April 3, 2012
Quick- name two 40-year-old performance boat companies still owned and run by their founder. Don sold Cigarette- twice. Reggie is gone from Fountain. Formula? Nope. The Porter’s have owned it a long time but didn’t start it. Your list is stuck at one. Pantera.
I began thinking about this as I traveled to visit Pepe and Jo Nunez at Pantera. After close to 40 years, how are they still at it? After a brief time there, I think I found out. Family and enthusiasm. While this story began with the idea of a behind the scenes look at Pantera’s production facility and the boats they’re building, I realized quickly that the story here ran much deeper.
As I walked in to the Pantera offices I’m immediately greeted with the welcoming smile of Pepe’s wife Linda. She apologized and told me “Joey” had to run out unexpectedly. She then called for Pepe in the shop. As I was standing in the showroom I found myself mesmerized by the collection of memorabilia surrounding me. Nearly every inch of wall space is occupied by photos of boats, racing and family. After a moment, Pepe appears and welcomes me into his office, which for all intents and purposes is a continuation of the Pantera museum of the showroom. Settling behind his desk, Pepe reaches for one of his ever-present cigars.
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As we begin to chat a bit about the latest happenings at Pantera, I find myself distracted by the conversation in the showroom. Linda has my assistant Ben and is describing each and every photo on the wall with glowing enthusiasm. Her favorite is quickly apparent- a shot from 34 years ago. She says, “Look at Pepe, this is when he had hair” and “Look at Joey, he was 6”.
If you were to look up the word “mom” in the dictionary, it would surely describe Linda. Throughout the entire visit, she is doing everything possible to make sure that everyone is taken care of. She is busy making us feel welcome, while tending to Joey, who has returned from his errand.
Linda asks Pepe to go help Joey with something in the office, while she continues to narrate many of the pictures on the wall. Having Linda explain each picture from a wife and mother’s point of view gives an entirely different perspective on what each picture means. The typical explanation from the guy behind the wheel might describe something mechanical about the boat or the condition of the water that day. The point of view from “Mom” is entirely different. Clearly she is Pantera’s most enthusiastic fan, and could not be more proud of her family.
She explains about the time she rented a helicopter to go search for Pepe and Ralph Linero, during the ‘78 Miami to New York marathon. Pepe and Ralph had set out on this 42-hour trek in a 24 foot Pantera. Pepe had been checking in regularly during the trip to ensure Linda that everything was ok. After not receiving a call for quite some time, Linda became worried and decided to go searching for Pepe and Ralph. After an exhaustive search by helicopter, they finally found Pepe, Ralph and the “Little Pantera That Could”, marching onward toward New York.
Returning to Pepe’s office, the two most notable subjects are photos of a black twin step F2 race boat that Pepe and Jo raced, and pictures of Jo Jr. racing go carts. As Pepe is explaining the picture of his grandson, it does not take long for Jo to join in the enthusiasm about his boy. Jo explains that his boy has been “hell on wheels” since the day he was born. Although the family’s passion is obviously boats and boat racing, they really enjoy cart racing with Jo Jr. This gives them a break from the boats and allows them something new and fresh to enjoy as a family. Jo explained that it is very difficult to restrain the family’s competitive drive with Jo Jr. They find themselves so immersed in the competition, that they have to step back and remember that there must be a proper balance between “child’s play” and competition.
Fortunately for the Nunez’s, they are never too far away from their boat racing family, as fellow boat racers have also entered the cart racing world with their kids. Among others is Mike Thomas, co-owner of TNT, also competes in cart racing with his son Matt. As for the pictures of the black F2 boat, Pepe explains “That is the boat that tried to kill me…it’s out back in the shop”. Pepe explains that during the Key West race in 2003, he and Jo were racing the boat after having done some work on the steering system. Pepe told Jo that the steering did not feel right with the boat. Soon after that, the boat spun and rolled at 80 mph. Pepe explained that the boat went into a slide and hit a “little one foot ripple, then BOOM!. It threw Joey out one side and me out the other”. “When they pulled me out I was drowning…it was not a good feeling”.
