When Pete Hackett gets behind the wheel of his boat on the Niagara River this weekend, he’s planning on cranking up the speed.
He’ll hit 85 mph at top speed and maneuver his way through other boats, all while trying to keep himself upright. There will be dozens of others doing the same exact thing, and some of them will be blistering through the water at speeds up to 135 mph.
And all of this is happening in your backyard.
On Saturday and Sunday at Gratwick Park, the 10th Thunder on the Niagara race series takes to the water showcasing the world’s best hydroplaning boat racers. The North American Championship will be on the line as racers entertain an estimated crowd of up to 10,000 people.
Hydroplane boat racing is almost identical to its land-based counterpart.
“It’s like stock car racing except it’s on the water. So with the speeds it seems like [the boats are] faster,” said Hackett, a racer and the event’s director. “The water changes all the time, so you’re always fighting it. We’re never able to go fast enough it seems. I’ll be going 85 miles an hour but want to hit 86.”
Anything can happen on the racing surface. Racers are pushing their boats to extremes and a little contact is to be expected. Danger looms in every moment of a race.
Last year, Hackett watched as a racer flipped his boat on the water. Stuck underneath the floating obstruction, he started to breath in water before eventually breaking free and getting airlifted by bucket out of the water.
Racers try to win at all costs.
“Guys will be overzealous and try to put a boat over top of another boat,” Hackett said. “I’ve seen people go over the top of each other and slide into each other. The water is not forgiving. Everybody thinks it’s soft and it’s water, well it’s hard and very painful. When you’re sliding there’s nothing to grab ahold of, you just slide into the other guy.”
Joe Hess will compete this weekend and has been around boat racing his entire life. He’s a third-generation racer and traces his family’s racing credentials all the way back to the 1930s.
Local racers always feel a little extra pressure at the North Tonawanda event. Hackett is a North Tonawanda graduate, Hess attended Grand Island, and both will compete in front of family and friends this weekend.
Hess said it’s hard to explain what it feels like to handle a hydroplane boat.
“There are a lot of nerves until you hit the start button, and that calms you down,” He said. “It’s not the smoothest ride; it’s a lot of bouncing around. It doesn’t equate to anything besides boats, if you haven’t been in one you really aren’t going to know the feeling.”
The gameplan for most racers is built on turn one. The person who takes hold of lane one after the first turn usually goes on to win, according to Hackett. Many who attend the event camp out overnight on Friday to try and get the best seats near the pits, where they’re able to see boats peel toward the finish line. Others set up near turn one to witness the mad dash at the start of the race. Hackett said the sheer physics of a race are amazing to witness in person.
“We’re flying these boats. It gets a foot off the water and runs wide open at 125 or 135 miles per hour,” Hackett said. “You have to be a pilot.”
Contact Sports Editor Matt Parrino at 693-1000 ext. 4117.