Tonawanda News — Thunder on the Niagara, a boat race that has drawn at least 10,000 viewers to Gratwick Riverside Park in North Tonawanda each of the last several years will nearly double the number of boats participating in 2013 and bring back the popular Grand Prix series into the mix, which organizers expect will attract even larger numbers.
Peter Hackett, the race director, said the hydroplane event has grown in popularity since it came to the shores of the Lumber City in 2006, with a few thousand individuals coming out to see the two days of races. It quickly grew into a vastly popular event among fans.
While the race dates back to the late 1930s in various locales along the Niagara River, including along the City of Buffalo and off Niawanda and Isle View parks in the City of Tonawanda, it has burgeoned recently due to the growth in popularity of boat racing and the ideal conditions along Gratwick Park, according to several participants interviewed Tuesday.
“Attendance has grown,” said Hackett, who began attended races the City of Tonawanda as a child before becoming a driver himself. “I’ve had boats since I was a kid.”
Hackett said at least 88 boats in four classes will be participating (up from 46 in 2012) on Aug. 17 and 18, with speed ranging from 88 mph to 175 mph along a one-mile loop on the Niagara River.
Grand Prix boats, which reach the top speeds among all the races, will also add to the draw, according to Ken Brodie, of Grand Island, who has been involved in racing for 30 years.
“Everybody loves to see the big boats,” he said.
Mike Geblein, also a Grand Island resident who said he set a world record last week in Michigan as part of a crew for a GP777, indicated that the conditions along Gratwick Riverside Park also attract more of the world’s top racing professionals.
“Buffalo had a bad reputation for its water,” he said. “This place is bringing them back.”
City officials said the race should be “bigger and better” this year. Mayor Rob Ortt, addressing the media along with organizers Tuesday, said the family-friendly race is the largest free motor boat event in Western New York.
“Waterfront development is all about bringing people to your waterfront and making it accessible,” he said. “Since 2006, this event has been drawing thousands of people to Gratwick Riverside Park and this beautiful vista of the Niagara River.”
He added that the Twin Cities Community Outreach, an umbrella organization housing North Tonawanda Meals on Wheels, the Inter-Church Food Pantry and the Twin Cites Clothes Closet, will also reap some of the benefits of the event, sharing some of the revenue from a $5 parking charge.
Food vendors will be on site, with the races kicking off at approximately 9:30 a.m. each day and ending at 5 p.m. Attendees are requested to use the Ward Road entrance off River Road.
For more information go to www.thunderonniagara.com.
Contact reporter Michael Regan at 693-1000, ext. 4115.IF YOU GO • WHAT: Thunder on the Niagara boat races • WHEN: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 17 and 18 • WHERE: Gratwick Riverside Park, River Road, North Tonawanda • COST: Parking is $5