It’s billed as the biggest and fastest offshore racing series, with flashy boats, handy spots for spectators, and a chance to chat with boat owners passionate about their season-long weekend racing.
It’s Michigan City’s 10th annual Great Lakes Grand Prix, with races featuring owners and drivers at the top of their game. Races start Aug. 5 as part of a weekend event that kicks off Aug. 3.
They have to be; these craft can do 150 m.p.h.
“This year the official name is the Big Chrysler Dodge Jeep and Ram Great Lakes Grand Prix,” said Jack Arnett, executive director of the LaPorte County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The big races were the brainchild of the tourism bureau. “We were looking for something to close out the summer, an event that would bring the community together.” It seems to have worked: “Our community has wrapped its arms around this event, and we try to improve on this family-friendly event every year,” said Arnett.
The race is part of Super Boat International offshore powerboat racing, which schedules races nearly every weekend, with winners accruing points to determine the overall winner after the season-ending September race.
But make no mistake: “This isn’t something where you pull your boat out of a garage and go play,” said veteran racer Mark Small, co-owner with two others of nationwide Cleveland Construction based in Ohio. His boat is a 750-class powerboat, a 388 Skater with two 750-horsepower motors that can do 150 m.p.h. and is built to withstand high-speed accidents.
Small’s team travels with the race boat pulled by a semi; a 45-foot motor coach with a trailer and spare drives, repair equipment, medical supplies equaling what a Class 1 fire department would carry; and a safe boat. The Michigan City Coast Guard Station also has a safe boat, but Small’s team brings its own, a 30-foot Scarab jet boat carrying a doctor, trauma nurse, and two divers who are paramedics.
The competing boats are pretty close to the same, said Small. “It’s no fun for the guy with the biggest rocket to race and always win. What makes winning fun is we’re all competing equally.”
Then what gives a winner the edge? “It’s all the skill of the driver and the throttle man, the skill in maneuvering,” Small said, grinning as he added, “And there’s luck.”
Part of the skill is knowing where to position two burlap-encased lead weights on the boat to best handle Lake Michigan’s waves that day. Arnett explains, “racing on Lake Michigan is a whole different animal; the waves are different and it takes getting used to.”
Super Boat International brings in helicopters, safety crews, and doctors. There’s mandatory training when (racers) get here; they go to the city’s high school swimming pools for training on evacuation. Drivers take a physical on site.
Still, crashes can happen, though they’re rare, said Arnett. “They’re going very fast, they’re traveling in a pack, they can have mechanical problems or human error.”
Enforcing the regulations and providing support at the harbor is Tim Frame, Michigan City Port Authority harbormaster for Washington Park, Trail Creek, and Sprague Pointe Marinas. The LaPorte County visitors bureau has a contract with Super Boat International, which sets up races, mostly up the East Coast from Florida. “The tourism bureau teams with us, the park department, and the city, for four days of events,” said Frame.
The racers' experience contributes to the record of safety, said Frame, because many race every weekend. “We’ve only had one real accident during the race. The lake was on the rough side that day and a wave hit (a boat) wrong.”
“We have a great facility at Washington Park and the shoreline,” said Arnett. Small agrees that it’s a spectator-friendly venue. The racecourse runs from the Michigan City pier for about 2 to 2 1/2 miles and back, “so you can sit on the beach anywhere along there and watch,” said Frame. On the water, viewing boats can watch the action from outside the racecourse. Last year nearly 500 boats did so, said Arnett. He’s looking to add water entertainment between races.
The dry pit is a crowd favorite. People can get right up to the boats and meet the drivers, throttle men, and crews. “They really don’t see boats like this, and we let the kids sit in our boat, and they love it,” said Small.
“I know all the racers in our class,” said Small. “We’re friends. If they need something, they know they can go to my trailer, get what they need, and replace it later. It’s a tight-knit group — but once the race starts, we’re not friends anymore,” he said, laughing.
In the first turn of each race, the boats are bunched up, trying to maintain their lanes. But you can go faster when you’re not in a boat’s wake, pushing against the water and air. So it's a race to get in front of someone and claim that lane, said Small. “It’s a very friendly sport among us so no one‘s going to hurt anybody. Bad things do happen. It’s not a game. We don’t take safety lightly and we don’t take shortcuts.”
Arnett said paid parking for the weekend event fills up quickly, so he suggests using the free parking at Blue Chip Casino, Hotel & Spa and the free shuttles.
The concurrent Taste of Michigan City also was the visitors bureau’s brainchild, “But we gave the Taste to the Michigan City Mainstreet Association, and they’ve done a fantastic job,” said Arnett.