About 500 spectators came down to the riverfront yesterday for a preview of the excitement that's due when 50 or 60 tunnel boats scream down the straightaways at speeds up to 140 miles per hour in qualifying heats that start at noon.
They arrived by twos and threes, some with kids in tow, lured by the ear-splitting roar of 350-horsepower motors and the pungent unfamiliar smell of the exhaust from boats that run on redline oil.
They felt their hearts skip a beat at the occasional sound of silence, which means a boat has come out of the water and is completely airborne - and that's not good.
And they smiled when hometown hero Dave White of Monclova Township stopped to wave to his wife, Diane, on his way out to test No.60 in the SST-120 class.
But mostly, they came to catch a glimpse of Tim Seebold of Osage, Mo., in boat No. 16, and Jason Campbell of Chandler, Ariz., in No. 5. The two drivers are locked in a tight battle for the Champ Boat series championship.
Seebold, who has won two races this season, sits two points ahead of Campbell, who has notched one victory.
The wind was blowing five to 10 knots when the Champ Boat drivers went out to test their boats and equipment, but occasional gusts whipped over the water creating chop that made it difficult to take the corners as sharply as some would have liked.
The course is a rectangle, slightly over a mile in length, that runs beween The Docks and Promenade Park. Its two long straightaways run from the Navy Bistro, at the southern end of The Docks, to the King Bridge.
"There are swells out there and you have to be careful. You can't take the turns as close as usual,'' Campbell said..
"It's a little breezy and it's going to be rough during the race, but we already knew that because of the seawall. And it's going to be a little more intense because of the seawall being nearer the boats."
Like Seebold, Campbell grew up in a racing family. "My dad raced and got out of it in 1986," he said. "Right then they were starting to run miniboats and he bought me one."
Campbell, 34, proved his talents in a highly successful career in the SST-45 class before winning the first race he ever entered in a full-size Champ boat, the 1995 Parker 500K Enduro. Three years later, he won the Bud Light St. Louis Grand Prix, one of the most prestigious events in powerboat racing.
One of the most consistent drivers in the series, Campbell has racked up three second places and a first.
"In past years, being consistent would help, but Todd Bowden, who won the first race, was been knocked back a couple of times [by a crash in the second race and spinning out in a turn in the third] and Timmy lost some points when he broke a propeller."
"We would have thought, with the finishes we've had, that we would be in first place by now. We have our work cut out for us," Campbell said.
"Sometimes winning is easier than running second, because when you're ahead you pick your own line the whole race and you can dictate what's happening," he said.
"When you're at someone else's back, you're running in rougher water. Also, the closer you get, there's more spray. If you try to turn, you can end up skipping out and end up in lane 2 or 3.
"You can't sneak up from
behind. You have to set them up. You have one chance to pass and if it doesn't stick, you can lose ground."
Kris Shepard's Champ boat caught a buoy on the first turn, and barrel-rolled. There was a 20-minute delay while rescue crews pulled the driver out of the water unharmed and towed the boat away.
Another halt was called because Billy Rucker Jr., the leading driver in the SST-120 series, ran out of fuel and his boat had to be towed off the course.
Today's program will open with testing, followed by time trials and two qualifying heats.
Starting positions in the Maumee River Roar tomorrow will be based on a driver's combined performance in today's heats.