Sunday, October 14, 2001


Hydroplanes roar again on Lake Coeur d'Alene
Banned from north end, boats test Harrison area as possible site for races

Susan Drumheller
Staff writer

HARRISON, Idaho -- Greg Hopp eyed the gray, choppy water of Lake Coeur d'Alene on Saturday with a degree of humility.

”They call me `Crash,”' Hopp said. ”I'm the test dummy.”

Hopp is a hydroplane race driver from Lake Stevens, Wash., and was in Harrison Saturday for an exhibition of the sport.

Banned from Coeur d'Alene, race promoters are considering Harrison as a site for future races.

The Harrison Unlimited Hydro Exhibition
was designed both to give Harrison residents an idea of what hydroplane racing has to offer and to give racers a chance to test Lake Coeur d'Alene's waters.

But the mid-October weather made conditions for race drivers and spectators less than ideal.

”Turn up the heat,” joked Greg Babbitt, a Coeur d'Alene resident who boated down to Harrison with friends to watch the hydroplanes.

Spectators huddled under blankets and cradled cups of hot coffee as they waited for the action to get under way.

The driving force behind Saturday's event was John Tietz, whose own hydroplane, The Spirit of Coeur d'Alene, has never raced on Lake Coeur d'Alene.

Hydroplane racing was popular on the lake from 1958 until 1968, when rowdy, drunken crowds brought an end to the races.

Coeur d'Alene voters overwhelmingly passed an advisory measure in 1985 rejecting a revival of the races. Then again, in 1996, voters passed an initiative banning hydroplane races from the city's shores.

Tietz thinks the sport has gotten a bad reputation, and would like to help turn it around.

”Hydroplane racing is a family sport,” Tietz said, pointing out all the children with parents milling about the Harrison waterfront.

When asked if he thought he'd ever be able to race along Lake Coeur d'Alene's north shore, Tietz said, ”There's always a chance. I never say never.”

Harrison's city leaders would welcome hydroplane races -- especially in September, when summer tourists start to taper off, said council member John Aktepy.

Aktepy helped organize a race two years ago for small hydroplanes that use outboard motors. ”Generally, most of the people are for it,” he said. ”It would give the businesses a bigger window to make a profit. We need things like this to bring people in.”

Three boats in the exhibition were unlimited light hydroplanes, which means they run on automotive engines. They are each about 24 feet long and weigh 2,500 pounds.

Hopp was driving a full-size unlimited hydroplane, which uses a helicopter engine, is 30 feet long and weighs about 7,000 pounds. It can go about 200 miles per hour, he said.

”It doesn't feel like you're going 200 mph until you turn the wheel,” he said. ”Then you have to have your head in the headrest.”

After a quick drivers meeting, where they conferred with their would-be rescuers in the event of an accident, the hydroplane crews readied the boats for the water.

”This should be interesting. I don't think this crane is big enough,” Hopp said, referring to the Harrison Dock Builders crane that was going to put the hydroplane in the water.

The crew attached the boat to the crane with canvas webbing. The crane operator slowly hoisted the boat and pivoted, so the boat hovered over the water like a stealth bomber.

But as the operator attempted to lower the boat, the crane's brake gave way and the boat plummeted. The operator stopped the fall with a jerk, just above the water's surface.

Finally, all four boats were safely in the choppy water, as gusts of wind creating whitecaps.

Hopp went first, zooming around in a giant circle and sending up a high-flying rooster tail while the crowd murmured in appreciation. As he docked, they applauded.

Fans from Coeur d'Alene and Harrison said they hoped next year to watch actual races. They enjoy the speed and atmosphere, they said.

”Maybe they won't race when it's 40 below (zero),” Rick Gittel joked.

The noisier unlimited light hydroplanes went next.

Finally, The Spirit of Coeur d'Alene made its debut on its namesake lake. During one of its final laps, the sun broke through the cloud cover, casting a silver streak across the path of the rumbling hydroplane.

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