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NORTH TONAWANDA – They’re loud and they’re fast, and that’s enough to keep fans coming back for Thunder on the Niagara hydroplane races.

The Niagara River event, which is free, will be held from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in Gratwick-Riverside Park.

The race has been growing in popularity for the past eight years, but it is a rich tradition that goes back nearly 75 years in Western New York.

“It’s been a tradition since 1939. If you remember the big-band leader Guy Lombardo, he was one of the biggest boat racers, back in the day at the Buffalo Launch Club,” said James Thiele, one of the race’s directors for the Niagara Frontier Boat Racing Association, which partners with the American Boat Racing Association and the Canadian Hydroplane Association to present the event.

“These days you can’t find too many places that you can come in for free, park on the water’s edge and enjoy the whole day at a beautiful venue with the race boats whizzing by and all kinds food,” Thiele said.

He said more vendors and crafters have stepped up to turn the race into a daylong event. New this year is a petting zoo, which is expected to appeal to children attending the family-friendly event.

But it is racing, however, and there are dangers involved. Those piloting the hydroplanes zip by at speeds approaching 150 mph in an event that is classified as premiere Grand Prix – one of six racing classes.

Thiele said the City of North Tonawanda’s underwater dive team received special training for Thunder on the Niagara. And with a majority of boat operators coming from French-speaking Quebec, an interpreter is being provided for the rescue boats as well, he said.

Race director and veteran hydroplane Grand Prix champion Michael Endres said he retired in 1990 after a storybook season but noted that the Grand Prix boat team he had been working with this year – setting up its engines – has already been scratched for the weekend race after a collision during training races two weeks ago sent their driver to the hospital.

Thiele said 20 years ago drivers may not have survived some of these crashes, but now they are encased in a special cell, and an F-16 canopy gives them 30 minutes of air if they are submerged. Drivers must also pass underwater training to escape the cells.

“The technology they have put into these machines is incredible,” said Thiele.

Endres said the typical Grand Prix boat costs $250,000, with additional costs for fuel, repairs, parts and transportation to events.

“It’s a pretty expensive thing, but the guys who race really get into that,” said Endres. “Like any kind of racing – sailboat, cars, go-karts – people race everything. They race trucks and airplanes. It’s just something about speed. I think that just attracts people – and the competitiveness. The excitement level is really there.”

Thiele said these races will appeal to anyone interested in speed.

“This is so unique. These are basically airplanes skipping across the top of the water,” said Thiele.

It is free to walk into the park but preferred parking is $10. Enter via Ward Road, off River Road.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com