September 23, 2006
By MARK PETERS, Courant Staff Writer
Maybe it's a good match: a city and a sport, both looking for rebirth.
The ChampBoat Series roars into Hartford today looking to grow. Once a sport for lakes and Midwestern rivers, powerboat racing is trying to make a splash in cities that are reviving their riverfronts.
Mike Schriefer, president and CEO of the ChampBoat Series, said he and others involved in the series are betting that the speed, spray and occasional airborne boat will attract new fans in the Northeast. ChampBoat has never held a race in New England before, so this weekend's stop in Connecticut is a first.
"You see these guys banging into each other? It's real racing," Schriefer said.
Shaped something like a jet fighter, the boats will shoot around a rectangular track on the Connecticut River at speeds of more than 140 mph.
Practice and trials will be held today. The main event comes Sunday when 15 boats vie for prize money in a 50-lap race, which should appeal to race fans of all types, one driver said.
"Anyone likes speed," said Shaun Torrente, 28, of Miami. "The biggest thing is getting them to the course for the first time."
Although NASCAR has enjoyed strong growth in recent decades, powerboat racing hasn't had the same popularity. The sport dates back more than 40 years and has a strong following in Europe and Asia, but those associated with it say that changes and missteps have left it treading water in recent years.
Drivers say the sport was strong when motor companies had their own boats, but some of them decided to drop their teams. The sport was also much more dangerous in the past, when boats had open cockpits. It also has had some marketing issues.
The series is under new management now, and Schriefer is concentrating on small to mid-size cities searching for waterfront events: Such places as Cincinnati, Minneapolis and Savannah are stops this year. Other riverfront cities are expected to be added next year.
"We have our work cut out for us. It has been more of a challenge than I thought," Schriefer said.
The series saw the Northeast as an untapped fan base. Average income is higher than in many other parts of the country; it has many boaters; and there's a sizable NASCAR following.
"The NASCAR fan is always looking for racing, and may try something out. Speed is speed," said Fred Neergaard, public relations director for New Hampshire International Speedway, New England's largest race track.
The challenge for ChampBoat became finding a city in the Northeast for its event. Boston and New York were too big, and the races might get lost among other attractions. Hartford's smaller size, with its calm waters and high riverbanks, was a better fit for the series' seventh stop of the season.
"I looked at the river and went, `Wow!'" Schriefer said near the race course as cars rumbled over the Charter Oak Bridge.
On Friday, many of the flashy boats, marked with Bud Light and Hooters logos, sat idle on land as mechanics tweaked the engines. The smell of cigar smoke and pizza was in the air. Crews set up fencing, toilets and other essentials for the estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people the races could draw.
On the water, a demonstration boat seemed to float above the water, shooting up a high tail of water but leaving little wake. The rear-mounted engines seemed like high-end outboards, but the driver's cockpit was like something off a fighter jet.
Race teams aren't drawing big money yet. The teams have sponsorships, but the costs are high, with a boat running about $75,000. Top boats can rely on prize money and sponsors to pay their way, while others use their own money to keep racing, Schriefer said.
Organizers in Hartford have followed other cities' model for the weekend, mixing in family events on both sides of the river.
Sharon and Tony Romano of Milford operate Grand Prix Hartford, and to get a multi-year agreement with the series, a race had to happen in Hartford this year. That put the Romanos on a tight schedule.
Tony Romano said he hopes to build sponsorship, crowds and buzz each year, and has negotiated to bring the race back for up to five years. Just getting the myriad permits, from such agencies as the state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was a challenge in the first year, he said.
The race is free to attend. In its first year, it won't be profitable, but organizers are already signing up sponsors for next year.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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