Ask Mike Brienzi what his favorite poker run is and his immediate response is the 1000 Islands Poker Run in Kingston, ON. The long-time performance enthusiast has been attending poker runs since 1997 and continues to enjoy his passion to this day. At any given event, Brienzi and his crew can be found aboard his 38’ Hustler Sling Shot, Bad Habit, powered by twin custom-built 700 hp Bullet engines.
“I always like the conditions at the 1000 Islands,” says Brienzi. “The St. Lawrence is great to run on and the course is not too long or short. It’s located right downtown Kingston and with all the crowds, all the types of performance boats and power, it’s a great run.”
His thrill for speed began in the 1980s with a passion for drag racing in Upstate New York. Brienzi competed in a 69’ Chevelle (running a 427 L88 engine) at such venues as the Lancaster Raceway Park near Lancaster, NY and Spencer Speedway in Ontario, NY.
“As time went on, I realized it’s a lot easier to go fast on the water, than it is on the road because on the water I don’t have to worry about breaking the law.”
It was in the early-1990s when Brienzi discovered performance boating and purchased a 32’ Baja powered by twin 454s, his “first real performance boat,” before stepping up to his current Hustler. While his top speed on his 38’ is 98 mph, Brienzi says his goal is to hit 100 mph. “I’ll get there. Maybe not this year, but next year for sure.”
Brienzi currently resides in Rochester, NY, with his wife LouAnn of 20 years and works as the service director for the Dorschel Automotive Group, an automotive service center and dealer for Lexus, Infiniti, Fisker, Nissan, KIA, Volkswagon, Toyota and SAAB.
Chances are likely you’ve seen or met Brian Haas as he has been on the poker run scene for more than ten years. His first event was in 1999 at the 1000 Islands Poker Run navigating for fellow poker runner, Mike Brienzi in his 38’ Hustler.
Today, Haas owns a Formula 382 FAS³TECH and always runs with long-time friends, Bob Wyman, Rob Rice and Bill Hurley. His Formula is powered by twin 575 SCi engines with XR drives and is titled High Voltage, a suitable name considering Haas is a Licensed Master Electrician. He is president/owner of Connors Haas Inc., a respected industrial/commercial electrical contractor with a client list that includes Kodak, Xerox, Rochester Precision Optics and series of local colleges and hospitals.
“My father started the company in 1966. I got into the trade in the early 1980s and began working for my dad in 1987. I worked my way up and eventually took over the business in 2002.”
The Rochester, NY-resident says he never misses the opportunity to enjoy the thrill of speed during the power boating season. In fact, Haas explains he is a Cancer Survivor. He was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma in May 2010 and has since overcome the diagnosis successfully. “One thing I wanted to do last summer during my battle with cancer was participate in the 1000 Islands Poker Run, and I did. I drove my boat in the poker run between my chemo treatments.”
With approximately 18 runs under his belt, Haas can commonly be seen in the Alexandria Bay and the 1000 Islands poker run events. “It’s all about having fun, the excitement, the roar of the engines and spectators. One year, we were hanging out with Dan Aykroyd at the opening reception in Kingston, ON. How many people get to do that?”
Haas and his crew have also been the first place winners at two PRA events, the Alexandria Bay Poker Run in 2005 and the Kingston 1000 Islands Poker Run in 2009.
With his passion for boats and speed, it comes as no surprise that James Dalling is an avid poker run enthusiast. His first run was approximately six years ago in Kingston, ON, and has enjoyed many performance events since, regularly attending the 1000 Islands, Casino Lac-Leamy, and Rockland poker runs. Of all the events he has attended, he ranks the 1000 Islands run as his favorite, along with the recent 2011 Rockland run this past June.
“The Rockland run was really good,” says Dalling. “I used to go to Lac-Leamy (in Gatineau, QC) as that was a really good run. Then I went to Rockland and everything about Rockland was great including the food and atmosphere. The people were also very polite and we really enjoyed the run.”
When Dalling is not running the waves at poker run events, he stays close to his roots cruising Lake Simon (located between Ottawa, ON and Mont-Tremblant, QC) where he first began boating in his youth with his father.
Now, at the age of 48, he has owned a series of models from manufacturers such as Chapparal and Baja, before settling with his current ride, an impressive 32’ Sunsation SSR, powered by twin 496 MAG H.O. engines that can hit speeds of 80+ mph.
It’s also common to see Dalling running with his two sons, Brent (seen here with James), either on Lake Simon or at any given power event. A resident of St. Eustache, QC, with his wife Josee of nearly 30 years, Dalling is kept busy with his business, Jimmy’s Transport, a transport company based out of Montreal, QC.
Not too many people can say that their occupation involves providing metal finishing services to components for thermal weapon systems for the United States Military. But for long-time poker runner, Jim Stevenson, that’s just one aspect of being president of Anoplate, a metal finishing company based in Syracuse, NY, which puts coatings on metal components for the military, aerospace and medical markets.
In his downtime, however, Stevenson says he loves speed and has no problem enjoying it aboard his 35 Donzi that’s powered by twin 700 hp Ilmor Viper Engines with IMCO drives, which is capable of hitting 100 mph.
