1986 Budweiser Hydrocade

Hydroplanes sure to make waves on the Delaware

By Kevin Tresolini, Staff reporter

PHILADELPHIA - The Unlimited Hydroplane tour will make Philadelphia one of its stops for the first time in this weekend’s River Spectacular on the Delaware.

In Budweiser Hydrocade '86, pilots will steer their jet-engine “Thunderboats” five times around a 2-mile oval course on the Delaware River between the Benjamin Franklin and Walt Whitman bridges. The start/finish line is in front of Penns Landing on the Pennsylvania side. The pit area is in Wiggins Park in Camden, N. J.

Spectators may watch the races from either location.

Five or six of the starting field of hydroplanes (probably eight) that log the fastest times Friday between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 to 2 qualify for Sunday’s finals, starting at 4.

Other activities during the River Spectacular on the Delaware will be an aqua parade and a flyover by vintage aircraft during Friday’s opening ceremonies at noon, races for Jersey Speed Skiffs (another class of hydroplane), and outboard MerCubs, and performances by the Cypress Gardens water-ski teams.

But the highlight is expected to be the unlimited hydroplane races. And the boat to watch is the Miller American, piloted by Chip Hanauer. The 31-year-old Seattle resident has been the American Power Boat Association unlimited champion three of the last four years, including last year driving the Miller American.

Last Friday on Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, N.Y., the seventh of 11 stops on the tour, Hanauer set a record for one lap over a 2-mile oval course with an average speed of 141.343 mph. Hanauer also held the previous record of 140.1818.

The record over a 2½-mile course, where the boats can pick up more speed on the straightaways, is 153 mph.

On a subsequent run at Syracuse, Hanauer blew the engine on the Miller American. The boat was repaired in time for Hanauer and the Miller American to win Sunday’s finals and take the 1986 points lead away from Miss Budweiser.

“We blew what we call the hot end of the turbine engine,” said Hanauer in a telephone conversation from Reading, Pa., where further repairs are taking place on Miller American. “It tried to rip the boat in half. There was a lot of structural damage. It was a superhuman effort by all the technical people to get it to race at all.”

Hanauer wasn’t hurt in the explosion. A metal and fiber web shrouds the engine, and it absorbed the energy — and the flying metal. The pilot’s cockpit is a honeycomb with a couple of layers of aluminum and fiberglass, much like in an Indy-500 car.

On the Delaware River, the pilots will be testing their boats on water previously unchartered by such powerful machines.

“Again, I’m only guessing at this point because nobody has turned a propeller on the Delaware,” Hanauer said. “When I visited there in the winter, it was an extremely rough race course.

“It’s got cement bulkheads, which causes the wake to come back onto the race course. The river is flowing over an irregular river bottom — rising, falling, then rising again. I’m told it’s subject to tidal action, too. It all adds up to an extremely rough race course, the kind thai causes me to stay up nights.

“But I could be 180 degrees off. It could be the smoothest all year. At Onondaga Lake last week, that was the flattest water I’ve ever seen in my life. It was usually the roughest. It just depends on the atmospheric conditions."

There’s also the possibility of floating debris, which Hanauer has had trouble with before. In Evansville, Ind., last month, the Miller American hit a floating propane tank, which punched a hole in the boat and knocked the boat and the driver out of the race.

An oval course is used because if a hydroplane picks up too much speed on a straightaway, there could be a “blowover.” That’s when so much air gets beneath the front of the boat that it lifts up and flips over.

There are other dangers. Hanauer, in fact, once suffered a broken nose just by getting behind another boat and having its wake hit him in the face.

“It’s a risk anytime you’re achieving high speed over a constantly changing element," said John Love, the Miller American publicist, during a press conference Tuesday. “You have to create a balance, especially here, where the surf is changing constantly.”

(Reprinted from the Wilmington, (Del.) News Journal, August 20, 1986)