Powerboat Race Makes Splash

St. Clair River Classic Draws Large Crowds

By Stephen Tait, Times Herald

Article originally published in the Port Huron Times Herald on Monday, July 26, 2010

ST. CLAIR -- Dan Howard sat in a lawn chair several feet away from the St. Clair River on Sunday, binoculars in hand trying to catch glimpses of fast-moving powerboats.

Specifically, the 71-year-old New Baltimore man was looking for his son, Dean, who races powerboats. The race in St. Clair is one of the elder Howard's favorites to watch.

"It's one of the best races on the circuit," he said. "It's a huge adrenaline high. These guys really get at it."

Howard was one of tens of thousands of people who flocked to the west bank of the St. Clair River here to see about 50 boats compete in the St. Clair River Classic, a race put on by the Blue Water Offshore Racing Association.

Whatever their reasons for coming, downtown St. Clair was buzzing with activity Sunday. River Road in downtown was closed to vehicular traffic -- but heavy with pedestrians.

Children, senior citizens and everyone in between gathered at the event, either to grab food or to watch boats zoom up and down the waterway.

Phyllis and Jerry Basilico, both 67 and of China Township, brought lawn chairs down to a grassy area to watch the race. But once the boats starting navigating the choppy river, the chairs didn't get much use.

The two stood to see the boats, using binoculars to get better views. They praised the organizers for shortening the track so more of the race could be seen.

"I love the noise," Jerry said.

"And he want to be in one of the boats," Phyllis said with a laugh.

Like others, though, they said it was too nice of a day not to visit the river.

"It's a spectacular day," Phyllis said. "We have such a lovely river; you can't find a better place (to have a race) than this."

David Lufjens, 47, of New Haven brought his son Connor, 7, to the race and other family members. He said it is becoming a tradition.

"We are trying to make this a family (outing) here every year," he said.

The noise of boat engines and announcers over speakers drowned out much of the conversation along the water.

Steve Brunner, president of Blue Water Offshore Racing Association, said he didn't have an estimate of people but said "this is as good of a crowd as we've seen down here."

Jeff Bohm, a trustee of the race board, said he estimated 35,000 to 40,000 people visited on Sunday alone. He said since Friday, the boat races and the St. Clair Riverfest -- two events in one -- attracted 100,000 to 125,000.

People were found in nearly every inch of space in Palmer Park.

"It's jammed packed down there," he said of the river bank. "It's a zoo."

Behind the spectators were dozens of vendors, selling everything from gyros and hot dogs to sunglasses and T-shirts to beer and root beer.

Fred Laine, 71, of St. Clair Shores walked among the people sipping from a cup of Coors Light. He said he's been a spectator of boat races for years.

"It's just nice out here," he said. "It is safe. It's about everything (not just the races). It's just a good time."

Bob and Sally Thiel of Cleveland traveled to St. Clair on Friday to stay for the weekend of festivities. Bob Thiel, 73, said he raced for years and comes to such events to watch the races.

"I come up to see old friends and enjoy the camaraderie and enjoy the races," he said.

"And as you can see," he said, patting his belly, "I enjoy eating.

"We just love coming up here."

Local businesses also seemed to enjoy the festivities. At Sue's Coffee Shop on River Road, workers said they've held longer hours to accommodate event goers.

"We've been pretty busy," Kelsey Stone, 17, said.

Not everyone ventured down to the waterfront Sunday. But that doesn't mean they didn't enjoy the event.

Bill and Liz Vorhoff said in chairs in the front lawn of their home on Third Street, where parking spots were at a premium.

"What else can we do but watch traffic," Bill, 45, said.

"I'm in heaven," Liz, 33, added. "I love people watching."

Contact Stephen Tait at (810) 989-6275 or at stait@gannett.com.

START YOUR ENGINES: Class 5 boats are followed by a helicopter over the starting line Sunday afternoon in the St. Clair River off Palmer Park in St. Clair during the St. Clair River Classic boat race, which drew tens of thousands of spectators. (Times Herald photos by WENDY TORELLO)
BIG CROWD: Large crowds of visitors walk Main Street on Sunday afternoon during the St. Clair River Classic boat race. Attendance on Sunday was estimated between 35,000 and 40,000 people.
AND THEY'RE OFF: Class 4 boats take off from the starting line Sunday afternoon in the St. Clair River off Palmer Park in St. Clair during the St. Clair River Classic boat race. (By WENDY TORELLO, Times Herald)

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