The summer sounds of revving engines and old rock ‘n’ roll favorites will serve as a backdrop to barbecue grilling, people milling up and down the beach and family-friendly activities as the city of Walled Lake presents its fourth Walled Lake Thunder hydroplane race June 11-12 at E. V. Mercer Beach, which is expected to trump last year’s event.
As in-board hydroplanes torpedo across the lake topping out at speeds of 160 mph, bystanders can watch from the stands, bask on the beach and soak in the sun, or sip lemonade.
The outing promises to “Rock the Dock and Shake the Lake,” as the event’s theme implies.
“We have a small committee that oversees the race that came up with this catch phrase, which is a reflection of Bayside (Sports Grille) that sponsors the event,” said Bayside General Manager Todd Clickner.
For the last three years, in-board hydroplanes have been jetting across the lake and riveting crowds. This year will be no different.
“Every hydroplane in the U.S. will be putting their boats here in Michigan waters,” said Todd McQuade, owner of T & D Enterprises and the event’s co-chairman. “We have racers coming as far as Doha, Qatar and Australia.”
McQuade notes that “99.9 percent of the racers are repeat” contenders.
This year will be hydroplane owner Debbie Welte’s third run at the Walled Lake Thunder event. She took first-place in her class in 2008.
Welte, who resides in Heybron, Kent., a suburb just outside of Cincinnati, said one of the reasons she keeps coming back is the hospitality.
“Bayside shows the racers such hospitality, and I’ve made lots of friends — we’re like a huge extended family,” she said.
Welte’s 2.5-liter modified boat is painted in bold yellow and plum. It has been endearingly christened, “Geezerboat,” and was a parting gift from her brother, who passed away in 2007.
“He left it to me with a note to go out and race and have fun,” Welte said. “Little did I know I’d be racing five years later, which means I am having fun.”
Welte enlists the help of veteran racer Joe Sovie, who joins her from New York to operate her boat. Sovie wife, Val, and 5-year-old son, Aydan, will be jumping onboard for support.
“Joe is a racer, but wanted to help me out,” Welte said. “Besides, my boat is faster than his.”
While Welte has completed her dunk test and physical requirements to compete as a racer, she said at some point you have to hand over the wheel to the younger generation.
“If I was younger I might drive, but I’m older, wiser and more realistic,” she said.
The “Geezerboat” crew plans to enter a test race in Dayton, Ohio before competing at the first real race of the season, the Walled Lake Thunder event.
McQuade has coordinated and facilitated the Walled Lake Thunder race since its inception in one of the only historical lakefront communities in southeast Michigan. He is a member of both the American Power Boat Association (APBA) and Marine Prop Riders, and has lent his expertise to both the annual Quake on the Lake race held on Pontiac Lake and the Gold Cup, a Detroit River race.
“I act as the race chairman and organizer/promoter while my co-chair, Jim Sechler, is one of the technical inspectors and on the in-board APBA Race Commission,” McQuade said.
On average, 40 boats compete at the Walled Lake race, but the event keeps growing and attracting more racers every year.
“The event could possibly expand this year to 20 or 30 races, depending on how many boats show up. Over two days, there could be 70 races in all,” McQuade said.
As a lakefront property owner and Walled Lake City Council member, Casey Ambrose said he looks forward to the race each year. To celebrate it, he invites a slew of friends to join in the fun.
“I thoroughly enjoy the hydroplane races along with all my guests,” he said. “It’s a tremendous event for our area and brings a lot of people to Walled Lake who wouldn’t necessarily come to the lakefront.”
The Walled Lake Thunder race will feature seven different classes of in-board hydroplanes, which are classified according to length, size of engine, and type of engine. The watercraft vary from being powered by personal watercraft engines all the way up to V-8 Ford engines, and include: 1-liter stock; 1.5-liter stock; 2.5-liter stock; 2.5-liter modified; 5-liter; national modified; and grand national hydro classes.
