Powerboats Make Detroit Special [1976]

They're putting in a trolley line on Washington Boulevard and it makes me sad. A trolley to save Detroit? The mere thought depresses me.

I watch them work with their massive yellow trucks and their ponderous dirt removers and it all seems so pathetic. Four blocks up, four blocks back. How is that going to change things? How is that going to revitalize the decaying downtown area?

My reaction isn't fair because however humble the attempt may be, at least somebody is trying to do something and there should be some joy in that fact.

And so this is why I went out to watch the boats run on the river in Thursday's rain. I've covered a lot of races on the river, and even seen men die, but the one overpowering feeling is that there is still something free for the people in our town to do.

The fireworks, the J.L. Hudson parade and the hydroplanes; it's about all we have left that doesn't tax our pocketbooks.

And this is why Detroit, for all its problems, is still a special place, unique in its own way. When I lived in New York I knew this city as the place where the cars were built and you saw the Lions play on Thanksgiving Day and you read about the powerboats running on the river.

If Louisville has the Derby and Indianapolis the 500, we have the thunderboats, and they are regal because they give us a tremendous show, a death-defying show, and we can sit there on the banks with our picnic baskets and blankets and enjoy this once-a-year phenomenon.

As the rain pelted the gray waters of the river Thursday morning, Bill Muncey was sitting in his trailer and saying that the races themselves may not be that competitive but they sure are exciting. He said these boats are big and fast and they are powerful and they make noise and they throw up those sprays of water that just makes your heart jump.

Muncey is a helluva guy, the best ambassador this sport has, and I was glad to hear him say that because I was beginning to lose interest in the boats. The races were never close. You seldom saw any real competition out there. The guy who got out first just stayed there and nobody could catch him.

But Muncey is correct. It is not so much the competition which grabs at you but the sight and the ear-shattering sound of these boats as they go roaring by at speeds of 170 to 180 mph. Even as I was driving along East Jefferson, I could hear that sound welling up in the distance, growing louder by the moment, and I found myself looking through the openings in the streets to see if I could catch a glimpse of them.

Of course the boats are being run for commercial purposes. You read about Atlas Van Lines winning on the Detroit River and maybe you'll call them if you have to move your furniture. Or you might buy an Olympia beer instead of a Coors if you are out west.

I'm sure there is a sound marketing value in these boats or else these corporations wouldn't be backing them.

The people who impress me — and the ones you ought to know about — are the sponsors of the race. They are the true sportsmen. They get nothing whatever out of it, except the job of being involved in the sport.

I've always wondered why they didn't pass the hat among the multitudes lining the course. The masses are everywhere — along the Detroit side of the river, lined up across the bridge and packed in on Belle Isle. Who wouldn't be willing to give a quarter, a dime or a nickle for such a thrilling show? If you could just crash the parties in all of those high rises you could make a ton.

But they've never done any of this and for that there should be praise. It's all free.

You've got to have a purse to draw these boats here and this time the sponsors — "The Spirit of Detroit Association" — that lyrical title given them by Jerry Cavanagh 15 years ago — have come up with $76,760. That's alot of bread for anyone, especially when you consider all the ways they have to collect it.

They don't have a benefactor, such as Henry Ford, to donate the prize money, and so they have to go out and literally find it dollar by dollar.

They sell what they call "booster tickets." This produces the largest single amount of revenue — some 8,000 tickets at $5 a ticket, or about $40,000. This give the people access to the pit area during the week and a bleacher seat on race day.

They get $5,000 from TV and sell program ads and throw dinner parties and fashion shows and even sell gas to the boats. They'll make an announcement for you on the P.A. system or sell you a membership in the "Commodore's Club." For this you get a gold card with your name on it, a jacket crest and two ribbons to get you into the Roostertail on race day.

They sell souvenirs and hot dogs and pop and Italian sausage and if you think they're making out like bandits from these ventures, then you ought to know that they charge their own members $10 each to work during the race week. And most of these people are using a week's vacation to donate their time. That, sir, is dedication.

Only two people get paid — John Love, who is in charge of promotions, and his secretary. And Love is on leave from his job as clerk in a law firm and actually loses money on the deal.

So, perhaps like me, you thought this was a mere recreation for the affluent. It is just a lot of people with a feeling for boats and a feeling for Detroit and maybe I'll take a trolley ride just to see how it is.

(Reprinted from the Detroit Free Press, June 25, 1976)