Friday, July 22, 2011

Unlimited Hydroplane Racing on the East Coast: Remembering the past, hopes for the future.

Barring any surprise announcements, the Eastern United States swing of the 2011 H1 Unlimited season has concluded.  For this post I’m going to look at some of the races that have taken place on the East Coast throughout the years.  The focus will be not on the traditional “Eastern Tour” stops of Madison, Detroit, and Evansville but instead races that have taken place in the northeast and on the Eastern Seaboard.  As a region it is the one large and vastly populated area of the country without an Unlimited race (with the exception of the South, which I will discuss in a post at a later date) on the tour and it hasn’t had one since 1999.  So what I’m going to do is review the race site on the East Coast throughout the years from the early 1950’s until the present, and my take on how likely the Unlimited Hydroplanes are to return to this site.  Also, I’m going to throw in a few cities I can see as potential hosts of an Unlimited Hydroplane race.  Starting with the most recent first:

Norfolk, Virginia:
A race that was run from 1997-1999 on the base of the US Navy’s Atlantic fleet, the Norfolk race was essentially the sister race to the Honolulu race that was also run on a Navy base.  Both the Norfolk and Honolulu races were made possible by the US Department of Defense’s efforts to provide entertainment for soldiers and sailors although both races were open to the public as well.  The race seemed to always have a rough go of it.  First, the inaugural event in 1997 had to be postponed from May until July due to high winds.  The race course was situated in an area where the beach came to a point, which left few good viewing areas and also provided some confusion for the drivers.  In 1998 only six boats decided to come to Norfolk for the race rather than race in Norfolk then make a cross country trek for the Tri-Cities race the following weekend.  Despite all of this, organizers reported large crowds for all three years.  Defense budget cuts meant an end to many events intended for the entertainment of active duty personnel, and both the Norfolk and Honolulu races were off the schedule after 1999.
Chances of it coming back: Unlikely.  Since the race was on a Naval Base and was funded with the Defense budget, spending tax money on an Unlimited Hydroplane race would come under intense scrutiny with how hot-button the issue of the budget is right now.  Its best chance at a revival would probably be a local organizer looking for an event that would bring more people and tourism money into the Norfolk-Virginia Beach region, but I’m not sure if there would be a feasible site outside of the Naval base.
Syracuse, New York
            The Finger Lakes of Upstate New York actually hosted races at three different sites in the 1980’s, with a race in Geneva in 1982, Romulus in 1983, and Syracuse from 1984-1990.  Long Branch Park provided a great setting for a hydroplane race, but the race always seemed to have bad luck.  The 1987 race was plagued with weather issues and had to be declared no contest.   In 1989 there were more high winds and the Mr. Pringles and Miss Circus Circus both had spectacular blowovers.  Despite the bad luck, the race had pretty decent crowds and boat totals all seven years of the event.
Chances of it coming back: Probably better than anywhere else in the Eastern United States.  The Upstate New York/lower Ontario and Quebec region is a hotbed for limited Hydroplane racing and Syracuse has hosted a number of hydroplane races through the years (although the GP’s had their own horrific accident in Syracuse in 2009).  The fans are there, the venue is there, it’s just a question of if the people, effort, and money are there to stage an Unlimited event.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
                The second largest city on the Eastern Seaboard barely makes the list of former venues of Unlimited Hydroplane racing.  Only one race was ever run there, and it was declared a no contest.    In 1986 only six boats came to Philadelphia for a race that was ultimately cancelled due to high winds, although there were two exhibition heats between the three turbine boats and the three piston boats that showed up.  According to an Unlimited News Journal account of the race, an estimated crowd of between 50,000 and 200,000 showed up for the event (how can an estimate be so vague?) and were enthusiastic, but high winds forced a cancellation of the race.  The article also mentions that the intention was to have the Unlimiteds return in 1987, but apparently discouraged by the low boat count and cancelled event no return engagement was ever scheduled.
Chances of it coming back:  Less likely than I would like to believe.  First off, I’m a Philadelphia resident.  I’m a native of Madison, Indiana but I moved to Philadelphia a few years ago and live in Philly most of the year.  Naturally I would love to see an Unlimited race in my adopted hometown to go along with the race in the place I grew up in.  So smoke is in my eyes a little bit on this topic.  With that said, Philadelphia would be a great venue, but it would take some work.  The Delaware River is very wide in Philadelphia, but also very rough much of the time.  The banks of the river on both sides provide lots of room for spectators, but getting permits for such an event would prove difficult since there is a lot of barge and oceanliner traffic in Philadelphia.  According to the UNJ article on the 1986 Philadelphia race the pits were across the river in Camden.  If that’s the case then any kind of return engagement would require 24 hour security to ensure that none of the boats or equipment are vandalized or stolen (if you’ve been to Camden you’d understand why).  Finally, there is no way to tell how excited people in the Philadelphia area would be about an Unlimited Hydroplane race.  It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle sports-wise when the city has four major sports teams, six NCAA Division I teams, a great high school basketball tradition, and a number of minor league baseball and hockey teams close by.  There isn’t much interest in terms of motorsports, but it’s possible that what motorsports there are would flock to a major event in the area since they are usually few and far between.  So while I would love for an Unlimited race to come to Philadelphia, I realize it will take a lot of work.  Maybe I should get to work….
