NORTH TONAWANDA – Hydroplanes, boats that float on a pocket of air, will be center stage – or more correctly center Niagara River – for the annual Thunder on the Niagara races from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and next Sunday off Gratwick-Riverside Park.
“It’s like riding a magic carpet,” said driver Ken Brodie II, of Grand Island, whose Grand Prix-class hydroplane, the fastest class in the race, reaches speeds up to 150 mph.
“People in the Tonawandas love their boat racing,” said Peter Hackett, race director for the Niagara Frontier Boat Racing Association. “It’s like a liquid fix. There’s no comparison.”
Nearly 90 boats, from as far as the Midwest and Florida and even Montreal, are expected to compete in the two-day event, which has a nearly 75-year history in the area.
Founded in 1939, the event started at the Buffalo Launch Club in the early 1940s and then held races off Niawanda and Isleview parks in the 1970s and 1980s, where it gained a following. In the past, races had been held in a number of area sites at one time but were consolidated due to expense and moved to Gratwick-Riverside Park in 2006.
The 2013 Thunder on the Niagara will also be partnering with the American Power Boat Racing Association and the American Canadian Hydroplane Association.
Hackett said that when the event first came to Gratwick, it was rainy, and there were about 40 boats and a couple of thousand spectators.
“Last year tens of thousands came out to watch,” Hackett said.
Hackett, of the City of Tonawanda, grew up in North Tonawanda, following both his grandfather and father into hydroplane racing. He said his great-grandfather Edwin “Pop” Schroeder had a shop on Oliver Street where everyone came to have their boats fixed.
Brodie, a second-generation racer, called it a “family sport,” with all his family in the pit crew. His 13-year-old daughter, Amanda, is waiting for her turn at the wheel – though she’s not quite up to dad’s level yet. She said she wants to race in the slower T-class, for ages 14 and up, as soon as she can.
“I’ll be 14 in October. I can’t wait,” Amanda said.
“It’s a nice course,” Brodie said. “It’s about a mile long, and there are no rock walls like in Niawanda and Isleview. Gratwick is the perfect setting.”
“We use the whole park,” said Hackett.
The park has been undergoing a $1.78 million restoration, with a new restaurant, Lumber Jacks Patio Grill, and an upgraded marina.
“Waterfront development is about bringing people to your waterfront and making it accessible,” said North Tonawanda Mayor Robert Ortt.
There are plenty of viewing sites for this free family event throughout the park, with a donation of $5 for on-site parking, which benefits the not-for-profit Twin City Community Outreach. The park will open at 8 a.m. on both days, with races beginning at 10. Those attending are asked to enter the park at Ward Road, off River Road.
Food vendors and crafters will also participate in the two-day event, with a breakfast offered Sunday morning.
Additional information is available on the website at www.thunderonniagara.com.