The growls of revving engines, rock ‘n’ roll and summertime blues will again ripple through the air at the 5th annual Walled Lake Thunder hydroplane race on Walled Lake on Saturday, June 9 and Sunday, June 10.
People may come for the race at E. V. Mercer Beach, but they stay for the ambiance: The aromas of steaks and burgers sizzling on the grill, cold beverages with little umbrellas, and crowds of people milling up and down the beach chatting with friends and laughing the day away.
As in-board hydroplanes torpedo across the lake topping out at 160 mph, bystanders watch wide-eyed from the grandstands, bask on the beach or soak up the sun.
Bayside Sports Grille owner John Semma sponsors the event every year and antes up over $40,000 to put on the race. His monetary backing helps pay for prizes, cranes, equipment rentals and insurance costs.
“John is really behind this project,” said Todd Clickner, the general manager of Bayside. “It takes a lot of financial commitment, as well as time and effort, to coordinate this event every year.”
A nine-member ad hoc committee is annually formed to oversee the race and hash out all the details.
“We plan out different responsibilities over the course of the weekend,” Clickner said.
For the past four years, in-board hydroplanes have been jetting across the city of Walled Lake’s namesake and riveting crowds. This year will be no exception.
“I’ve met people (at the race) from as far as Australia and all over the map,” said Todd McQuade, owner of T & D Enterprises and the race’s co-chairman. “We get a lot from Up North like Gaylord and Iron Mountain — you can’t get more north than that.”
McQuade has coordinated the Walled Lake Thunder event 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 race on the Detroit River.
“I act as co-chair of the (Walled Lake Thunder) race, along with Jim Sechler, one of our technical inspectors,” McQuade said. “Every year, and before the race is done, I start working on next year’s race. Each year I attend two to three conventions, and a meeting with the APBA.”
Over 60 boats are expected to compete at this year’s Walled Lake Thunder event, a vast difference from last year when just over 40 boats registered. The event continues to grow and attracts the top racers from across the country.
“We have a lot of returning customers, but 8-9 modifieds have not ever been at the race, so these are new teams,” McQuade said.
Sechler has taken first-place in the 1-liter modified race every year of the Walled Lake Thunder event. He’s been racing since 1991 and has trekked all over the country, entering competitions in Washington, Virginia, Louisiana, Ohio, South Dakota, Maryland, New Jersey and Michigan, his stomping grounds.
“The Walled Lake Thunder is a real fun race for us because it’s local and we have so many friends and family to come out and watch,” he said.
As the reigning champion in his class, Sechler credits his team members for their stamina and innovation in ultimately bringing home the title.
“I attribute winning to a combination of things, but mostly being well prepared,” Sechler said. “I’m an engineer and Dan (Kanfousch, the team’s driver) is a physicist, so we are always thinking about things and put into practice things we’ve learned along the way.”
This year, Sechler expects some stiffer competition.
“Our competition gets harder every year,” Sechler said. “They are always right behind us and one mistake and they’ll pass us up. You must be at the right place at the right time and hope you’re prepared.”
Apart from Sechler, the owner, his team is comprised of Kanfousch, who has over 20 years of experience; and Tim Collins, who drives the team rig around the country and, like Sechler, helps with engine work.
“Dan and built the boats and is similar to others we race against. Usually we try to have everything as up-to-speed as possible and so far we’ve been successful,” Sechler said.
While trophies and cash prizes are always an added bonus, the personal goal is to win.
“We’ve finished first in our class every year,” Sechler said. “It’s not uncommon for our team. We’re very fortunate to win most of our races wherever we go, but winning first (place) is more a prestigious thing. Our goal every year is to win the APBA national title, so winning races is part of that and inches us closer to that goal.”
Sechler’s team has won the title consecutively for the last seven years.
“You try to get the best score of the day and add up the best 15 scores. The best racer in the country is the team with the highest points and the champion of that class.”
Sechler said that while his team is striving to win the APBA crown again this year, the camaraderie with his fellow racers is part of the ride.
“Our competition are good friends with good boats who race together and then later have a beer together,” he said. “It will be tough to earn high points this year, but we will give it our best shot.”
As a riparian and Walled Lake City Councilman, Casey Ambrose looks forward to the race each year. To celebrate it, he invites a slew of friends to join in the fun.
“I have 40 or 50 people friends over to the house,” Ambrose said. “It’s one of the biggest spectacular events on the lake with its loud engines and boats going fast — that attracts a lot of spectators and the majority of the area looks forward to it, also.”
