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Detroit's Great River Race - The Gold Cup

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The Gold Cup

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An Unlimited and an Unlimited Light racing boats

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Mark Webber Race Boat Driver

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Section of the course

By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

A boatload of us media folks along with some racing officials were motoring slowly around the 2 ½-mile race course yesterday in an old refurbished tug boat. Like walking a hard-surface race course before the race, we got a good feel for the course. This course, though, is anything but hard-surface. In fact, it’s a section of the Detroit River, usually a busy shipping channel, just east of the beautiful old Belle Isle Bridge with the Detroit skyline in the background. Holding court and describing how it feels to race here on the Detroit River was Mark Webber, famous hydroplane racer.

As we leave the dock at Sinbad’s restaurant Webber, a ruddy red headed fellow with barely contained enthusiasm for his subject, talks about this being a “race in your face” for spectators in the bleachers along the shore where these 3,000-horsepower race boats, powered by Lycoming turbine engines from Chinook Helicopters, come within a few feet of the stands after making a hairpin turn, through which the big boats throw a crowd-pleasing 40-foot rooster tail of spray in front of The Rooster Tail restaurant. Next, Webber explains, at about 150-mph, drivers have to worry about “the Whittier Bump” an invisible anomaly in the water caused by the westbound current bumping up against, and reflecting off, a bend in the river bank, and perhaps some unseen river bottom structure. Then comes a big sweeping turn by the Belle Isle Bridge, often taken at full throttle, and a long back straight in front of the Detroit Yacht Club where speeds reach, and exceed, 200-mph. Then they’re back to the hairpin turn headed for the stands.

On the weekend of July 14th-16th twelve of the world’s fastest boats, the Unlimited Hydroplanes, will be competing here for the oldest trophy in motor sports - the Gold Cup. The Cup has been in Detroit since 1916, having been originated on the Hudson River in New York in 1904. It has resided only briefly in other locations and now is a traditional Detroit event.

In addition to the big boats the river will be churned up by what are known as Unlimited Lights - hydroplanes of a smaller, but just as raucous, variety - powered by big American V-8 engines. They run for the Silver Cup. Vintage and historic race boats will stage “non-competitive” runs. Every decade will be represented, from the mahogany unlimiteds of the 1920s to the composite boats of the 1960s, and, of course, some monstrous machines of more modern vintage. All-in-all there will be three full days of water-stirring action, with back-to-back heats from morning untill evening.

And, if some of your group gets tired of the racing there will be plenty of other stuff to do, like vendors of all kinds, food and music stages with everything from Indi Pop to Gospel Blues.

Oh, and one other event of interest for motor sports history buffs: there will be a reenactment of the famous 1982 race featuring Chip Hanauer driving the Atlas Van Lines boat racing against probably the best known racing boat of all times, Miss Budweiser.

The Chrysler Jeep Superstores, in their tenth year of sponsoring the Gold Cup races in Detroit, deserves a great deal of credit for sticking with the races through some lean times. Jim Schebil, president of Fox Hills Chrysler Jeep in Plymouth, MI calls the Gold Cup races “a gem in Detroit’s motor sports history.” More than 200 volunteers from the Detroit River Regatta Association put on the event.

So, I wonder what happens if a big ore freighter wanders onto the course. Will they just race around it? I suppose they’ve thought that through after all those years of racing on the river.

For schedules and ticket information go to

© Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved