Reporter gets some good air in Detroit River boat ride

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — The invitation was to take a ride on an inflatable boat, jetting down the Detroit River at upward of 60 miles per hour.

Inflatable? Sixty mph? Hey, the boss needed a story, my personal well-being be damned.

Then came the preride “protocol” briefing about what happens if you go flying off the watercraft. Just strictly protocol, Bruce Madej, a public relations guy for this weekend’s Hydrofest and Gold Cup races, said without trying to hide a wicked smile. He then threw in this little nugget: Only 1-in-100 get tossed.

Umm, not exactly what I wanted to hear. I was thinking we’d be a tad more in line with Mega Millions odds. No dice.

And, finally, as it came time Thursday afternoon to throw on my protective gear and step into the red ThunderCat and get going with my driver, Mark Hodorek, a storm started moving in, and the wind really started whipping up.

At that point, I almost asked for a copy of the waiver I signed — without reading, of course.

I may have grown up on a lake, but I’m a big fan of being on land.

“It’s a lot different,” said Madej, “than driving on I-75.”

Even with all the potholes.

And, boy, was he right.

Hodorek, of St. Clair Shores, took it easier on me than he would’ve when he’s racing. He gunned it on the straightaways, but let off on some turns and when we approached some 4- or 5-foot chop.

It didn’t stop me from going airborne a few different times, holding onto the safety rope like it was my final meal.

It was wild, it was a blast — and, best of all, I stayed in the boat and dry enough to tell the tale.

Pontoon on steroids

ThunderCats, or inflatable boats, or superlight tunnel boats — whatever you want to call them, the drivers aren’t too snooty about it — aren’t the centerpiece of this weekend’s racing on the Detroit River, where the prestigious Gold Cup will be awarded Sunday afternoon to the winner of the Unlimited Final.

But they still can give novice water boys like me a fairly decent glimpse into what racing’s like.

“We did get some good air, we did do a little flying today,” said Hodorek, 57. “We had a great time.

More importantly, how did I do?

Was there ever a time you thought you were gonna lose me?

“Maybe two or three times where I saw you kind of jounce a little bit,” Hodorek said. “You want to be low to the floor. With my co-driver, I’m a little more free to push him forward or hit him and pull him back.

“We have our own hand signals.”

I had a hand signal on the water, too — and almost used it when Hodorek decided I needed a third lap.

Hodorek has been a boat enthusiast for a long time, and got intrigued about the ThunderCat back in 1998 or so. He picked up a used one for around $3,000, then plopped on his engine, which costs around $7,000. Total cost, $10K — pretty sweet for a boat that has a pontoon look to it — if a pontoon did steroids.

There are three classes of ThunderCat racing, depending on the engine. Hodorek’s is “experimental,” which I’m glad he shared with me after the ride. That little revelation — experimental, go figure, allows for more horsepower — might’ve pushed me over the edge, before I even took that last wobbly step into the craft.

He competes in a few races a year, just recently taking second place in a 100-mile, two-day marathon race up north, on the Iron River.

Hodorek mans the controls, while grade-school buddy Gary Kowalewski is the co-driver, charged with staying low and moving forward or backward, depending on whether they’re driving into the wind or downwind.

Hodorek brags that he’s never been tossed. Kowalewski, well, he can’t say the same.

“You need to maintain at least three points of contact, two feet or an arm or two arms and one foot,” said Hodorek, who also teaches boating classes through the Coast Guard. Kowalewski, admittedly, had only one when he went flying in Bay City seven years ago. “It was pretty funny to see. It was a learning experience.

“I bought him a few dinners.”

Thankfully, Hodorek doesn’t owe me any grub.

Chop adds to experience

Hodorek prefers smooth water. Then, it’s all about the engine — and he’s got a nice engine, averaging 60-70 mph when he’s competing.

Other drivers — ThunderCat races often have between eight and 10 boats — like the chop, because it makes it more about maneuvering and strategy, and not just the horsepower.

We got the chop, a whole lot of it, enough that the actual racers this weekend, with heats Saturday and Sunday and the finals Sunday, wouldn’t be given the go-ahead to compete in such conditions. At least, that’s what I was told. Then again, maybe that was just to make me feel tougher than I actually am.

The experience, as Hodorek first told me, was a bit like tubing, which I enjoy. In fact, there are tubes on the bottom of these types of crafts, three on each side.

Hodorek sat in the back of the boat near the engine, I had my back to him, facing forward, hooked up to something called a “kill switch.” Ain’t that a hoot.

“It’s really a fun sport. The other thing that’s pretty nice about it, it’s really easy to get into. The boats are not that expensive,” Hodorek said of the ThunderCats, which allows boaters as young as 14 (co-drivers) and 16-17 (drivers) to compete.

“They have MC numbers, you can water-ski behind them, there are father-son teams, husband-wife teams, family-friend sport. It’s pretty easy to get into it.

“It’s a great intro into boat racing.”

ThunderCat racing actually got its start in South Africa, and Hodorek once had thoughts about trying his luck there.

But then he did a little research. And that was the end of that.

“I found out they had the largest great-white-shark concentration in the world,” Hodorek said, laughing. “I think I’ll stick to Lake Michigan.”

And keeping saps like me from going overboard.


When: Friday-Sunday

Where: Detroit River

Schedule (tentative): Friday — Unlimited qualifying, 5-7 p.m.; Saturday — Unlimited, Grand Prix and Formula 2 heats, noon-4:35 p.m.; Sunday — Unlimited, Grand Prix and Formula 2 heats, 9:35-11 a.m., 12:55-3:15 p.m.; Formula 2 final, 2-2:30 p.m.; Grand Prix final, 3:30-3:45 p.m.; Unlimited vintage, 3:45-4:10 p.m.; Unlimited final, 4:20-4:45 p.m.

Tickets: General seating, $25 for Saturday, $35 for Sunday; $50 for a weekend pass. Parking $25 daily at Muncey, $25 for Piston Park, $15 for remote. For additional details, call (313) 329-8047 or visit