The 2012 Walled Lake Thunder will feature several different classes of in-board hydroplanes classified according to length of boat, and size and type of engine. The hydroplanes feature everything from personal watercraft engines all the way up to V-8 Ford engines and the classes include 1-liter stock; 1.5-liter stock; 2.5-liter stock; 2.5-liter modified; 5-liter; national modified; and grand national hydro. A new class has been added this year: Superlight Tunnel.
“Between 7 and 9 of the out-boards race between 40 and 60 mph,” McQuade said. “They’ve been around for decades, so we decided to include them this year.”
“We have a record number of boats in the race this year, so we’re all geared up for it,” Clickner said.
There will be two Grand Prix boats performing exhibitions on June 9 and 10, with the boats racing up to speeds of 200 mph. New this year will be a half-dozen vintage boats on display each morning.
“Anytime you can bring in people to the city in a positive way, everyone benefits,” Ambrose said.
Hydroplane is the oldest form of specialized boat racing. The boat’s motor is within the boat itself. The race driver sits in a capsule while manning the helm. The boat skims across the top of the water, leaving a gap between the boat and the water’s surface. The only parts that touch the water are the propeller and the steer fin.
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 those obstacles, it gathered designs for the 1-mile oval course that took a year of planning.
Points are combined for qualifying rounds and finals both days over the weekend. First-, second- and third-place winners will earn trophies or monetary prizes.
“Racers earn trophies for first, second and third (places),” McQuade said. “The cash prizes are divided up between first- through fifth-place — $750 per class per day, or $1,500 per weekend per class.”
Like last year, a grandstand will accommodate seating for over 100 attendees during this year’s event.
While the two-day affair is a highly attended event and attracts racing fans from all over the country, weather is always a factor.
“Heavy wind can cause delays,” McQuade said. “We’ll (race) in rain, but not complete downpours, not in thunder or lightening.”
Last year, four accidents occurred during the race due to high winds.
“The first one happened on Saturday and another three on Sunday — all due to 7 mph winds coming from the wrong direction,” McQuade said. “We would clean up one accident and then boom, we would have another one. Thankfully nobody was hurt, but the boats were kind of wrecked.”
McQuade estimates crowds exceeded 10,000 last year.
“Every year attendance grows,” he said. “Last year there was standing room-only on the beach. With the addition of more spectators at the beach and at Bayside, people are genuinely having fun and enthralled by the race.”
“Last year’s turnout was outstanding,” Clickner said.
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 at the viewing area or at Bayside’s restaurant. VIP seating is available at a cost (covered or open seating) on the deck.
Semma has also reserved a VIP tent with food and beverage options for anyone affiliated with or sponsoring the race.
Booths will line up along Walled Lake Drive with program sponsors, like Bob Shuman of Shuman Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram, to promote their goods and services.
Ambrose’s restaurant, Casey’s of Walled Lake, will set up a booth selling barbecue pulled pork sandwiches and sushi balls.
“We are the best of the east and west, and have the biggest sushi bar in Walled Lake,” Ambrose said. “We have a new chef at Casey’s — a trained Japanese sushi master chef. He makes these sushi balls (like a California roll) with sushi pieces in a tempura batter on a stick with choice of sauce.”
In addition, there will be a number of food stations with offerings such as lemonade, water, ice cream, hot dogs and hamburgers.
Entertainment is lined up during both evenings.
On June 9, radio station 95.5 FM will be onsite from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Multiple well-known DJs will alternate playing music from the 1980s up to current Top 40 hits. Then on June 10, 95.5 FM will return from 3 to 8 p.m. At 9:30 p.m., classic rock band Major Woody will take to the stage and get the the crowds jamming.
Security will be provided by the Walled Lake Police Department. Five or six officers will be assigned to patrol the event and surrounding area, according to Deputy Police Chief Bruce Kirby.
The Oakland County Sheriff’s Department will provide a Marine Division boat on the water that will be manned by two Walled Lake police officers. The DNR will also have a presence on the lake, while the Walled Lake Fire Department will remain on standby in case of emergencies.
Roads impacted by planned weekend closures 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 Street to Witherall.
Walled Lake Drive from Liberty to Witherall will shut down at 2 a.m. on June 9. Barricades will be removed by 7 p.m. on June 10.
Ferland and Market streets, as well as Witherall and Walled Lake Drive to Leon Road, will close only during event hours.
Bayside will provide free valet parking in front of its parking lot at the front entrance on East Walled Lake Drive starting Friday. The main parking lot will be partitioned off and reserved for mechanics to work on the boats.
Like last year, attendees can purchase a $10 pit pass to see the different boat motors and talk face-to-face with drivers.
Registration is June 9 beginning at 6 a.m. and again on Saturday at 8 a.m. Boats will be launched at 10 a.m.
“It’s such a cool thing for spectators and for the city at large,” McQuade said.