On a summer weekend, venture out on the lake near the Beatties Ford Access Area in Denver. You’ll likely come across a rider on a personal watercraft lapping or slaloming his way through a course of buoys. And he’ll be going fast. Really fast. You might guess he’s adventurous, even crazy. But would you also guess he’s the current world champion in jet sport racing? “You have to be crazy to do this sport,” laughs Denver resident Brian Baldwin, who has been a competitive racer for over 11 years and is the sport’s current reigning world champion. “You have to love the sport, be willing to travel and be crazy.” Baldwin competes in races all over the country from April through October. When he’s not racing, you’ll find him practicing maneuvers on Lake Norman or working at Champion Power Sports, the Jet Ski repair shop he owns in Denver. Even as a child, it was a foregone conclusion that water sports would be a big part of Baldwin’s life. He grew up on Lake James in Hendersonville. When he was 8, his parents bought him a video of the 1986 International Jet Sports Boating Association World Finals. He was hooked. “I lost track of how many times I watched that video,” Baldwin says. “I told my parents: ‘This is what I want to do. I have to race.’” Baldwin went on to graduate in 2000 from the Marine Mechanics Institute in Orlando, Florida. His current repair shop business complements his love of racing. “Whenever he’s out on the water, he examines everyone’s equipment to see if something needs fixed,” says his wife, Maranda Baldwin. She attends as many races as possible along with their 2-year-old son Kayden. “The race atmosphere is a family affair,” says Maranda Baldwin. “You see the racers and their families throughout the season and get to know each other.” While races award cash prizes, American racers don’t pursue the sport for the money. “I race because I love it. You sacrifice a lot of time and don’t earn a lot of money, but I love it,” says Brian Baldwin. He cites examples of other countries where international competitors can race for a living. “Jet Ski racing is huge in places like Thailand, Malaysia and Kuwait,” Baldwin says. He credits relaxed international regulations and country financial support as the reason for the sport’s continued rise overseas. “Kids in other countries are born on Jet Skis,” he explains. “While other countries were developing younger racers, the U.S. age limit was 16.” Recently the international association developed a racing class for ten to 12 year olds. (The age limit for solo operation of personal watercraft on Lake Norman remains 16, or 14 with certification from a boating safety course).Baldwin believes capturing kids’ interest is the key to the sport’s survival in the United States. “The sport will grow by getting kids interested in it,” he says. Baldwin does his part, promoting to anyone interested in learning. “He loves talking to kids about the sport,” says his wife. “A local teenager was curious about it so Brian invited him to come on the water.” Anyone who’s ridden a Jet Ski knows the rush of dashing through waves, creating figure eights or looping circles. Imagine any of the above at 80 miles an hour. Contrary to popular belief, the racer with the most expensive equipment doesn’t always finish first. “Money helps but it doesn’t always win,” says Baldwin, who has beaten racers who drive far more expensive watercraft. “The only other required equipment is a helmet and life jacket.”But the biggest investment potential racers must make is time. “You have to practice every weekend you aren’t racing,” says Baldwin. (But be sure to practice safely - while there's officially no speed limit on the lake, law enforcement will police reckless operation of watercraft).Each race showcases different events, including closed course, slalom, free style and endurance. Depending on the type of race, you’re judged on everything from fastest time to most creative moves. Finishing in the fastest time at last year’s IJSBA World Finals earned Baldwin the world champion title. While Baldwin is the defending world champion, he hasn’t yet competed overseas because of the time and cost involved. Wins at the National Championship races – over 43 are held each season – grant racers an invitation to compete at the World Finals, held every October in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. The association invites 750 of the world’s best racers to compete.What tips does Baldwin offer to anyone interested in watercraft racing? “Start with a stand up Jet Ski because it’s safer and travels at lower speeds,” he says. “Attend some races and see firsthand what the atmosphere’s like, and then you need to get out on the water and practice.”Look for Baldwin on the water over the next few months. He’s the one darting through waves with the determined look of a defending champion. “He wins because he rides so hard,” says his wife. “My stomach drops every time he goes to the starting line.”
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Under North Carolina law, the minimum age for operating a personal watercraft alone is 16. Those ages 14 and 15 may operate a personal watercraft if they have passed a boating safety course or are accompanied on the personal watercraft by a person who is at least 18. They must then carry a certification card and proof of age when operating a personal watercraft. International Jet Sports Boating Association website: www.ijsba.com Champion Power Sports: 1347 Highway 16 North, Denver, 704-806-3906