Detroit — The throngs used to number 400,000, and the city would close off Jefferson Avenue, much of the riverfront and bring the drivers and crews in with police escorts.
That was hydroplane racing in Detroit in the 1960s.
Motorsports enthusiasts and folks who just plain liked high-performance engines would come early, set up family picnics and stay for sporadic racing, maybe four or five events, all day.
The crowd estimates are about 12-18 percent of what they were decades ago.
Hydroplane racing has grappled with declining popularity for decades. Some involved in it reflexively recite the reasons, including the loss of the big roar from the old piston motors, not enough racing during long days on the water, too few boats competing and not enough competition among the boats that do race.
Hydroplane racing also faces new trends discouraging interest in other motorsports, including a generation less interested in automobiles and motors and increasingly short attention spans.
But race organizers, boat owners and drivers all say they have deployed some solutions.
“They’re not the crowds of our youth,” said Doug Bernstein, the president of H1 Unlimited Hydroplane Racing, the boat league. “But, if you go to Tri-Cities, Washington, it was a big crowd this year — 100,000, 110,000 — in an area with about 250,000 people.
“The quality of the racing is terrific. We’ve got some very competitive boats.
“We’d like more of them.”
Organizers also would like some American brand identification, and maybe bringing back some of the roar.
“There’s been discussions about teams coming within the next year with automotive power,” Bernstein said. “I’ll believe it when I see it, but it’s certainly out there and people are looking at it.”
Meanwhile, 60 years ago, hydroplane racing had a fairly lucrative, regional tour scheduled at several venues all around the Midwest. Some people think it can be done again in Canada, where the racing is somewhat more popular. Regardless, more racing at more venues is required.
“We would like more race sites,” said Bernstein, who pointed out a disadvantage of the sport that the organizers, let alone racing teams, do not own the venues, which are mostly public spots along the water.
“Hydroplane racing suffers the same challenges of any other motorsport. It’s expensive.”
Other than the money, on almost everyone’s list of reasons for the decline is “the roar.”
The sport is less popular because almost all of the World War II technology for motors, some from aircrafts like the Spitfire fighter and others from marine uses like the PT boats, have left the sport.
Gone with them is the ferociously reverberating growl that often seduced people already interested in motors and their maximum performance.
The turbines mostly purr, and they are not exactly cutting-edge technology either. It is Vietnam era helicopter equipment, hardly the sort of thing to make you put down your iPhone.
“In H1, like all motorsports, it’s a challenging time right now,” said Mark Weber, the 1997 national champion and Michigan native who is president of the race organizer Detroit Riverfront Events. “It’s time to look at the sport differently and I think H1 is doing that.
“They need to adapt to today’s fan, today’s customer and what they are looking for.”
One initiative is packing a race day full of events.
For the first time in the history of the sport, a second race is added this year. In addition to the Gold Cup on Sunday, the prestigious President’s Cup, usually awarded for hydroplane races on the Potomac River, will run Saturday.
It took an approval from the American Power Boat Association, based on no racing on the Potomac in this calendar year.
And it has attracted some good boats.
“There’s eight teams with eight boats here, and sure, maybe we’d want 10 teams,” Weber said. “You could always have more racing. But I don’t think the quantity is as important as the quality.”
Fans complained in some recent years when relatively small fields would race, with only one or two boats having any shot at winning.
“There is a very good field that is very close in speeds and when you add the river to this equation, in my opinion, any boat can win the race,” Weber said.
Dave Bartush, a veteran boat owner from Bloomfield Hills, is all in once again.
Bartush purchased the former Miss Budweiser five weeks ago, and intends to race this weekend in the boat that competed last year as the “U-7.”
He acknowledged the long difficulties of the sport, but said he remains confident in the future and hopes to approach H1 officials about more races in Canada, including just outside of Toronto.
“I think it’s kind of leveled off a little bit,” Bartush said of the decline. “I don’t see it increasing or getting better. But I think the new people in charge of H1, they’ve got a handle on it.”
While the sound the sport makes has made a critical difference, Bartush said, the turbines also drastically reduced the cost of racing.
But a Michigan driver racing this weekend is going to bring the noise, and he loves it.
Jimmy King, 56, of Wales, drives Go3 Racing, the only hydroplane left with an Allison V-12 piston power plant, designed and assembled to fly World War II fighters.
King and his boat will be the favorites of many fans, who take encouragement from a second-place finish at Tri-Cities earlier this summer.
“We’re the only piston-powered boat left in the fleet, and that’s probably been for 25 years now that Ed Cooper’s been the only one running with pistons,” King said of boat owner Ed Cooper Jr., of Evansville, Indiana.
It is a matter of financial resources, King said.
“I’ve listened to Ed answer the question thousands of times about why we’re the only ones running them,” King said. “And it’s because Ed owned the engines.
“So they’re the only ones we run!”
After a post-World War II stint in hydroplane racing, the engines are now used mostly in tractor pulls.
“But if you’ve got the talent on the team to make the things work, you can make just as much horsepower as any turbine can,” King said.
King is not sure how difficult it is to get parts “because I sit at the other end of the boat.”
“Ed’s got a pretty good stockpile of equipment,” King said. “As quickly as I can hurt them, he seems to be able to replace some of them and down the road we go.”
That is racing the way Detroiters once liked it, and some still do. The kind in which mechanics still wipe the grease from their hands as the race begins, after they have worked on motors loud enough to require ear plugs.
Rumble on the river
What: Metro Detroit Chevy Dealers Hydrofest
Where: Detroit River
Main event: APBA Unlimited Gold Cup final, 4:35 p.m. Sunday