Boat racing returns to Grand Lake

Drivers bring their boats to shore after a marathon race at the Fireside 500 on Grand Lake Saturday.

PRESQUE ISLE — Before you could see them, you could hear them. The angry-bee hum grew louder as the historic Fireside Inn at Grand Lake grew closer, buzzing above the loudspeakered voice announcing the number of the racer in the lead.

A perfect spring-summer day added the final touch to a gathering of experienced speedsters and relaxed onlookers, assembled on the east side of Grand Lake Saturday and Sunday for a weekend of fast boats, spirited camaraderie, and hot dogs on the grill, just for the fun of it.

In years past, Grand Lake served as host to boat races in conjunction with the American Power Boat Association, but that tradition fell by the wayside. Now, the Presque Isle Yacht Club is bringing fast boats back to the lake.

The Top O’ Michigan Outboard Racing Club, which has been hosting marathon outboard races in northern Michigan for 71 years, paired with the Yacht Club to put on the Fireside 500 at Grand Lake, re-introducing the sport to a welcoming community.

The Fireside Inn and Grand Lake provide an excellent venue for racing, according to Race Director Tom Fairbairn. The turnout at Satuday’s races — about 400 people by noon Saturday, including about 65 race entries — was good for a first time back, Fairbairn said. Next year — and he hopes there will be a next year — the crowds should be even bigger and the race fields even fuller.

Campers and trailers in neat rows occupied much of Fireside’s lawn, most of them accompanied by pop-up canopies that provided a shady place for drivers to recover between races. Scented smoke from a large grill enticed onlookers and racers to stand in line for a hot dog. Children dug holes in a large sandbox while older adults sat in canvas chairs, watching small boats zip past in the summery blue water.

On land, the one-person, delicate-looking boats look like you’d drop two quarters in a slot for a shopping mall ride. On the water, though, they fly.

Drones hovered over the water to capture video as the boats flashed around the oval course at 60 miles per hour, slapping the water and leaving white excitement in their wake. Often, the boats left the water entirely, their noses pointed high as only their propellers made contact with the lake.

The drivers, perched on their knees and hunched low, keeping their weight as far back as possible, leaned into curves, gaining speed with skilful use of their bodies. Racing, at least at this level, isn’t something they get paid to do. They do it for fun, and for the thrill of speed.

Those who finish well can earn points that could bring them into higher-level circuits. A lot of young drivers who start racing locally in their teens move from a simple boat and trailer to “going all over the country driving boats with tops on them and all kinds of stuff,” said Dave Umbarger, commodore of Top O’ Michigan. “Who knows where they’ll end up.”

Others, Umbarger said, keep on racing at the local level whenever they can, coming back to the water summer after summer into their 60s and beyond, just because it’s fun.

Checkered black and white flags signaled the race’s end to the drivers, and a winner’s name was blared over the loudspeaker. The racers turned their boats toward the shore, where a line of people, outfitted in waders, shorts, dresses, splashed forward into the water to help the drivers tug their boats ashore or tie up to a handful of docks.

Looking crisp in their NASCAR-style racing gear, drivers shook off the sore muscles from the race. Marathon races, like the one held Saturday morning, require drivers to stay in a tense crouch for a half-hour at a time. There’s a little break until the next race.

Driver Hal LeDuc, 44, of White Lake has been racing competitively for eight years and driving since he was 12. His hand-built boat with gleaming wooden sides hasn’t placed first this go-round, but there are still several races left this weekend. Last year, LeDuc was the high points national champion for his class. Ranking at the top of the country for points earned in races, he still loves to race at the top of the mitten.

LeDuc spoke with affection of the national championship race held on Burt and Mullett lakes, which is considered the toughest outboard race in the world, drawing competitors from as far away as Ecuador.

“It’s a big deal,” LeDuc said. “It’s on everybody’s bucket list to race that race.”

Racers in the circuit travel as often as they can to races in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and even as far as Georgia every weekend they can, all for the love of the sport. The long winter months are spent waiting, preparing their boats and itching to get back on the water.

The return of races to Grand Lake opens the doors for people with a deep-seated love of the sport to enjoy the northeast corner of the state while doing something they love.

One driver, race director Fairbairn said, attended his son’s graduation Friday in Ypsilanti and then drove north at 4 a.m. to get to Grand Lake in time to race.

“That just tells you how bad they want to come up north. And they love it up here,” Fairbairn said. “It’s a beautiful place to be.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com.

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