“I guess I progressed in speed over the years,” says Stevenson. “My first boat was a Donzi 26 ZX that did 70 mph. I purchased my second boat in 2004, which was a 388 Hustler Cheetah that could do 90 mph. Now I can do 100 mph with my 35.” Stevenson says he attended his first power event at the Poker Runs America Alexandria Bay Poker Run followed by the 1000 Islands Poker Run in 1999. He has been attending those two runs every year since.
“Those areas are kind of my home territory. With my job and my kids that’s as far as I can go. But what I like about poker runs is the camaraderie and seeing the people and the boats. There’s nothing better than cruising along at 100 mph and seeing other boats cruise right by you.”
Aside from attending poker runs in the summer months, Stevenson spends the majority of his time at his cottage on Charleston Lake, located north of Lansdowne, ON, with his wife, Lisa, son Christopher,11, and eight-and-a-half year-old daughter, Kelli. He is also an accomplished tournament water skier, which he enjoys behind his second ride, a Malibu Response LXi.
Puns and plays on words when used as boat titles can speak volumes about a captain’s personality. But Vu Nguyen’s SEE VU PLAY Donzi ZR wins the trump card for originality. Hailing from Siagon, Vietnam, Nguyen adds a hint of international flair to the poker run circuit, though he’s more likely to consider Louisiana home-base. Nguyen’s family uprooted to the United States in 1985 when he was nine-years-old. Why does the name of his V-bottom S’il vous plait (translated as please in French) fit Nguyen so well? He resides in Baton Rouge, deep in the Cajun heartland, a place where French Creole dialects remain in practice.
Always fascinated with the water, after graduating from LSU, Nguyen entered the working world and instead of blowing his hard-earned cash, he banked it. Accomplishing his goal and saving enough for his first watercraft, he soon took possession of a 25’ Baja. He also seemed to take on a second leisure-time career in addition to running his own repair shop, Collision Solution.
Nguyen’s second calling is participating in all sorts of poker runs nationwide. The Emerald Coast Poker Run is at the top of his list due to it’s proximity to home, superb organization and sparklingly transparent waterways. He also feels driving 10 hours for the Southeast’s Jacksonville River Rally is well worth it.
Returning back to the Baja, Nguyen enjoyed every minute of running it, yet he was always an aficionado of Donzi powerboats. Nguyen eventually made the jump into a 35ZR and by 2007 he purchased a twin 525 Mercury-powered Donzi 38ZR, which he runs today. When he is not on his 38ZR, Nguyen, his wife Lethi and their nine-year old son Justin can often be spotted jet-skiing around the waters of Baton Rouge.
When poker runners hail from a community called Summerstown, it comes as no surprise that they enjoy boating. In fact, Wayne and Julie Casey, long-time residents of this St. Lawrence River boating community in Ontario, Canada, are dedicated participants at our events. After attending their first Poker Runs America run in Alexandria Bay, NY in 1999, they have never looked back.
After more than a decade, the Casey’s are still going strong at many of our events often accompanied by their children. While the Casey’s are never too far away from the poker run action, they choose the Alexandria Bay Poker Run as their family run every year, bringing along their three daughters, Melanie, Valerie and Stephanie.
The Casey’s first began to enjoy the thrill of performance boating in 1990 after purchasing a 32 Baja powered by twin 454s. Their next ride was a 35 Donzi ZR with twin Mercury Marine 496s. The next step up the performance ladder led to their current model they purchased last October, a 39 Cigarette Top Gun Unlimited with twin Mercury Racing 700 SCi engines sporting NXT drives and Herring props.
When the Casey’s are not running in a poker run or cruising amongst the St. Lawrence River, they enjoy snowmobiling in the winter months and operating Casey Mechanical Inc., their commercial/residential plumbing, heating and air conditioning business.
“We started Casey Mechanical in 1992 with one employee and we’ve grown to 21 employees since then. It’s been a lot of hard work. But my wife and I work together everyday and it has been great. In fact, the business and the hard work have allowed us to enjoy poker runs all these years,” says Wayne Casey.
South Carolina’s Steve Keaton gets wet all the time. Of course, he prefers when it’s for pleasurable purposes such as rocking and rolling over the ripples of Lake Murray in his Skater rather than dousing a building gone ablaze in Lexington County, where he works as a fire fighter. His 32-footer, purchased from Miami-based TNT Marine, screams out for attention with its stellar teal, black and yellow paint scheme.
A twin set of 1000 hp power plants brings Keaton onto plane and into triple digit territory in his CATZ AZZ Skater. In his own words, it was named for two reasons - after the stern of a CATamaran or as a street-slang depicting something that was “da bomb.” When boating with Keaton, you will either meet his wife Wendy or any number of his lively friends. Most often his running mate and 13-year old son Blake is by his side.
Years back, Keaton skimmed the waves in both a 25’ Motion and 27’ Eliminator but “when you want to run fast, you need the best,” said Keaton, who soon after entered the “Skater Brotherhood” Club when signing the check for the CATZ AZZ.
