Detroit — Just minutes after history was unofficially made on the Detroit River on Sunday evening, it was officially undone.
New Zealand hydroplane racer Ken Lupton became just the second non-North American to win the Spirit of Detroit Hydrofest’s main event in its 103-year history when his bright yellow Miss New Zealand 2 crossed the finish line.
But Bert Henderson knew. It was radioed into his headset sometime during the second lap: Lupton and Ken Brodie, the race’s second-place finisher, jumped the gun and would be disqualified regardless of finish. Henderson just needed to stay put in third to bring home the President’s Cup.
“I knew it was between Mike Monahan and I,” Henderson said. “They radioed that Ken and Ken both jumped and it was a matter of survival of the fittest. It was rough out there.”
Henderson did keep pace in third, and within a few minutes of the race ending, an official announcement came over the public address system. Lupton's and Brodie's disqualifications made him the President's Cup winner.
To a certain degree, Henderson’s victory in the Grand Prix final was more unlikely than a New Zealander claiming first in an event historically dominated by North Americans. When he arrived for Saturday morning testing, the engine blew on his boat, Renegade, leaving him without a hydroplane before the first checkered flag of the weekend was waved.
Family matters didn’t allow H8 Cancer Racing’s Brandon Kennedy to attend this weekend’s event, and the crew’s fill-in driver, Marc Theoret, suffered a back injury during Saturday’s heats. Left without a driver for Survivor, H8 Cancer called on the unoccupied Henderson to step up.
“It was an honor to race for such a great racing team,” Henderson said. “These guys work their butts off, so this is for them.”
There was still history made, at least personally, for Henderson. It was the 47-year-old Ontario native’s first victory in a winner-take-all final in Detroit, a notoriously difficult racecourse that he’s become all too familiar with over a 24-year career. To sweeten the pot, his whole family was waiting when he reached the dock.
“It’s such a family sport,” Henderson said. “To win in Detroit … this is awesome.”
Walled Lake resident Andrew Tate did not compete in Sunday’s Grand Prix events because of a blown engine in the second section of heats.
He did, however, compete in the H350-class finals — a series he dominated all weekend, winning both heats on Saturday and finishing second in the class’ final preliminary heat on Sunday. In the final, it was more of the same: Tate came around the first corner with a lead that would never really be in jeopardy over the next 3.5 laps.
“We knew we had to get to the first turn first,” Tate said. “If not first, then right there with them. We nailed the start in Lane 1, and with the big first turn here, it’s definitely hard to get around people.”
As midday turned into the afternoon, the conditions of an already notoriously unpredictable Detroit River worsened. For an experienced racer like Tate, though, who won the 2018 Gold Cup in Detroit last year, knowing how to anticipate the unexpected proved to be an advantage.
“It never fails, Sunday afternoon in Detroit, the wind comes and makes it interesting for everyone,” Tate said. “The water conditions were in our favor, (because) we had a good start.”
Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.