. It means more aggressive marketing. It means bigger markets.
"We have come to realize that to make our tour a viable entity that gets sponsors, we have to go to the major cities," Marks says. "So we'll be in New York, Detroit, New Orleans."
Having Johnson, Russell and Norris involved can't hurt in the exposure department.
"But when they drop the flag, the fact that you're an actor doesn't do much for you," Russell says.
Marks got involved with motorboat racing in 1985, with 35-foot boats. He rapidly moved up to bigger classes and, in his first superboat race, at Atlantic City last year, Marks pulled a major upset.
"That's the challenge, winning," he says. "Basically, it takes constantly running with fear. You accept the fact that no one beats Mother Nature, that there is no way to beat the water. You run with Mother Nature, not against her.
"It's the respect for the elements and fear for the boat that gets you through. If I ever think I have total control, if I ever lose my respect for the elements or the equipment, I'd have to quit."
Unfortunately, the lack of sponsorship might prematurely force that.