Next I inquire about a picture of a very strange looking boat. Pepe explains that the boat was an experimental project done for Lockheed Martin based on his 28 footer. The boat had “Stealth” technology with a Hellfire missile installed on the top of the boat. Due to the fact that the Hellfire missile does not have a long range, they would drive the boat via remote control to get the missile into close enough range to the target. Unfortunately for Pantera, Grumman was awarded the project from Lockheed Martin. Pepe explained that they also had another shot at making a transport boat for the Navy Seals. The boat was equipped with large Cummins diesels and Arneson surface drives. The specs for the boat were that it could not exceed 20 thousand pounds and average speed of 66 knots in 6 to 8 foot seas. Unfortunately, Congress cut the funding for the project.
As I am in awe, commenting about all of the cool pictures, Pepe says “I have been doing it for a lot of years, buddy!” I ask “just how long have you been in the business?” He says “I started when I was 25, so about 40 years.” “Time flies by when you’re having fun” he says. Meanwhile Linda is explaining to my assistant Ben about all of the animals that live at Pantera. She says “we are like the humane society here.” She explains that it is sometimes difficult to travel or go anywhere, because even on weekends they have to go to the shop to take care of the animals. At this point Linda is calling “Chrissie”, the cat that guards the front door. She catches Chrissie, catches her and puts her on a stool to show her off. This cat is definitely well fed!…and obviously well loved.
As we look at more pictures and discuss their history, Linda proudly announces that as of last week, she and Pepe have been married for 44 years, and together for 46. She explains that when she met Pepe, she was head teller at a bank. She left her job at the bank to start Pantera boats with Pepe in a very small shop right around the corner from their current location. After growing the business, they opened a shop on NE188th Street, the infamous Thunderboat Row in the 80’s. She says the days on 188th were interesting, where not only was boat racing was popular, but so was drag racing. She said that 188th also made a good drag racing track for the shop workers back in the day.
Next Linda is enthusiastic to show us a picture of a boat that they built for “Vanilla Ice”. She said that it was the first boat they had built with a purple interior, per “Ice’s” request. The idea of a purple interior was dreadful to the folks at Pantera at the time, but soon became somewhat mainstream with all of the “Miami Vice” color schemes. Linda told stories about how Vanilla Ice would show up with his entourage to check on the construction of his boat. He would start “break dancing” right in the shop, entertaining everyone.
Next Linda shows us a picture of one of the first Panteras built. “Remember when brown and beige were popular colors?” “ We built a brown and beige boat and took it to the Chicago boat show at the Mc Cormack Place.” She says “we parked the boat on the corner and it was like OH MY GOD! It was a Hit! People liked the boat so well that we sold 13 boats at the show” “It was thrilling!” she says. After their success at the show Linda says “Pepe quickly ended up with the nickname of The Chicago Boy”.
Pepe comes out of the office after re-lighting his cigar, and offers to take us out into the shop. We walk into the shop where workers are busy with rigging a few newly built 28’s. One worker is enthusiastically whistling to the song “My Maria”, which is blaring throughout in the shop. No surprise, as I take a look around the shop, all I can say is “Wow!” One of the 28’s in particular is a silver beige metallic boat with a single 600SCI newly installed in it. I instantly fall in love with the boat. Another 28 in the shop has a newly installed 525 in it. It has a retro style “cove” in the side of the boat that resembles the side of a new Corvette or Viper. This is a striking boat. There are many boats in the shop, but the silver-beige metallic boat with the 600SCI keeps calling me back to look again and again. The boat is simply clean and very classy with a racy black script “Pantera” logo across the fairing that just sets the boat off perfectly. I ask Pepe about the performance of the new 28’s being built. He says that the one with the 525 should run about 80 and the one with the 600SCI will be a little faster.
