After 40 years building some of the fastest boats on the water, Reggie Fountain is slowing down—but only just a little.
It’s tough when our heroes suddenly become mortal. For 40 years, Reginald Fountain II was the face of the company he founded, Fountain Powerboats. Always clad in black clothes adorned with the company logo and until recently his perfectly combed, jet-black hair, Reggie won races and relentlessly promoted his product, building a following that was reserved for guys like A.J. Foyt, Carroll Shelby and Richard Petty.
He’s had to pull back the throttles a little, having undergone two knee replacement surgeries, two spinal surgeries and a procedure to re-route his insides. As he steps out of his black Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, he says, “I’ve had that sumbitch up to 202 mph.”
Those who’ve known him for decades see an aging version of Reggie. His black hair is now grey. He moves like a guy who’s spent 40 years chasing speed records on the most challenging racetrack. The bravado and promotion has been replaced by a reflective humility and gratitude for what he’s achieved and those who helped him succeed.
Still, when he draws close, the familiar fire in his eyes burns and the wry smile that won over countless fans through the years remains. The legs might not be moving as fast, but the gears between his ears still mesh perfectly. He has plenty of ideas for new product development. The factory that he built on the Pamlico River in Washington, North Carolina, remains the world’s high-performance boating headquarters.
At his home on the Pamlico, Fountain sorts through countless photos taken over a career that started with him racing tunnel hulls on his own and then for the vaunted Mercury factory team in the 1970s. A loyal patriot, Fountain always used the number 76 on his boats, most of which had some kind of red, white and blue paint scheme.
Scattered photos by the hundreds lay across tables, stairs and furniture. Framed articles litter the basement and line the bays of the garage. He knows the story behind each print, whether it’s barefoot water skiing as a teenager, racing a tunnel boat or driving one of his high-performance offshore vessels. One photo is of all the Fountain Powerboats employees. “That was the year we did $420 million in sales,” he says. “I said, ‘Everybody that’s in this factory better come down here and get in this picture,’ and they did.”
In the heyday of Fountain Powerboats, the walls of the corporate offices were lined with photos from his racing days, including a sequence of a flip at the tunnel-boat racing world championships in St. Louis. “I was so far out front and so much faster that I didn’t need to blow that boat over,” he says, calling the crash one of his biggest regrets.
The crashes took their toll, but he knew he needed to keep racing to prove how good his boats were. To date, Fountain powerboats have won more offshore races than any other V-bottoms in history. Between outboard-powered tunnel boats and larger offshore machines, he won just over 100 races. I rode with him in the 45-foot catamaran when he claimed his 100th victory on the Hudson River in New York City.
“I raced 201 races and won 101 of them, and the rest were eight crashes and a lot of seconds and thirds and fourths,” he says. “Sometimes I was hurtin’ going into those races, but I wanted to keep the image up, winning those races. I knew that was helping me sell boats.”
So was going fast. Fountain realized that the public loves records, so he started setting speed marks on a kilometer-long course on the Pamlico River. “That might have been more important than racing all the boats,” he says. It started with the black-and-yellow 42-foot Fountain, Ohio Steel. While some questioned the legality of the boat’s engines and the fuel they burned, he says, “I will swear on the Bible that I never burned any fuel that wasn’t legal.”
The record attempts would become something of an annual
tradition. Fountain would set the event with just enough time to
announce it at the Miami International Boat Show every February. The timing was as last-minute as possible so competitors couldn’t set up their own attempt, and Fountain always made sure the records were sanctioned by the American Power Boat Association and the Union Internationale Motonautique.
In 2004, Fountain and Ben Robertson throttled a 40-foot Fountain to a kilo speed record of 171.880 mph on the Pamlico River. That record stood until Outerlimits Offshore Powerboats raised the mark to 180.746 mph on the same river. A couple of years ago, Iconic Marine Group tried to reclaim the mark, but the effort fell short.
Fountains boats also made endurance runs. I rode with Reggie when he used a boat delivery to set an endurance record from Key West to Cancún. We made the trip in a 48-foot Fountain Express cruiser powered by triple Cummins diesels and Arneson surface drives. We arrived in eight hours and 35 minutes. When we were idling out of Key West Harbor at about 6 a.m., Reggie says, “Something’s wrong, the boat’s not running right.” He asked the captain, “Did you put a bunch of stuff in the head?” Sure enough there were cases of water and oil stashed in the head, which was making the boat ride wet. He could feel this on a 15,000-pound boat. Following that, I was on board the sistership to George H.W. Bush’s 38-foot Fountain center console on a 410-mile run from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, to the Statue of Liberty in six hours and 10 minutes. When it came to promotion, Fountain rarely missed an opportunity.
