Howes: Passion fires Hydrofest boats powering river

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Detroit — The numbers flow like water from Mark Weber, a former driver of the Miss Budweiser unlimited hydroplane who holds 14 national and two world championships:

The boats will be doing 190 mph as they pass the Detroit Yacht Club docks and head for the left-hand “Roostertail” turn. They’ll cover the distance of a football field in about a second. The turbine-powered engines, turning props costing $15,000 apiece, will burn 4.1 gallons of aviation fuel a minute powering around the 2 3/4-mile course.

Former Miss Budweiser driver Mark Weber, left, and Detroit News columnist and associate business editor Daniel Howes talk atop a hydroplane.

“If they were unrestricted, they’d be going 220 mph,” says Weber, president of Detroit Riverfront Events Inc., chief organizer of the Detroit Hydrofest running this weekend on the river. “They can’t stay in the water. They literally took off like an airplane. They were crashing.”

Not surprising, considering the power and aerodynamics of these things. Eight, maybe nine, unlimited hydroplanes will compete for six spots in Sunday’s final, the 100th year (minus four during World War II and weather washouts in 1960 and 2008) for hydroplane racing on the Detroit River — and this year’s Gold Cup race, the premiere event of the season.

Altogether, three classes of boats will be racing this weekend in the Hydrofest sponsored by the United Auto Workers and General Motors Co.’s Human Resources Center, the second year of what’s expected to be a three-year sponsorship deal. Other sponsors include the Metro Detroit Chevrolet Dealers Association, Ally Financial and ITC Holdings Corp.

Helpful, all that, for an event that operates year-round on a $600,000 budget, a small staff and outsized expectations for keeping Detroit among the elite sites of unlimited hydroplane racing and keeping the Gold Cup race here. That’s not easy, given the annual bidding war to host the big race.

This is passion writ large, a niche sport with a long, storied legacy evoking such great industrial names as Ford, Dodge and Garwood. All of it, like the IndyCar Belle Isle Grand Prix, is wrapped in a distinctly Detroit predilection for the trifecta of power, speed and multi-generational tradition.

“In the old days, it was a rich man’s sport, starting with Horace Dodge,” says Douglas Bernstein, a prominent bankruptcy lawyer who also is a director of Detroit Riverfront Events. “Once you see it, you get hooked. It’s the reason I’m here for the 47th straight year.”

The big difference: There is no media horde like the one following NASCAR or Roger Penske’s IndyCar. There is no traveling glamour show akin to Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula One. There are no fat contracts or sponsorships that make the best race-car drivers millionaires many times over.

With the passing of Miss Budweiser owner Bernie Little 13 years ago, there are no Daddy Warbucks-style owners who back their winning expectations with cash and contracts for drivers like the ones Weber had during his Miss Budweiser driving days. There are no owners willing to underwrite occasional shortfalls for race organizers, a courtesy the Anheuser-Busch distributing mogul extended frequently.

These drivers have day jobs. For somewhere between $2,500 and $5,000 a weekend ($7,500 if they’re lucky), they slide down into the spartan, pod-like cockpit mounted between elongated sponsors, attach the steering wheel and strap in. It’s tight, as I experienced Thursday.

The wraparound windshields come from F-14 fighter jets. An escape hatch with a red release lever traces the floor of the cockpit. A bank of simple toggle switches on the left controls fuel and the igniter to fire the 3,000-horsepower engine that will push the 30-foot, 6,000-pound boat to white-knuckle speed.

At the start of a roughly 11-minute race, drivers jam their throttle wide-open with their right foot. They use their left foot to control two pedals attached to the critical front wing, which controls speed by adjusting the lift angle of the bow.

“We all just race because we love it,” says Weber, 53. “It’s a spectacle you cannot replace in any form. Because of the start, it’s a thinking game. You really get into trouble fast if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Yep, and drivers can get killed, like Weber’s teammate, George Stratton, in 2000. Two Miss Budweiser drivers — Dean Chenoweth and Detroit native Bill Muncey — died in the early 1980s, prompting team owner Little to back efforts to develop the closed cockpit.

The innovation dramatically improved safety in a sport fueled by two human urges certain to be on vivid display this weekend: the need for speed and passion.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.