One might guess that most 79-year-old men aren’t building 9,500 hp boat engines at their workshops in Illinois. Then again,
most 79-year-old men aren’t Don Onken, owner of the Mystic Powerboat, better known as American Ethanol.
The stats are impressive. The powerboat, worth $1.5 million, hit a top speed of 204 mph during last year’s SHOOTOUT at Lake of the Ozarks, which won the American Ethanol racing team Top Gun honors in its class for the fourth consecutive year.
Yet, what’s maybe more impressive is just how far Onken has come over the course of his life. His humble beginnings were in 1940 at a small farm in rural Easton, Illinois, which had no plumbing or electricity. One of four children, his fascination with building things began as he worked on random cars growing up.
Onken worked hard to land a job as a Fleet Manager at National By-Products, which inspired him to start thinking about ideas to
create his own business. It was in the early 1980s when he struck out on his own to establish Onken’s Incorporated. Since then, the company has grown exponentially into the success that it is today. Inventive by nature, he now has 23 patents to his name and never has a shortage of ideas.
Owning a second home and workshop at Lake of the Ozarks for nearly four decades, Onken says the SHOOTOUT has been a great
gathering time for his family. “We have a lot of good memories at Lake of the Ozarks,” he says. “The SHOOTOUT really brings our family together with my wife, our sons and grandkids — it really is a family affair. And we like the challenge of racing, but mainly the friendships that we’ve built over the years from racing all over the United States.”
Onken began racing drag cars in 1956, which turned into an offshore powerboat racing obsession in the 1990s. Noting that his need is not necessarily for speed, but more a need to do something that no one else is doing. “Each year we just try to go a little faster,” he says with a smile.
During race day, John Cosker, owner of Mystic Powerboats, comes in from Florida to act as the throttleman for American Ethanol. The driver, Tony Battiato, is a performance boat mechanic for Big Thunder Marine at Lake of the Ozarks.“The Onkens are a top-notch, awesome family,” says Battiato, who added that he is thankful for the opportunity to drive American Ethanol. “I get a kick out of driving and appreciate the safety precautions the Onkens take with this boat.”
LOTO SHOOTOUT Director Ron Duggan says he values the support the Onkens have given to the event each year. “American
Ethanol is a beautiful boat, Don Onken is a class act and his entire family is just wonderful to be around.”
The American Ethanol racing team builds the engines themselves, and is putting in a large time commitment to aim for 11,000 total horsepower engines at the LOTO SHOOTOUT in 2020. Yet, Onken says he knows he couldn’t do it on his own, giving
plenty of thanks and credit to American Ethanol, Earl Moorman, the crew, the fans and — most importantly — his family. •