He grew up the son of a life-insurance salesman. When Fountain went to the University of North Carolina, he got a law degree because his dad told him that the way to get rich in life insurance was to be a lawyer who also did estate planning. A smart businessman, Fountain acquired an apartment complex in Greenville, North Carolina, and a local supermarket, both of which he still owns.
Despite a reputation for self-promotion and spinning one-liners, Fountain learned a valuable skill when he went to Northwestern Mutual Life for training. “One of the first things we learned was to listen to the customer and know what he wants and play up to him, because he makes all the decisions,” Fountain says.
After wrapping up his career in tunnel-boat racing, Fountain entered boat manufacturing by purchasing and modifying Excalibur hulls. He wound up changing so much, including adding a pad to the keel and notching the transom, that he decided to start building his own boats. The first model was the Executioner, a 31-footer powered by twin turbocharged MerCruiser 470s with TRS drives. That boat was followed by a 40-foot model.
Fountain had his boats tested by as many magazine writers as possible, as often as possible. He spent lots of money on advertising and on racing. When his boats won, he promoted the victories with gusto. He estimates that he personally took 70 percent of customers on their new boats for a driving lesson. “I showed every customer how to run their boats,” he says.
Eventually, Fountain figured that he needed to prove his boats’ capabilities on the offshore racing circuit. He took his then-new 47-foot V-bottom to New Orleans’ Lake Pontchartrain for an offshore powerboat race against the sport’s elite competitors, including Popeyes Chicken founder Al Copeland and his driver Chuck Norris, and TV star turned powerboat racer Don Johnson and his Team USA boat. Both teams had big, four-engine catamarans that were fast but temperamental. Fountain’s triple-engine, open-cockpit V-bottom didn’t have a prayer, or so it was thought, especially on the calm lake.
With a camera on board filming the race, Fountain drove and throttled while co-pilot Joey Detore watched the instruments. The under-powered V-bottom outran the cats, taking a convincing win. In a video clip that would air at boat shows throughout the world for a decade, Fountain exclaimed “Bye-bye, movie star” when he passed Johnson’s Team USA. When it came to sound bites, Fountain was almost as hard to beat as he was on the racecourse.
“No one knew how fast this new boat was, and they said I had to pay $15,000 in entry fees,” recalls Fountain. “Copeland said, ‘I’ll loan you the money,’ and I said, ‘I’ll pay you back out of the winnings,’ and everybody laughed at me. I beat the shit out of all of them. That one was important.”
When it came to design, Fountain led the industry with many innovations. At first, he borrowed design elements from Paul and Darris Allison of Allison Boats. Fountains had the first notched transoms and pad bottom design in offshore performance. The former allowed for higher drive heights while the latter created a faster running surface that didn’t chine walk. Later, in the 1990s, when Fountain introduced steps to modern offshore powerboat design, they revolutionized the sport.
“I had some people who helped me,” he says. “I didn’t do all that stuff, but I guided all that stuff. Nothing happened in those boats without me approving it.” He credits the late Jim Caldwell with helping to develop the stepped hulls and Gary Bridges for improving the style of the boats and their interiors.
Success on the racecourse inspired Fountain to conquer the offshore fishing segment. He started with a 31-foot center console. He recruited offshore anglers Clifton Moss, Dan Upton and Clayton Kirby, providing them with boats and motors to use in tournaments.
“I didn’t know anything about fishing,” says Fountain. “I designed the boats, but they told me how to do it and what they wanted in it and I got it done.”
Eventually, Fountain developed 34- and 38-foot center consoles that dominated fishing tournaments. The company marketed that success as aggressively as it did its victories in offshore racing.
When times got tough financially, Fountain and his company were not immune. He had taken the company public and had tried to work with partners through the years, but the partnerships were short-lived. In 2009, he sold the company. He had planned to stay on, but couldn’t get along with the new owner, so he stepped away.
In 2017, Fred Ross, who had built a successful trucking company in Kansas City, bought Big Thunder Marine in Lake of the Ozarks. The dealership carried Fountain Powerboats, which Ross had always been a fan of. Ross purchased Fountain, Donzi and Baja to form Iconic Marine Group. He asked Fountain to return as a consultant.
Fountain Powerboats were always known for being fast and winning races and fishing tournaments, but the man whose name was on each hull was equally proud of another record. “I built thousands of boats and they never broke,” he says. Neither did that internal motor, or the drive to compete. Time has a way of turning the most important accomplishments into footnotes, as engines get more powerful and hull innovations breed a new wave of powerboats. But the mystique imbued in every Fountain will always remain. Like the fire in Reggie’s eyes, it’s a hard thing to put out.