Thunder on river: Big boats, more racing

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — So, you thought that after a good number of years of heroic struggle, they finally got to the point where there would be no hydroplane racing on the Detroit River this summer?

Nope. They saved it, again.

And, this time, there is a plan that carries the racing forward for a second year, and maybe beyond, to perhaps finally secure the future of motor sports on the big, beautiful river in the Motor City.

Some of the proceeds will help finance important educational and social programs around the poorest major city in the country, thanks to the United Auto Workers, General Motors and race officials.

If they were here to see it, the late racing greats Gar Wood, Bill Muncey and Chuck Thompson would be mighty pleased.

Power boat racing in multiple forms returns to the Detroit River this weekend, when the UAW-GM Human Resources Center presents the UAW-GM Spirit of Detroit Hydrofest 2015.

A second year of the deal will bring the 100th running of the Gold Cup races next summer, and the UAW-GM Human Resources Center has an option for more racing on the river in 2017.

Meanwhile, there will be more of the big “thunderboats,” the H1 Unlimiteds, than last summer —12, an increase from seven.

There also will be more racing, with the smaller Grand Prix hydroplanes and the Formula 2 tunnel boats in separate competitions.

Because the racing is on two days this year instead of spread across three, there will be more racing in a briefer period. Some of the delays to prepare the boats, which occasionally occur between heats, should be eliminated.

In all of the usual “park” areas, where fans can bring blankets and picnics, general admission is free. Reserved seating begins at $45, and luxury stuff at $175.

Smoothing the obstacles

Race officials canceled the races Feb. 28, disbanding the Detroit River Regatta Association.

Then Bruce Weber’s phone rang.

“After the DRRA ceased operations, I got a phone call and was asked to meet with the UAW and GM,” said Weber, a veteran racer who was tapped by the association as director of the Gold Cup races. “They talked about how they wanted to do something for the city. They wanted to do something for their charities, because all 24 of their charities give back something inside the city of Detroit.

“I said, we’ve got to get our arms around this thing and look at a strategy more long term. And so I told them that while I was interested in talking to them, I was more interested in having a long-term strategy to try to fix some of the obstacles that have been facing this event.”

The UAW-GM Human Resources Center sees an opportunity to market its charities, accept a cut of the proceeds from parking and the tickets, and use the event as a staging area where all of the two dozen charities can set up tables to advertise services and accept donations.

“The biggest thing for us was this was a great way to display the charities that we spend a lot of time with, and work on a lot, for the benefit of the city of Detroit,” said Kris Owen, executive director of the UAW-GM Human Resources Center.

“We do a lot of stuff for foster parents, homeless kids from Detroit. And the illiteracy rate is terrible in Detroit, and we have the Freedom Schools and other schools.”

Challenge on the river

Detroit’s is the longest continuously running unlimited hydroplane race on the H1 Unlimited circuit.

The first sanctioned hydroplane race took place on the Detroit River in 1916, and Gar Wood, the pioneering motorboat designer, racer and Detroit businessman, participated in his legendary “Miss Detroit.”

Since 1946, at least one race has occurred every year.

Thompson and Muncey were lions of what many consider a golden era of the Gold Cup competition, the 1960s.

Thompson lost his life racing on the Detroit River in 1966, when the bow of his boat, Miss Smirnoff, seemed to jab deeply into the bottom of a wave at over 100 mph just after the start of a heat. It disintegrated.

Muncey was killed 15 years later racing in Mexico.

The drivers always say the Detroit River, actually a “strait” between two countries, always presents interesting challenges.

Beating the river

“When we heard that the race might not happen this year, we were disappointed,” said driver Jimmy Shane, who won the Gold Cup last year and leads for the national championship this season, with races in Detroit and San Diego remaining.

“Now, we are very excited.”

“I’ve always said that the key to winning in Detroit is beating the river, not your competitors,” Shane said of the course that is legend in the history of hydroplane racing.

“You know that the biggest challenge is going to be the river conditions. So, if you’re successful, in particular, on how do you drive to get over those choppy waters, you’re going to put yourself in a good position to win the race.”

On the water

When: Saturday-Sunday, Detroit River

Tickets: Starting at $45

Details: (313) 329-8047


Saturday: Testing begins at 8 a.m., time trials and qualifying noon-6:30 p.m.

Sunday: Opening ceremonies at 9:30 a.m., qualifying throughout the day with the Tunnel Finals at 2:30 p.m., GP Final at 3:15 p.m. and Unlimited Final at 4:10 p.m.