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Through the Lens: Vintage Race Days

By Staff | Jun 19, 2019

Pictured is New Martinsville local Dave Bridgeman showing his skills on the river.

Last Saturday morning, the day opened with fair skies and gentle winds. The river conditions were ideal for boat racing on the Ohio River. A year of preparation looked to be paying off for all the hard work and effort the event committee had put into the Third Annual Vintage Hydroplane Regatta.

The pit area was filled with thirty-two boats of all shapes, sizes, and designated performance classes. Event workers were busy with preparation for the boats to be set into the water. Walking through the pits you could see familiar boat names like the Flying Tiger, Lil Leprechaun, Fools Gold, Screamin Meemie, and Gemini. The vintage boat enthusiasts were well represented in the long running New Martinsville hydroplane tradition. This year, two boats owned by New Martinsville drivers were among those waiting to show their skills on the river. Those boats were owned by Dave Bridgeman and Mitch Herrick.

The day’s event began with a tribute run remembering long time hydroplane owner and driver, John Kirschner. John, who loved to race for many years, recently passed away. His boat, Miss Supersonic was driven by his son, Scott Kirschner. Two other boats accompanied Miss Supersonic on an honor lap. The same course John had run many times in his career.

The events proceeded normally with several boat classes put on the water to run vintage heats. The boats may be retired from their racing careers, but it was at times hard to remember these boats were only running exhibition heats. The boat owners put on a display of racing skills and their boats performance capabilities. On one run, the announcer told the crowd the passing boat speed was checked at 103 miles per hour.

By afternoon, the incoming weather front from the west had begun to bring high winds to the 1 1/4 mile course. White caps on the river quickly began to take the water’s conditions from safe to dangerous. Two boats traveling at over eighty miles per hour experienced the rough water and were soon victims of the changing conditions. Each of the boats suffered severe damage to their hulls. The damage of two boats and increasing white capping conditions prompted the drivers and officials to delay the event for a time. Weather forecasts were favorable for the winds to settle down once the front passed.

Another New Martinsville resident, Mitch Herrick, competes in the vintage race.

In a little over an hour, the winds begun to settle and the river’s water smoothed out allowing the event to resume. The drivers and officials reopened the course. With the river re-opened, Dave Grandstaff and his pit team wasted no time in getting boats back into the water and the exhibition heats under way.

The rest of the afternoon was filled with the sights and sounds of hydroplanes once again on the Ohio River.

For those of us who grew up in New Martinsville, we understand that hydroplane racing is often at the mercy of the weather and river conditions. That suspicion proved to be true by Sunday morning. With a steadily falling rain and the possibility of thunderstorms, it was decided for safety reasons the day’s events would have to be cancelled.

The muddy process of moving boats and equipment from the pit site behind Dos Hermanos Restaurant was started early in deteriorating conditions. Penny Morris, chairman of the Vintage committee, expressed gratitude for all the boat owners and the many volunteers for their participation in the events of the weekend.

She went on to say the vintage committee was extremely thankful for the many sponsors who made the weekend event possible.

Finally she said, “We’ll be back next year bigger and better.”

When I think back to my youth I remember the long ago sounds of the engines echoing off the hills. Those echoes told me hydroplanes had once again returned. I would ride my bike three miles into town to find an opening in the fencing along the river. When I did, I would marvel at the sights of hydroplanes on the river. Back then my hair was bleached nearly white by the summer’s sun. That was nearly sixty years ago. Today, my hair needs no bleaching and climbing the hill behind the old yacht club is not as easy as it was back then. But, the sounds of the hydroplanes on the Ohio River still brings a thrill, as I remember the hay-days of New Martinsville’s boat racing, Through the lens.