Rubin: Quieter hydroplane races are still ready to roar

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The annual hydroplane races on the Detroit River have been on a quiet decline, “quiet” being a somewhat literal term.

Organizers are diligently trying to reverse that, with “reverse” not being quite so exact. The unlimited-class boats can reach speeds of 200 mph on a churning and perilous race course, but they can’t go backward — at least, not on the water.

As the UAW-GM Spirit of Detroit HydroFest draws near, backward in time would be helpful.

Only a few decades ago, the race drew hundreds of thousands of people to Belle Isle, the riverfront, medium-sized trees and anyplace else with a vantage point. More recently, the multiple has been tens of thousands.

A number of factors have prompted the decline, says Douglas Bernstein, one of the cadre of directors and volunteers who have kept the race afloat.

One of those is volume, or lack of it. Reliability and the scarcity of parts forced a switch to turbine power instead of furiously loud, ground-shaking Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, he says, “and when the noise went away, so did the audience.”

But there’s still sunshine, at least ideally.

And tradition: the Aug. 26-28 HydroFest marks the 100th anniversary of the first APBA Gold Cup race on the river.

And low prices: $50 to start for weekend grandstand seats, with blankets and lawn chairs free.

And prestige: the program includes the Gold Cup, which is sort of like the Indianapolis 500 without the RVs parked in the infield.

And, above all else: the potential for mayhem.

Bernstein, 59, will be attending the races for the 47th time. Along with being an unpaid director for the Detroit race, he’s the general counsel for the entire racing series, also unpaid.

Clearly, he is devoted to the sport and the people in it. He wishes no harm and no dents. Still, though ...

“I’ve been to Indy 25 times,” he says, “and you don’t get the sense of danger like you do with these things, because the course moves on them.”

Plus, there will be noise — maybe not quite as much as before, but enough to feel the drum and bugle corps in your chest.

A noisy proposition

The volume will come from the Grand Prix hydroplanes, a bit smaller and slower than the unlimiteds but a roaring throwback.

Like the unlimiteds and Formula F2 powerboats, they’ll race on the weekend after testing on Friday the 26th, when everything but parking and concessions is free.

There’s also a preview party Aug. 25 at the Roostertail, with tickets only $75 — part of a push to attract younger customers.

“Things change,” says Bernstein, a lawyer from Royal Oak. “We’re trying to keep up, to reinvent ourselves.”

They’re trying to attract a more diverse board, he says, “one that looks like the city.”

There will be an app to track the main race, more emphasis on social media — and the same old speed.

Bankruptcy woes

A quick rundown of the race’s issues, other than turbines, which are faster than their predecessors even if they don’t sound like it:

Chrysler’s bankruptcy in 2009 torpedoed the longtime sponsor, the local Chrysler dealers, and it was an annual struggle for support until the UAW-GM Center for Human Resources signed on for two races with an option for 2017.

The largely suburban fan base is aging, and kids don’t seem as enraptured as Bernstein was at 13.

Boat races don’t translate well to television — but NASCAR does, and the Pure Michigan 400 will take place at Michigan International Speedway the same weekend as HydroFest.

In person, though, “There’s this huge wall of water,” Bernstein says, and all the other magic that prompt the cast of volunteers to mow the grass in the riverfront parks every Saturday, just to prepare the seating areas for the fans.

“What we typically hear is, ‘Oh, I used to go all the time,’” Bernstein says. “Well, why don’t you come back?”

Maybe you won’t have as much company as you used to, but the sightlines should be terrific.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn

HydroFest facts

The UAW-GM Spirit of Detroit HydroFest will run Aug. 26-28, with a preview party at the Roostertail on Aug. 25. For details and tickets, visit or call (313) 329-8047.