Roar of the powerboats coming to the Patapsco


July 19, 1998|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

Top-flight powerboat racing has been coming to Maryland for well over a decade, and this year the Chesapeake Bay Offshore Powerboat Race and Festival comes to Baltimore.

Next weekend, as many as 80 club and national-circuit racers will idle out of the pits at the Baltimore Marine Center and light up a tight, nine-mile oval on the Patapsco River between Lazaretto Point and Carroll Island.

"Coming to Baltimore is a big step up for us, absolutely," said John Wilmoth, race director of the Chesapeake Challenge Offshore Powerboat Race and Festival.

"This is a major metro area and will be a big change after 13 years at Sandy Point, Kent Narrows and the Bay Bridge Marina.

"For Baltimore, this really is a million-dollar event now, and in the years to come it will be a multimillion-dollar event."

Each year, the Chesapeake Challenge attracts many of the top national-circuit racers -- Alcone Motorsports, Drambuie on Ice and Reggie Fountain's team boats among them -- and Wilmoth said this year's field again is strong through all classes.

"We expect 65 to 80 racers overall, with 25 or maybe 30 top-notch club racers," said Wilmoth, who also is vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Power Boat Association, which is sponsoring the event.

"The others are the pure, professional racers from the national circuit."

Wilmoth said boats from as far west as California and from as far east as Bermuda will be part of the field that will compete in 10 classes.

The top boats in the Open Class produce more than 4,000 horsepower and reach speeds of up to 160 mph.

"The course is going to be interesting, although not especially hard to navigate," said Wilmoth, who originally wanted a course that included a turning mark inside the North West Harbor.

"But they do have to pass under Key Bridge and negotiate a tight turn at that end of the course, and that will require very good coordination between throttles and the driver.

"Then they hit the straightaway, should be going very fast and then have to take another tight turn near Lazaretto Point before heading up the other straightaway."

Races range from 40 miles for the smaller classes to 80 miles for the Open class.

Given the race speeds and the limitations of the Patapsco River, which often has heavy recreational boat and commercial traffic, the Coast Guard will implement special regulations for the race course and waters around it.

The course and a buffer zone will be closed to all but racing boats, support craft and patrol and rescue boats from at least 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

The Coast Guard also will restrict spectator boats to one of six anchorages to be marked by buoys before the start of racing. Operators of boats attempting to pass through the exclusion zone will be subject to arrest and a maximum fine of $25,000.

Chief Warrant Officer Ronald L. Houck, the marine events coordinator for Coast Guard Activities Baltimore, said last week that the special zone and anchorage areas have been set up to control recreational, spectator and commercial traffic for the safety of life and property during the powerboat event.

"Comparing this to the Whitbread, I think [the Chesapeake Challenge] would be less complicated because it's more of stationary event than the restart of the Whitbread and the duration is shorter than the finish window of the Whitbread," said Houck.

"You know exactly where and when these boats are going to be racing."

Race organizers said one of the fastest-growing racing classes is stock boats, which are identical to boats that can be bought from dealers except for special safety equipment.

"In these classes, it's almost like NASCAR, with groups of fans favoring Fords, Chevys or Pontiacs," Wilmoth said.

"But instead of cars, it's Wellcrafts, Fountains, Bahas and other performance boats -- boats you can race on Saturday and cruise on on Sunday."

The increased interest in stock classes, Wilmoth said, reflects a change in the fans who are attracted to powerboat racing.

"To some extent, there still is the image of the 60-year-old with the deep tan and the multiple gold chains around his neck and the 22-year-old, hard-bodied blonde beside him," Wilmoth said.

"But racing has become very much a family thing, and we want to make that kind of activity available here.

"Some of these events around the country cost $20 to get in. We're allowing people into the Baltimore Marine Center for $5 a head and children under 12 get in free.

"This is one of the least expensive events in this sport."

If you're going

What: Chesapeake Challenge Offshore Powerboat Race and Festival.

Where: Shoreside activities will be based at the Baltimore Marine Center at Lighthouse Point.

When: Racing days will be Saturday and Sunday, with racing scheduled to start at 1 p.m. each day on the Patapsco River between Lazaretto Point at Carroll Island. Friday will be set-up day.

Admission: Shoreside facilities: $5 per person; children under 12 free.

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