This year there may be two Grand Prix boats appearing in an exhibition event, with the boats racing up to speeds of 200 mph, but that will be determined closer to the event date.
“The race is top notch,” Ambrose said. “Hopefully over time, we’ll have an event comparable to Quake on the Lake.”
The city of Walled Lake was required to obtain a state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) permit and pay out sanction fees to the APBA prior to finalizing race plans. Once it sailed past that obstacle, designs for the race course took a year of planning.
Pilots will tear across the 1-mile oval course. First-, second- and third-place victors will earn trophies or monetary prizes.
“The points are combined for qualifying and finals during both days over the weekend,” McQuade said.
Like last year, a grandstand will accommodate seating for 150 spectators during the event.
John Semma, owner of the Bayside Sports Grille, has ponied up $40,000 in event costs for prizes, cranes, equipment rentals, and insurance costs. This year Semma is trying to offset costs by offering advertising incentives.
“Hats off to Johnny (Semma) for pulling off this fantastic event,” Ambrose said.
“While we recoup costs through food and beverage sales, this year we are selling advertising through programs,” Clickner said.
While the two-day affair is a highly-attended event and attracts racing fans and boats from all over the country, weather is always a determining factor.
“We race in anything except thunder, lightning or high winds,” McQuade said.
Weather is also a telltale sign of how well the local businesses make out.
“Everything you do on the lake is contingent on the weather,” Clickner said. “That said, if the weather is good, we believe we’ll exceed last year’s event. We really marketed it this year, so we expect a better turnout.”
Clickner estimates the crowd exceeded 10,000 at last year’s race.
“The event brings notoriety to the Walled Lake area and helps the whole community — not just Bayside, but merchants like the bakery and wine store near us, for example,” Clickner explained. “The event helps to jump start businesses because the roads are closed and you have all that foot traffic that walks by various businesses.”
Bayside’s pair of patios overlook the blue waters of Walled Lake.
Spectator seating and viewing is free of charge, with food and drinks available for purchase at the viewing area or at Bayside. VIP seating is available at an additional cost (covered or open seating) on the Bayside deck.
Semma has also reserved a VIP tent with food and beverage options for anyone affiliated with the race.
About 16 vendor booths will line up along Walled Lake Drive with program sponsors to promote their goods and services. In addition there will be a throng of food stations with offerings such as lemonade, water, hot dogs, and cotton candy.
“Bayside is partnering with food venders that will set up these carts for pedestrians,” Clickner said.
Entertainment is lined up during both evenings.
On June 10, Under the Covers will begin performing renditions of songs from the 1990s up to contemporary tunes. Then on June 11, Boogie Dynamite takes to the stage and gets the crowd jamming with party hits. Both bands begin performing at 9:30 p.m.
Security will be provided by the Walled Lake Police Department, which will be assigning four officers to patrol the surrounding and event area.
“There will be uniform officers on foot and in the area along with the DNR helping with security on the lake,” said Walled Lake Police Chief Paul Shakinas.
Roads impacted by the event include east Walled Lake Drive from Leon to Liberty Street; Witherall from East Walled Lake Drive to Market; Ferland Street from East Walled Lake Drive to Market Street; and Market Street from Liberty to Witherall.
Walled Lake Drive from Liberty to Witherall, as well as Ferland and Market, will shut down at 2 a.m. on June 11. Barricades will be removed by 7 p.m. on June 12.
Witherall and Walled Lake Drive from Witherall to Leon Road, will close only during event hours.
Bayside will provide free valet parking in front of its parking lot at the business’ entrance off East Walled Lake Drive. The main parking lot will be partitioned off and reserved for mechanics to work on the boats.
“This year people can buy a $10 pit pass to see the different motors and talk to the drivers,” Clickner said.
Registration begins Friday, June 11 between 6 and 8 p.m. and again on Saturday, June 12 between 6 and 9 a.m. Boats will be launched around 10 a.m.