Powerboat racers rev up in harbor Speed: Organizers of this weekend's marine festival and big-league competition hope 10,000 spectators will turn out.


Want to see something faster than the weekend warriors doing 80 in their pick-ups on the Key Bridge?

Look under the bridge.

In what organizers called a first, the American Power Boat Association -- the sport's major league -- comes to Baltimore's harbor this weekend, filling the peaceful Patapsco with roaring racers and raising a tide of hopes for Charm City's boating future.

The race, part of a festival at the Baltimore Marine Center in Canton, is expected to draw 10,000 speed lovers.

After opening ceremonies today, more than 80 boats, in 10 classes, will compete tomorrow and Sunday afternoon, and none will obey the harbor's usual sedate speed limits.

Organizers of the race, one of nine stops on the APBA's most prestigious tour, predict top speeds will reach 130 mph. But the scuttlebutt among racers in the top class yesterday was that if the water is smooth, the 3-week-old world record of 154 mph could fall.

If those speeds attract big crowds, the contest could become a catalyst for turning Baltimore into a mecca for water racing, organizers say.

"Look around. This place is already starting to look like Florida," said assistant race director Thom Baum, as the marina filled with brightly colored, 45-foot-long racing boats. "If this is a success, I think people will look at Baltimore in a whole new way."

Of course, the story behind this weekend's race highlights the many difficulties of putting on such an event in Baltimore's notoriously narrow harbor.

The Maryland Port Administration gave only reluctant support to the race, which will restrict commercial shipping traffic for six hours this weekend.

And the prospect of a powerboat race in the harbor so unnerved Coast Guard officials that they balked at permitting the race until just three weeks ago.

But organizers agreed to shift the racing course farther south, away from Canton and Fort McHenry, where, the Coast Guard worried, an out-of-control boat might endanger piers and people.

In recent weeks, growing cooperation between organizers and local authorities has inspired dreams of future races.

The local sponsor, the Chesapeake Bay Power Boat Association, has signed a five-year contract with the Baltimore Marine Center to keep the race here.

And John Smith, a partner in the marine center, says he wants to create an entire week of on-and-off-water races next year leading up to the powerboat race.

Baltimore could become a potential host for the world championship, a mammoth boat rally that each fall draws more than 100 racers from North America, Saudi Arabia and Europe.

"A couple of weeks ago, it was looking very iffy if this race would happen," said Gene Whipp, chairman of the American Power Boat Association's Baja National Offshore Series. "But now I can see all kinds of races taking place here, from sailboats to hydroplanes, even radio-controlled boats."

The powerboat race is not the first effort to bring a sporting event associated with the tropics to Baltimore. Two years ago, 1,500 tons of sand was trucked to a parking lot on Key Highway so the U.S. Olympic beach volleyball trials could be played.

But while that event had a once-in-a-lifetime feel, the powerboat race offers a chance for permanent change. This weekend's contest marries an East Baltimore marina desperate to create boat traffic and interest in Canton with a little-known sport eager for greater visibility.

For 12 years, the Chesapeake Power Boat Association has been the host of a stop on the APBA tour -- the oldest and richest of three U.S. powerboat sanctioning organizations -- near the Bay Bridge. But its distance from major population centers made it difficult to retain a major sponsor.

Enter the marine center. Its owners, including Smith and Selvin Passen, a Canton physician and developer, loved the idea of relocating the race when it was raised last year.

After all, the APBA's most recent race in Sarasota, Fla., had an economic impact of $12 million, Sarasota officials said. And Passen and his partners had been looking for ways to point the boating world's spotlight on their recently redeveloped nautical mall on Boston Street.

Baltimore Marine Center will foot much of the $250,000 cost of the race, with help from sponsors including Coca-Cola, the Maryland Lottery and Cancun Cantina.

Events begin at noon today in the Inner Harbor with the ceremonial blessing of the fleet by the Rev. Gordon D. Bennett, auxiliary bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore.

The marine center opens at 3 p.m. for the weekend-long public festival, including boat viewings, food and music.

Racing begins at 1 p.m. tomorrow on the five-mile oval course, from Lazaretto Point in the northwest, south to the Key Bridge. There is space for 3,000 spectator boats, and the racing boats will be visible from Fort McHenry to Fort Carroll.

The first racers arrived yesterday, along with colorful boats, reminiscent of a "Miami Vice" episode, and helicopters, which carry the safety crews that rescue injured racers after accidents. (Participants typically compare the rules and safety of the powerboat circuit to stock car racing.)

A sport for the rich, powerboat racing can cost a team $250,000 for a fiberglass boat hull. The $7,500 top prize for winning the open class -- the most prestigious division -- barely covers the hotel costs for boat crews.

Powerboat racing is trying to shake a beer-and-bikinis reputation, and even organizers concede that there are groupies. But many of the boat crews consist of relatives and friends -- most of them from Florida -- who have been part of the sport for years and look upon race weekends as extended, if competitive, family reunions.

"We do this for the love of the sport," says John Wakefield, a crew member on the world-record-holding Drambuie on Ice boat. His father will man the boat's throttle Sunday.

Among the crews yesterday, there was already some grumbling about the harbor's narrow course.

"There aren't many turns, so it won't be real challenging," said Steve Smith, the Alcone Motorsports crew chief.

"But it will be real fast."

Pub Date: 7/24/98

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