Old Raceboats Readied for New Martinsville

On June 15-16, New Martinsville will once again hear the sound of vintage hydroplanes running on the waters of the Ohio River. For enthusiasts, who love the sight of a boat’s rooster tail shooting high into the air behind a speeding boat, the weekend event will once again fulfill that thrill.

As a boat comes up river, the unmistakable thunderous sound of its high performance engine will be heard echoing off the hills on both sides of the river. This tradition has been part of our community for many of the last 81 years. Spectators and fans will once again experience a great weekend of fun. Multiply that one-boat experience by the many boats anticipated to share the water and you have the reason why our venue is part of American hydroplane racing history.

For those who are unsure what designates that a hydroplane is classified as vintage, it is best explained by the simple fact that these boats were most likely built before the American Power Boat Association (APBA) mandated driver safety capsules due to increasing speeds. This change, along with other safety improvements, made it impossible for most older boats to meet this new requirement.

During the years after these changes, many top-of-the-line boats were unable to race. To upgrade and modify these boats to meet new safety standards was not feasible due to their original design. Overnight, these boats became relics of the past and many were moved into storage and even forgotten. These once-proud racing hydroplanes became no more than racing legends in dusty record books of the past. Forgotten and abandoned in some cases, they became victims to the destructive nature of neglect and time. Dampness, insects and dry rot claimed an unknown number of these once-proud racing boats.

In 1994, the APBA created a boat class for those who could not meet modern safety standards. It is known as the Vintage and Historic Division. It has both an eastern and western division. The eastern division will hold 11 events this year.

Creation of the vintage class was in response to people beginning to repair and restore these handcrafted boats and wanting official approval to return them to the water.

Most of these boats were carefully constructed from rare plywood. Repairing and finding replacement materials often proved hard to do. But the men and women who dedicated themselves to saving these classic boats never gave up their quest to bring back these racing legends. With a sanctioned APBA class, each year more boats are being retrieved from the depths of garages and returned to their once great racing luster.

Many of those boats will be in attendance in mid-June. Although vintage boats can no longer compete in racing events, spectators will still watch as these boats move over the water at full competition speeds. Whenever drivers find themselves on the water with other boats, it is hard to believe they will not try and show off their boats’ abilities when the green flag waves.

After the creation of a sanctioned division and boats being restored, what next? That’s where the vintage racing boat events began being scheduled. It was not that long ago that vintage boats were only invited to be on display for spectators to walk around and look at. But it did not take long for the next step in the evolution of vintage hydroplanes to take place: They were given the opportunity to return to the water and speed around the racing course at the end of a sanctioned racing event. Those vintage boats were very much enjoyed by spectators. Event organizers realized the nearly forgotten hydroplanes of yesterday could once again entertain racing enthusiasts.

With the 2019 racing season, vintage exhibition events are becoming more popular. We are lucky in this area that we are close enough for two local events. The first vintage program will be here in New Martinsville over the Father’s Day weekend in June. The next local event will be held at Heritage Port in Wheeling August 30 through September 1. The Wheeling event will be in its 14th year, while New Martinsville’s event will be in its third.

Local event organizers had to begin their work the day after last year’s event ended. Organizers wanting to keep the spectacle free to the public must depend on the generous help from sponsors to fund the program. They must also work to bring volunteers into the event to help with the many tasks to keep the event moving smoothly.

Last year, Dave Bridgeman purchased a vintage boat and joined a long list of community members who have owned or raced hydroplanes: “Doc” Joe Ballouz, Dave Kappel, Bob “Shot” Longwell, Jack Wolf, Tom Potts, Doug Clegg, John Postlewaite, Bob “Popcorn” Smith, Bud Smith and Tom Myslinski. Bud Smith and his hydroplane were national champions. This year, a new member has joined the vintage hydroplane community, Mitch Herrick.

Mitch recently realized a lifelong dream of owning and driving his own hydroplane. When I met with Mitch, I asked if this was something he had always wanted to do. He began by telling me that many years ago his Boy Scout troop was given the opportunity to work in the regatta pits, keeping the area clean. He remembers walking among the sleek powerful hydroplanes as he thought to himself that he wanted speed and racing to be part of his life. After many years, he has now successfully accomplished the trifecta of his passion for speed, racing motorcycles, dirt track cars and now a hydroplane. In a way, he joins the sights and sounds of those long ago hydroplanes he touched in his youth. Those past boats are part of our racing community’s history. After he passes the reviewing stands behind the old Yacht Club this June, Mitch’s boat’s rooster tail will initiate him in to the long tradition of racing drivers in our town’s hydroplane history.

Mitch’s hydroplane is the Flying Tiger F-726, a 5-Liter division boat with the hull originally built by John Gibbs in 1978. The boat holds the title of National Champion for 1981 and 1984 seasons. It also holds the distinction as being the National High Point Champion in 1984. When I asked Mitch the top speed of his boat, he explained it is near 130 mph. He then went on with a bit of an ornery grin, saying that he had not taken it that fast … yet. I believe Mitch will feel the surge of racing adrenaline as he presses the boats throttle towards the 130 mph mark as the checkered flag flies for him.

If, like Mitch, you have an interest in hydroplanes, then you will want to take part in the June 15-16th event behind the Dos Hermanos Restaurant, formally the old Magnolia Yacht Club on north Main Street in New Martinsville. The weekend’s event is free to the public. Visitors will also have the opportunity between exhibition runs to visit the pit area and talk with drivers about the history of their boat. I’ll hope to see you there as we watch Mitch and his Flying Tiger go for that top speed.

Clegg is a New Martinsville resident.

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