I began to talk with Pepe about the market for single engine boats. Pepe said that at first, most people did not like the idea of having a single engine boat, but with fuel prices the way they are today, he has seen an increased interest in single engine boats and hopes to capitalize on the opportunity. Next we walk over the Black F2 race boat that Pepe and Jo raced…the one that spit them out. Pepe explained that the boat was really a 36 footer, but they cut the deck line down and made some other modifications to make the boat a 35 footer to meet the class rules.
The conversation shifted to the newest boat in the Pantera lineup, the 41. Pepe tells the story, which most of us have read, about the Thad Allen Apache project. He explained that after Allen exited the business, Pepe was able to buy the molds from him to make the 41 Pantera. Pepe explains that they modified the step design on the 41 to match the profile of his other models. He told me about their step design and how it was developed, but then swore me to secrecy. Pepe went on to describe the first 41, a race model built for the European P1 circuit. This first 41 ran nearly 90 mph with 525’s and #6 drives. Weighing in at 11,700 lbs, the boat came in light. Ballast was required to make it legal for the class rules. Pepe says “it was faster than I thought it would ever run” Next I ask about construction of the hull. Pepe describes a solid glass hull bottom with coring in the sides and the deck. “I like to do a lot of things the old fashioned way” he says. “It takes me a bit longer, but I like to have a stronger boat”. Next we walk over to a 36 footer that is in production. Pepe uses the 36 as a model to show me how they modified the F2 boat to make it into a 35 footer. Ben is busy snapping pictures as I am talking to Pepe about everything in the shop. Concerned, I ask Pepe that if there is anything that he does not want us to take pictures of. He replies with “knock yourself out, buddy”.
Inquiring if they have any 41’s on schedule to be built, Pepe says that he has talked to a couple of guys that have expressed interest in 41’s for endurance races, but he does not have the orders as of yet. Next he offers to show me a 41 project that they are making plans to build. Pepe pulls up a rendering from his computer and shows us his concept 41’ center console. The boat is slated to be powered with diesels.
While sitting back in Pepe’s office, Jo pops in to apologize for not spending much time with us on account of Being a bit under the weather. As I inquire about how their production is going, Jo answers that they’re building 12 to 15 boats per year “My dad used to build 100 boats a year back in the day”. We discussed building boats with a smaller staff than in boom years. They answer with “well it depends on the budget of the customer.” If the customer wants a boat built in short order, we can bring in help, but that adds cost.” The challenge, Jo explains, is that in today’s market, many customers cannot obtain financing for boats, rendering them cash buyers. Many are pinching every penny to buy a boat. To compete, Pantera has to drop their margins very low just to sell a boat, which makes it difficult to build boats quickly. Jo explains that with average profit margins they build a boat in 3 months, but with this economy, it takes them 6 to 8 months to build a boat. Pepe tells me that the 28 Pantera has always been their “bread and butter”. Now with fuel prices the way they are this is even more so the case.
Talking boats with a racer, either past or present, the conversation inevitably turns to that topic We start discussing the old style offshore racing vs. the current “beachfront” format. We talk about Charlie Mc Carthy’s effort to revitalize the old school format of true ocean racing. Pepe says he thinks that it would be great if true ocean racing were able to make a comeback. He feels that one of the major problems with having true ocean races today is the fact that today’s boats are so much faster, yet not necessarily strong enough or safe enough to race at speed in true ocean conditions. By now, it’s getting late in the day, and they are ready to close up shop and head home for the weekend. We climb upstairs to get a few more pics from a mezzanine. I ask Pepe about the price of a new 28’. He says that an average equipped boat is near $150K. Pepe says the 28’ with the 600SCI should be ready for sea trials by sometime next week. I ask about what the sea trials consist of. Pepe says “We take ‘em out in the ocean and run the shit out of ‘em !” I tell Pepe that I will be back in Florida next week, so maybe I can see the boat run. I thank Pepe for his hospitality and for sharing his operation with us. He assures me that if the boat is ready when I return, they will be happy to give me the ride of my life. I can’t wait.
Coming next- More Pantera boats and a run with Jo and Pepe
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