Nowadays he is a fixture at his favorite Jacksonville and Lake Cumberland poker runs. His hometown Ducks Unlimited Lake Murray Poker Run that takes place each June also ranks high on his list. Off the water, if not dressed in black and yellow putting out fires, Keaton manages to keep Columbia brightly lit through helping run The Sign Connection LLC, a family business dedicated to high rise and custom neon sign design and construction. Hunting Whitetail deer on his 80-acre estate manages to fill the boating void during the winter months.
Douglas Valentine fancies life in the fast lane. He digs driving and his frequent past cameos include maneuvering high-speed watercrafts around the South Florida waterways on the famed Miami Vice television series as well as the 2006 motion picture make over. Simply put, he is a natural behind the wheel.
This news flash should come as no surprise for a fellow with a liquid track record including 2002 and 2003 consecutive Offshore Racing National Championship victories in Factory 2 and Super Vee Class with Donzi Marine. A third triumph was not far behind in 2004 when he captured the U.I.M. Evolution Class Title from Europe’s esteemed Powerboat P1 while at the helm of Italian team combatant OSG.
Before racing, it was Valentine’s 29 years of experience of being a test driver and engineer for Wellcraft and Donzi that cemented his foundation in offshore, molding him into a first-class driving commando. These days Valentine runs www.International-Performance.com, a high-performance offshore driving school he established a few years ago, which caters to clients on both sides of the Atlantic and the two-day program is highly noted for its 100 percent hands-on approach. Valentine also owns a popular 12,000 square-foot storage and service facility for performance boats. Adding one more aquatic venture to the Sarasota resident’s resume, today he captains confidant Red Reynolds Nor-Tech Super 80 Roadster Lady Lisa, the 4.9 million dollar darling that graced the Westin dock during last November’s Key West Worlds for its premiere ‘coming out’ party. It has the capacity of cruising at 60 knots with its Caterpillar C32 ACERT 1900 hp engines.
Valentine, Red and daughter Lisa, the inspiration for bringing this visionary marine masterpiece to life, also makes cameos across the nation at an assortment of poker runs. For more information on Lady Lisa or to check out this magnificent model, visit www.nor-techhighperformanceboats.com.
While Velocitys’ are a common model that are seen at poker run events, the 30’ Still Crazy has to rank as the most memorable, especially among the old school racing crowd. Raced by Mike’s late father and acclaimed racer, Mike Poppa Sr. (who, along with owner Dick Fullman, passed away in a tragic accident at the Key West races in 1985), Still Crazy is still running strong thanks to the dedicated eight-month restoration project that was recently completed by Mike and his cousin Jordan.
Today, it’s hard not miss Mike and Jordan ripping it up as Still Crazy has been repowered with a set of twin 500 hp Mercury Racing engines with Bravo XR drives. Mike and Jordan took Still Crazy through its paces for the first time at last year’s Jacksonville River Rally in June, with Jordan at the wheel and Mike taking over the sticks for the first time from Steve Stepp. And they haven’t slowed down. The duo also appeared at The Poker Runs America Season Finale Poker Run last October.
“Appearance wise the boat is all original, but we had to update some new technologies, as well as the engines and the drives,” says Jordan. “The fastest we have gone is 94 mph, which was on the rev limiters with the current set of props. But I am an adrenaline junkie and will do anything that’s exciting. For me, performance boating is one of the most natural highs you can get.”
When Jordan and Mike are not on the water getting their rush, Jordon works as general contractor and commercial real estate agent while Mike is a certified personal trainer. In fact, the Naples, Florida-residents explained they are currently in the process of opening a new crossfit gym and fitness center in Sarasota (Real Fitness Sarasota) where Mike will be the head trainer.
Having attended only their third poker run, husband and wife team Maxime Fisette and Julie Thibodeau took top honors at our 2011 1000 Islands Poker Run, winning first place in their 2006 32’ Sunsation SS powered by twin Mercury 496 HO engines.
Residents of St-Jean-de-Matha, Quebec, Canada, the couple are no strangers to the water. With Fisette at the wheel and Thibodeau navigating, they regularly enjoy their Sunsation cruising the St. Lawrence River visiting such places as Montreal and Kingston. They also regularly run on Taureau Lake, which is located approximately two hours of north of Montreal and offers excellent boating with its 54 scattered islands, scenic bays and isolated sand beaches.
However, poker runs seem to be high on their priority list for the coming summer months as they are already planning on attending the Poker Runs America Alexandria Bay Poker Run scheduled for mid-June.
“We went to the 2009 1000 Islands Poker Run as spectators with our previous boat (a 1997 Arriva 2252) and we found the run very impressive,” says Thibodeau. “Since then, it became a dream to get a boat that was more performing so we could actually participate in the event. I’m the navigator and Max is the driver. He knows the boat’s limits, so I am very confident with him, even when we hit the higher speeds.” When they are not on the water, Fisette keeps busy throughout the week working as a cabinet maker where he has been operating his own business for 10 years, while Thibodeau works as a pharmacist and has owned her own pharmacy since 2010.