Annual boat races return to Constantine
CONSTANTINE — A Father’s Day weekend tradition for the past several decades returned to Constantine this past weekend after a year off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Michigan Hydroplane Racing Association (MHRA) held their annual hydroplane boat races on the St. Joseph River at the Constantine American Legion Post 223 Saturday and Sunday.
Around 70 racers from a variety of states competed in a multitude of classes during the competition, one of the 12 stops on the MHRA’s schedule. A few dozen spectators also came out to watch the races throughout the weekend.
“We’ve got racers mainly from the Midwest, but also from some other states,” Laura Wheeler, Vice Commodore of the MHRA, said. “We’re running everything from our kids’ class, which can start at age 9, up until our fastest class, which is probably going at a top speed of under 90 miles per hour.”
Wheeler said it’s great to visit Constantine every year for the annual race, and said it was good to be back after a year off.
“It’s really great, and we’re really happy to be back,” Wheeler said. “We love working with the American Legion, and we’ve had a lot of really good sponsorship from places in Three Rivers and around the area. Coming out of the pandemic, it’s been tough for us and a lot of the businesses, and we’re grateful to have the support.”
Two different styles of boats were used during the competition. The first style is the “hydroplane,” which Wheeler said are flatter, faster and are designed to run on “a cushion of air.” The other style is a “runabout,” which Wheeler said are shaped more like a rowboat and are designed to “plow through the water.”
“We run the same engines on both boats, just in different classes,” Wheeler said. “Hydroplanes are going to race against other hydroplanes and runabouts are always going to race against other runabouts.”
The races have a unique structure to them. Each race has two heats, with the racer collecting the most points based on placing between the two heats winning the competition in that class. In the event of a tie, the fastest combined time between the two heats wins.
Wheeler said each race has up to 12 boats at a time, and begins with a two-minute “milling” period, where they drive around slowly around the mile-long course, and when there’s one minute left, a white flag goes up signaling as such. The goal of the milling period is for racers to time their approach so they cross the start line at full speed to start the three-lap heat as soon as the clock hits zero. If a racer crosses before the clock hits zero, they don’t receive any points and are disqualified for that particular heat.
Wheeler said there are different strategies that can be used in a race.
“It changes a little bit depending on how big the field is and what the driver’s personal preferences are,” Wheeler said. “Some drivers like to go to an inside lane on the start, and some drivers like to go outside. It’s up to the driver and their personal style, their rig, and what they feel is best for that set of competitors.”
One racer who competed in the weekend’s festivities is Carl Armstrong, who is also a firefighter for the Three Rivers Fire Department. Armstrong said he’s been racing hydroplane boats for the last six years, and says his uncle, Todd Armstrong, got him into the sport.
“I love the speed and racing, and I love the family aspect of the sport,” Armstrong said. “I just love this race, since it’s my home race. I have family here, it’s Father’s Day, and it’s really nice being close to home.”
Armstrong, as well as many of the racers who competed at the event, said the best part about the sport is the family atmosphere.
“It feels like one big family,” Armstrong said. “The racing family, they’ll do anything for you.”
“The fact is, going around a circle on the water is fun and whatnot, but it’s really hanging out with our friends that have now become family that makes it really important,” Ryan Burdick, a racer from Hampshire, Ill. who has competed in the Constantine race for 25 years, said.
“I love the competition, but more so than that I like the comradery,” Austin Vanover, a racer from Barria, Ky. who’s been competing for 22 years, said. “That’s why we do this, because we love all the people we come and hang out with.”
Wheeler thanked the Constantine American Legion for their hospitality and support throughout the event.
“We’re really grateful for the Legion’s support in this. We try and support them by buying breakfast and concessions there,” Wheeler said.
There will be more boat races to come at the American Legion in the coming weeks, including another club putting on a race this coming weekend, and the U.S. Title Series boat races July 23-25.
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or firstname.lastname@example.org.