Ready to Race

When National American Powerboat Association and Outboard Performance Craft Champion Gordon Downard decided to retire from boat racing after about half of a century in the sport, he had no idea if anyone would step forward to continue his racing legacy.

And when his 32-year-old daughter Sally volunteered to, he was more than a bit surprised.

Fremont resident Sally Downard will make her racing debut at the 2014 Marietta Riverfront Roar Friday alongside some two dozen other boats as professional boat racers and fans converge along the Ohio River this weekend.

Riverfront Roar will be the regional finals for all three different boat classes, which vary by size and weight with different speed ranges, before drivers have the chance to go on to divisional and then national competition.

“I’m definitely nervous because it’s my first time, but it’s more of an anxiousness, because I am excited,” Sally Downard said. “I’ve driven the boat a few times but never in a race scenario.”

Downard’s father Gordon, 62, will be playing the role of referee this year now that his daughter has taken over his boat, which will be competing in the SST-60 Class, classified by boats that are 14 feet long and powered by three-cylinder motors.

“When he told me he was too old to be in the boat, I threw out the idea to take over for him,” Sally Downard said “At first he was not receptive, but once he thought about it he realized how much he enjoyed the excitement and he jumped on board with it.”

Gordon has amassed seven national titles and set several more national records for racing, and said though the family’s goal is just to get his daughter started, he is confident in her abilities.

“She’s got the blood from a long line of power boat racing,” he said. “Her grandfather and her uncle and I all compete and have won titles and records, so we have a history of winning.”

Cincinnati resident David Hensel and Georgia resident Chip Wavro are both supposed to be good competition in their own respective classes.

“I started racing in 1955, so I’m no spring chicken by any means, but I don’t want to give it up,” Wavro said. “It’s a lot of fun and I like the camaraderie.”

Wavro, 74, said though the sport is tough on the body, he is happy that he is still able to compete at his age and with the same rigor.

“I’ve been competitive most my life, but I’m not too upset if I’m not winning,” he said. “But I plan on winning, always.”

Wavro will compete in the Supersport class, which is a EPA-compliant stock boat that does not run with modified engines like the other classes.

“It’s very competitive and the racing is very close together, so it’s really exciting,” Wavro said.

Hensel, who is entering his 17th year as a racer after attending his own father’s races as a child, will be competing in the SST-120 class, where boats reach speeds of more than 100 mph.

“In this class, the number one most important speed factor is the driver,” Hensel said. “The trick is to get all of that perfect with the most speed without the boat flipping over backwards on you.”

Drivers in the class SST-120’s boats are inspected and stripped after races to make sure they fit specifications of the unique class, which require the boat and all of its contents to hold a minimum weight of 1,100 pounds.

“These boats trap air that allows the boat to come out of the water to accomplish the speeds we get up to,” Hensel said. “These are the biggest, baddest, fastest boats that are out there.”

Jerry Book, commodore of the Buckeye Outboard Association that sanctions Riverfront Roar, said this year’s racers bring up a good variety.

“We’ve got racers coming from Florida, Georgia, South Caroline, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, and really from all over,” Book said. “A lot of them are very experienced, going back to the ’80s and ’70s, but some are rookies, so there’s a good mixture.”

All three classes are under the category of Outboard Performance Craft boats, the fastest-turning boats classified by their high-tech engines capable of reaching top notch speeds.

Most racers agree that regardless of the outcome, they are all excited to revisit Marietta.

“The whole town seems to be out there, and everything is within walking distance,” Wavro said. “For most drivers, this is their favorite site every year.”

Racers will be arriving throughout the day Friday, with boat inspections beginning at 1 p.m.

Hensel said crews and drivers have extensive lists of checklists and equipment to go through to prepare, and that parties tend to spend some two to three hours per night on the days leading up to the race to make sure everything is prepped and ready for racing.