Hydroplanes getting ready for boat race season on the Columbia River

KENNEWICK, Wash. — A sign that summer has officially arrived in the Tri-Cities is the hydroplanes seen Friday morning and afternoon on the Columbia River. This means that the HAPO Columbia Cup is gearing up, marking the 56th time Hydroplanes will race on the river.

Getting ready for a summer of races

Aaron Stephens, the race director, said the racers are practicing and getting their hydroplanes race-ready. They go to Gunnersville, Alabama to go for the Southern Cup at the end of this month. After that, they head up to Madison, Indiana for a competition for Gold Cup. The Columbia Cup is the third stop on the H1 Unlimited Hydroplane Racing Series.

After the Tri-Cities race, the boaters will race at Lake Washington for the HomeStreet Bank Cup at Seafair. The season concludes on Mission Bay in San Diego, California at the HomeStreet Bank Bayfair Cup.

There were five Unlimiteds, and six boats total on the Columbia River for this pre-season test session.

“When it comes to the Columbia Cup weekend, we’ll have 9 Unlimiteds, 4 vintage Unlimiteds; we’re supposed to get 10 Grand Prix, and probably about 6 to 8 ‘5-liter’ e350s, so we’ll be a lot fuller down here, with a lot more cranes as well.”

The water will be full of hydroplanes, but the crowd is suspected to be pretty full as well.

The Water Follies

“It’s one of the biggest events in the Tri-Cities, all year long,” said Stephens. “We’ll probably have 50 to 70,000 people here, on both sides of the river.”

The biggest, and also one of the fastest.

“It’s a fast racecourse. We love the Columbia River,” said Jimmy Shane, pilot of H1 Miss Homestreet Unlimited hydroplane. “We’re going to hit speeds out here on the Columbia River today really close to 200 miles an hour, and we’ll be running average speeds around 165 miles per hour.”

He has been competing in the Columbia Cup since 2012. His first time on the water for a race on the Columbia was in 2007.

“We’re all hoping that they all break over 160 miles an hour so that they can be ready to go for Guntersville,” said Stephens. According to him, the pilots have to run 10 laps over 130 mph on the river, and a total of 15 laps on the racecourse before they’re allowed to race.

The H1 Unlimited division, which is the division that the Columbia Cup competes in, is the world’s fastest circuit racing boats, according to Jimmy Shane.

“It’s a unique racecourse too, because the current is typically never the same, every time that we come back here. The current has a big factor into how we have to drive the boats here on the Columbia River,” he said.

Jimmy Shane pointed to the north side of the racecourse, “It’s got probably one of the nicest corners up there,” and then he pointed to the south side. “And then this one is probably one of the most challenging corners that we have on the entire circuit.”

Despite the challenge, Aaron Stephens is very confident about one thing:

“We have one of the best race courses in the series.”

The Tri-Cities culture for the boat races

The event comes with a lot of support from locals.

According to Stephens, there were a couple hundred volunteers at the pre-season test session, but there will be around 5,000 volunteers at the event in July. 

“I can’t thank my volunteers enough. They’ve done wonderful. I haven’t put out very many fires today, so it’s a great day for me.”

I’m still curious if he was talking about metaphorical or physical fires, but I’m hoping the former.

The support from the volunteers and the community members is large. Even the Tri-City Dust Devils came down to show their support.

“Earlier today, the Tri-City Dust Devils were down here showcasing their new Columbia River Rooster Tail jerseys,” said Stephens. “They will be playing this weekend at the Gesa Dust Devils stadium, and they’ll be the Columbia River Rooster Tails, and then they’ll play again in those uniforms, boat race weekend.”

READ: Tri-City Dust Devils season to start on schedule, home opener set for April 12

Not only are the community members excited for boat race season, but so are the racers.

I asked Jimmy Shane what he was most excited for, and he responded eagerly:

“For me, it’s being back in hydro-town. This is such a wonderful city to come to. All of the fans here know what they’re talking about, they know what they’re doing. To be back in Tri-Cities, in this area, it’s great to see all of the fans along the shoreline, just enjoying the fast boats that come here every year.”