Washington, DC
                For many years the President’s Cup Race was second only to the Gold Cup in terms of prestige. The first race was in 1926 and held nearly every year until 1977.  Up to that point, Washington, DC was, along with Detroit,  Madison, Seattle, and (from 1966 on) Tri-Cities as the stops on the Unlimited tour that were always on the schedule.  There were, of course, struggles along the way.  This was the site of the infamous “black Sunday” where three Unlimited drivers lost their lives in 1966.  The race wasn’t held in 1967 but returned in 1968, although many longtime fans will say the race was never the same.  After 1977 the race was off the schedule and this time for good.
Chances of it coming back: Good.  There have been many efforts to bring the classic race back over the years by a number of people.  Ken Muskatel was spearheading an effort for a number of years, but I haven’t seen or heard much about that the last few years.  The biggest obstacle seems to be getting the proper permits and river time for the event, which undoubtedly has to be quite a task in the District of Columbia.  There is lots of tradition here, though, and any event in Washington, DC is almost guaranteed to draw a huge crowd.  With so many efforts going into bringing a race to Washington, DC, it would seem to be a matter of time until one of those efforts is successful.
Buffalo, New York
The Buffalo Launch Club, much like their counterparts in the Detroit Yacht Club, sponsored an Unlimited Hydroplane race through much of the 1950’s up until 1960.  There was even a boat known as the Miss Buffalo that was driven in Bob Schroeder and showed up to a handful of races in 1959 and 1960.
Chances of it coming back: Difficult, but possible.  Buffalo is right in the middle of the limited hydroplane hotbed that is the Great Lakes region.  I am not sure if the Niagara River course would be wide enough for a modern Unlimited race, but it seems possible.  The biggest question would seem to be the city’s interest and getting the proper permits.  I wonder if it will be a situation similar to the 2004 St. Clair race when permits proved difficult to obtain and the hydroplanes had to yield the course to passing oceanliners, who would often turn the course until a rough and almost undriveable mess.  All of this is speculation on my part, though.  With the recent struggles of the Bills and Sabers, Buffalo sports fans might want something else to stir up civic pride.  Also, the Buffalo Launch Club’s website even to this day still makes a mention of the fact that it once hosted a hydroplane race more than fifty years after the fact.  Maybe they’ll want to do so again?
Red Bank, New Jersey
                The National Sweepstakes Regatta was one of the most prestigious annual powerboat races in the years preceding World War II.  In those years only the Gold Cup, President’s Cup, and Harmsworth Trophy garnered more media attention, and indeed in 1946 the major races that took place were the Gold Cup in Detroit, the President’s Cup in Washington DC, and the National Sweepstakes Regatta in Red Bank, NJ.  In those haphazard post World War II days of Unlimited Hydroplane racing, Red Bank actually hosted two concurrent races, the National Sweepstakes Regatta and the Red Bank Gold Cup, with the same boats often competing in both races (My Sweetie won both races in 1949, a limited boat known as You All did the same in 1952).  The short, narrow course, however, was a bit of a safety concern for the newer Unlimited Hydroplanes of the time and many boats began skipping Red Bank altogether.  From 1950-1953, the High Point champion skipped the Red Bank race that was experiencing an ever-dwindling number of boats showing up for the event.  Finally in 1954, according to a National Sweepstakes program that has been reprinted on a vintage hydroplane website, the Unlimiteds had to be omitted “due to course facilities and safety measures.”  A limited hydroplane race was held for a number of years in Red Bank, but apparently that’s fizzled out as well.
Chances of it coming back: Unlikely.  If the Navesnik River Course was too small for an Unlimited Hydroplane race in the early 1950’s then the same is probably true today (although races have been tried on short tracks before, with mixed results).  Red Bank is a small community, actually smaller than Madison, although it is possible to get there from New York and Philadelphia by train.  Although Red Bank has a rich racing tradition, it’s been so many years ago by now there are probably very few people living in the small community who remember it.  The current political situation in New Jersey is a mess, OK the political situation in New Jersey is ALWAYS a mess so financing an Unlimited Hydroplane event could prove tough.  The best chance here would seem to be an outside group heavy on the nostalgia looking to revive the classic race that finds a group in Red Bank looking to increase tourism.  With the recent decline in tourism on the Jersey shore, such an effort could be successful, but a lot of things would have to fall into place.
Baltimore, Maryland: Baltimore hosted an Unlimited race for two years known as the Star Spangled Banner Regatta in 1949 and 1950.  Only three Unlimited boats showed up both years to race on the small Patapsco River course where the drivers also had to contend with a low-lying bridge.
Chances of it coming back: Better than you would think.  Baltimore’s inner harbor has undergone a tremendous revitalization over the last decade or so, hosting a number of largely attended events regular basis.  Included in these events is an upcoming IndyCar race around the streets of the inner harbor and around Camden Yards that is creating a lot of buzz in the area, so the appeal for a motorsports event is there.  A race course could easily be laid out in this area and have some great spectator viewing areas.  All of this, along with the fact that Baltimore is a short drive or train ride away from Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and New York City, means that Baltimore could be an ideal location for an Unlimited Hydroplane race.  There’s no real way to gauge local interest in such an event, but with so many festivals and activities happening in the inner harbor, talking to the right organizer could mean that race could be quickly staged there.

