By Lauren Zaepfel
Hydroplanes will race along the Niagara River off the shores of North Tonawanda's Gratwick Riverside Park this weekend during the 11th annual Thunder of the Niagara event.
The event will run from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. To kickstart both days of the event, Jersey Speed Skiff boats will do a flag lap on the course, followed by the days' races.
"They're going to have over 70 raceboat teams that participate in this event," North Tonawanda Mayor Arthur G. Pappas said. "These hydroplanes that they're bringing in, they're very high-performance boats and they literally fly over the water and they will reach speeds of up to 170 miles an hour. It's really something. You have to see it."
The Niagara Frontier Boat Racing Association and the Hydroplane Racing League of Quebec, Canada, are partnering to put on the event, while Snyder Industries Inc. of Tonawanda will serve its fourth year as the event's major sponsor.
"Hydroplane racing has been taking place on the Niagara River since 1939," said Doug Capell, human resources manager at Snyder Industries. "Snyder Industries is proud to be part of this longstanding tradition, which attracts thousands of spectators and participants from all over the U.S. and Canada."
Gary Roesch of Grand Island, commodore of the NFBRA and chairman of Thunder on the Niagara, said, "There's a good nucleolus of boat racers on Grand Island and ... we often call ourselves the Grand Island Navy."
"Basically, I grew up in boat racing. My dad raced boats in the '40s. And, from high school, I got involved with boat racing in the '60s and '70s. And then my two sons were both active in boat racing. And it's always been a part of our family."
He added, "Now that I'm retired, myself and Mike Endres from Grand Island have basically taken the bull by the horns and organized (the event)."
Today, the event continues to grow in popularity, Capell said. "Not only the racing, but the entire weekend of activities." He added, "Gratwick Park and the Niagara River serves as a terrific venue for this event."
The distance from Gratwick Park to Grand Island marks one of the widest parts of the Niagara River, allowing it to accommodate the hydroplane races.
Spectators will be able to view both the north and south ends of the course from the park.
To ensure other local and visiting boaters still have access to the river during the event, members of the U.S. Coast Guard and both Niagara County and Erie County sheriff's marine units will escort them around the event, closer to Grand Island shores.
Roesch said this year the event will feature some additional activities besides the highlighted boat races.
Throughout the event, a total of 25 food and craft vendors will be on site. On Saturday, a car show by Buffalo Motorama will be stationed at the north end of Gratwick Riverside Park.
"They're going to bring in 450 classic and vintage cars, which is going to be really kind of another ... event to augment the boat race," Roesch said.
Kickstart Rumble will perform live at the park after racing concludes Saturday.
On Sunday, vintage Grand Prix boats will "do some demonstration laps," on the water, Roesch said.
"These are boats that were built in the late '80s, early '90s," Roesch said, noting many are made from wood. "They're high speed. There's a lot of local people that have these boats and used to race them. And, you know, they restored them and we're giving them the opportunity to kind of show off their boats."
At 2 p.m. Sunday, members of Frontier Skydivers Inc. will also put on a spectacle for onlookers.
"They're going to drop over the Niagara River and land on the northern end of Gratwick Park," Roesch said. "It's a local group. They will have a booth at our race, as well. So, if anybody wants to stop by and discuss their activities, they're more than welcome."
Overall, Thunder of the Niagara is "a 100 percent free event," Roesch said. However, spectators can park at Gratwick Riverside Park, and a receive an event program, for a $10 donation.
A portion of the proceeds will go to Twin Cities Community Outreach, an organization that includes Twin City Meals on Wheels, the Interchurch Food Pantry and the Clothes Closet. Roesch said volunteers from the organization are "basically working with us. They're taking (care of) all of the parking. They'll be probably 70 people in to handle the parking."
Pappas said, "That's excellent for our community ... and it's very generous."
Roesch said Pappas supported the event's return to the area.
"It's a very pleasant weekend, at a very beautiful venue, and it brings attention to our community and our area from all over," Pappas said.
"Of course, economically, to have an event like this will always help benefit the local businesses, the restaurants and shopping areas. That's always very, very welcome," he added. "And the other thing, too, is it benefits our surrounding communities to some degree, because we're kind of sandwiched in between Niagara Falls and Buffalo, and you're on a main route connecting one to the other, practically. And then the City of Tonawanda also can benefit, just over the canal. And, of course, that will, hopefully, benefit their business and their restaurants also. So it is a boost for the community."
Roesch echoed this. He said the event is "a good economic incentive for the region. ... We have a block of rooms reserved at the Radisson and we're also encouraging people to take advantage of the restaurants on Grand Island, as well as the City of Tonawanda and North Tonawanda."
All boat race contestants will receive the Chamber of the Tonawandas' 2016 Community Calendar and Visitor's Guide, which lists events and amenities of the area, Roesch said.
For more information on Thunder on the Niagara, including race schedules, visit www.facebook.com/Thunderontheniagara2015.
Gratwick Riverside Park boat launch closing for Thunder on the Niagara
The North Tonawanda Department of Youth, Recreation and Parks recently announced the Gratwick Boat Launch will be closed to the public beginning at noon Friday, Aug. 5, through Sunday, Aug. 7, due to the Thunder On Niagara hydroplane boat races. The launch will be reopen for normal docking at 7 a.m. Monday, Aug. 8. The Botanical Gardens and Service Drive boat launches in North Tonawanda will be open to all boaters with permits.
For more information, call the Department to Youth Recreation and Parks office at 716-695-8520.
Grand Prix hydroplane boats compete at last year's Thunder on the Niagara event. (File photo)