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Hartford’s New Pro Sport

Next Weekend, The Grand Prix Hartford Brings Top-level Power Boat Racing To Downtown And The Connecticut River

September 14, 2006
By NATHAN CONZ, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

When the ChampBoat Series arrives on the Connecticut River next weekend for the Grand Prix Hartford, it’ll be the first major Formula One power boat race in the Northeast.

So to start off, since many fans may be watching the sport for the first time, I asked some ChampBoat experts to compare their racing sport to another that may be more familiar.

Michael Schriefer, president of the ChampBoat Series, called it Indy car racing on the water. Anthony Romano, president of the Grand Prix Hartford, compared it to NASCAR.

Now both those comparisons are fairly accurate. The boats are reminiscent of Indy cars built for water and the race-to-race points system will be familiar to those who follow the NASCAR season standings. However, the comparison that came to my mind — albeit only after watching race videos — was short track speed skating … on steroids.

It sounds ludicrous, I know, but hear me out. The awesome starts, the furious pace, the dangerously close racers, the short track — it’s all the same. Just replace speed skating’s surface (ice) with liquid water and its power source (disturbingly muscular thigh muscles and expensive skates) with 340-horsepower engines and you’ve got ChampBoats.

The Grand Prix Hartford will be held in the Connecticut River, near Charter Oak Landing, on September 23 and 24. Admission is free. Fans can watch from either side of the river. Romano suggests vantage points from Charter Oak Landing in Hartford and Great River Park in East Hartford.

On Saturday, a concert by Disney recording artist and actress Christy Carlson Romano, who also happens to be Anthony’s daughter, will perform in the park. (Your adolescent sons and daughters will know her as Ren Stevens, from the Disney Channel’s Even Stevens .) The ChampBoats will hold practice, time trials and qualifying heats.

The 50-lap ChampBoat final will begin around 2:30 on Sunday and should take between 40 minutes to an hour and a half to complete. It will be preceded by more live music. On both days, several other smaller events and activities should keep the family occupied for many hours.

The catalyst behind Hartford’s foray into top-level power boat racing, Romano says, was former racer Scott Deware. He first pointed out to Romano that the Connecticut River is ideal for ChampBoats.

“The natural topography of that river is perfect for running this kind of race,” Romano says.

The river’s width allows for a quality course that will run a half mile north from the Charter Oak Bridge. The calm waters will create ideal conditions for drivers. More importantly for spectators, the river’s banks are high enough to put fans above the action, providing protection and a good vantage point. Unlike many kinds of off-shore power boat races, fans should be able to watch boats race the entire course.

Schriefer calls it the “most perfect, natural marine stadium” on the ChampBoat circuit this year. He’s also optimistic that the race will be well attended. At some established races, crowds can grow to 40,000 to 50,000 people. He guesses (he stressed the word “guesses”) that a typical race audience is between 15,000 and 20,000. “I think we’re expecting that and more. That’s a great market up there. The Hartford market is starving for professional sport,” Schriefer says.

Unlike in NASCAR and Indy cars, which have rolling starts, ChampBoat races begin from a dead stop. At the drop of a flag, around 20 racers hit the gas at once, going from 0 to 100 in a few seconds, and head towards the first turn.

“When you’re running to the first corner, and through the first corner, you’re within inches of a bunch of boats,” says Tim Seebold, a driver currently ranked second in the ChampBoat Series points race. “When you get 20 boats taking off and heading down there, you’ve got the spray you have to contend with and it’s very tight. It’s hectic in the first corner for sure.”

Of course, it’s not just the start of a ChampBoat race that’s hectic. The boats can go up to about 140 miles per hour and a driver is constantly adjusting the boat’s trim (the angle of the propeller shaft and the motor to the back of the boat) to achieve an optimal angle between the boat and the water.

A very small part of a ChampBoat is actually touching the water. In a straightaway especially, a driver tries to almost “fly” the boat over the water.

“You’re flirting between being a boat and becoming an airplane,” says Terry Rinker, the only driver with more points than Seebold.

“That’s the trick in the rough water, to get that boat to fly over it. What you’re trying to do is pack as much air underneath the boat as you can, to get it up and accelerate,” Seebold says.

Schriefer says that ChampBoats are the fastest turning racing machines in the world. They’re light, they’re quick and they’re agile.

“Provided how rough the water is, you might not even get off the gas to go through the corner,” says Seebold.

Rinker estimates he experiences about 4 to 5 g’s in a turn (one “g” is the normal force of gravity on earth). “When you see them come in there, it’s almost amazing the boat can turn that hard,” he says.

And that seemed to be a recurring theme with everyone I spoke to: “when you see them.” Apparently, the starts, the turns and the speed of these boats has to be seen to be truly appreciated.

“Man, when you watch them you’ll see what I’m talking about,” Seebold told me.

So, I’m going to give it a shot this weekend. I’ll probably see how incredible these boats supposedly are and then I’ll probably head down to meet the drivers afterwards. Then I’ll apologize profusely for comparing them to short track speed skaters.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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