I used 1950 as a cutoff point due to the haphazard nature of Unlimited Hydroplane racing in the 1940’s.  There were a number of official races on the East Coast during this period, but usually with very low boat counts and sometimes even on the same date as an official race elsewhere.  For this reason I also omitted Cambridge, Maryland, a race site that staged a race in 1949 and 1950 but didn’t have an Unlimited Hydroplane attend either event.  I also left off the 1950 races at New York and Ocean City, New Jersey because those races were more in line with the offshore tradition, especially the New York race where the boats raced around Manhattan Island.
Some other potential Race Sites
Albany, New York: The Hudson River would provide an ideal race course for this city that is largely becoming a bedroom community.  Albany, once a thriving sports community with a number of lower level sports teams, now only has a minor league hockey team and a short season A baseball team in nearby Troy, New York.  This is a city that clearly needs some kind of event to draw people to the area, so why not an Unlimited Hydroplane race?  Permits would be tough to get for the Hudson River, but certainly a lot easier than they would be for New York City.  An Unlimited Hydroplane race could likely wake up a sleeping city.

Boston, Massachusetts: Like Baltimore, Boston has a harbor that could potentially host an Unlimited race. If the harbor is unavailable then there could possibly be a race at the Charles River.  As would be the case with any race in a big city, getting permits would be very difficult.  Also, although Boston is one of the greatest sports towns in the United States, an Unlimited Hydroplane race runs the risk of getting lost in the shuffle in a city with a huge number of distractions when it comes to sports.  And finally it should be mentioned that “regatta” in this part of the country usually means rowing competitions involving prestigious prep schools or Universities.   With that said, at the very least the Boston Harbor would be ideal for a race and having an event in a major media market would provide an uptick in attention for the sport.
Delaware (Wilmington or Dover): Dover, Delaware could make a claim as the “racing capitol of the East,” with its horse racing and speedway.  Dover’s “Monster Mile” is the only NASCAR stop on the Eastern seaboard and along with Loudon and Watkins Glen one of only three NASCAR tracks in the entire northeast.  As a result of this, the NASCAR race in Dover draws fans from all around the Eastern Seaboard.   So racing fans are used to coming to Dover, there is only one problem when it comes to possibly hosting an Unlimited Hydroplane race: no good venue.  There is the Silver Lake, but I’m not sure if that would be big or deep enough to host an Unlimited Hydroplane race.  Perhaps organizers could have more luck in Wilmington, which is situated on the Delaware River and, like Albany, could use such an event to draw people to a city that is largely a bedroom community.  So there would need to be some work to be done to bring a race to Delaware, but the fans would be there.

So there’s a recap of ten potential sites, seven former and three possible future, on the East Coast.  One thing that sticks out is that nearly all of the East Coast races had a problem of low boat counts, as many West Coast boats didn’t wish to make the long trek east.  That issue could be easily fixed by assuring that any potential East Coast race happens early in the season along with the other eastern races.  Even if that doesn’t happen, more than likely boat counts will be up now since the teams have the added bonus of racing for a potential spot in the Qatar race.  Finally, although I’ve discussed ten race sites I don’t expect there to be a race at all ten of them.  In all honesty, I would be happy for a race at only one or two of these sites and think that would be a huge help for the Unlimiteds.  I just hope there is one, since I’m now an East Coast resident and would like to have a nearby race to attend.  Since H1 hopes to expand internationally, having only one or two races on the East Coast would be about all that would be needed, but it would still be a big help to the sport.

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