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Racers will roar across water again

Hydroplane event will return to Lake CdA on Labor Day weekend

The roar of hydroplanes will be heard again on Lake Coeur d’Alene this summer with a return to racing 44 years after the popular sport there ended.

“We will become the No. 1 race in the United States,” organizer Dennis Wheeler predicted Friday.

The hydro races will run southeast of downtown as part of the Diamond Cup Regatta during Labor Day weekend. This year’s event will feature sanctioned Grand Prix West competitions, with an H1 Unlimited-class exhibition race and plans for a sanctioned H1 Unlimited race in 2013.

Recalling drunken riots after races in the early 1960s, city voters twice have said they no longer want hydroplane racing in Coeur d’Alene.

But the new two-mile course for the boats, which reach speeds of 200 mph, will be just outside city limits, extending south from the Silver Beach area. Spectators will be able to watch from their boats on the lake and from bleachers on shore along Coeur d’Alene Lake Drive and the Centennial Trail, also outside the city’s jurisdiction.

Parking will be provided at the Kootenai County Fairgrounds, and buses will shuttle spectators to the lake, Wheeler said. One lane of Coeur d’Alene Lake Drive will close for the buses.

Billy Schumacher, the winner of the last H1 Unlimited race on Lake Coeur d’Alene in 1968, will race in the exhibition this year.

“We are looking forward to coming back here and racing with you all,” Schumacher said before a crowd of people who have worked to bring the hydroplanes back.

Kootenai County Sheriff Rocky Watson this week signed a permit approving the event.

At full speed, hydros fly across the lake with only the propeller and two other points on the hull touching the water.

The races drew huge crowds to Coeur d’Alene 10 times in the 1950s and ’60s. The original three-mile Diamond Cup course took racers past spectators gathered along City Beach and Independence Point and perched on Tubbs Hill downtown.

Underage drinking, fights, rioting and arrests marred the races from 1961-1964. But ultimately, waning enthusiasm and financial losses ended the run, with the final race held in 1968.

Coeur d’Alene Resort developer Duane Hagadone hoped to revive the Diamond Cup in 1985, with the support of influential hydro owner Bernie Little. The issue was put on the ballot as an advisory vote, and 74 percent of Coeur d’Alene voters said they didn’t want the races to return.

Hydroplane racing promoters tried to revive racing again in 1996, but city voters endorsed an initiative that essentially banned unlimited-class hydroplane racing from Lake Coeur d’Alene. An opposition group, Protect Our Lakes Association, formed to put the initiative on the ballot.

Undaunted, enthusiasts in recent years have been working to reintroduce hydroplanes, starting with vintage boat displays and demonstrations on the lake the past few summers.

This year’s race would be a more modest return, with organizers expecting to attract 20,000 to 30,000 spectators.

But organizers envision it growing into an unlimited hydroplane race by next year, with spectators possibly exceeding 100,000.

That would put an economic punctuation mark at the end of the Lake City’s summer. Labor Day weekend now is a relatively quiet time in Coeur d’Alene, which draws big crowds earlier in the season for events such as the Ironman triathlon, a Fourth of July parade and fireworks show, and Street Fair/Art on the Green.

The Diamond Cup also would complement the other major Northwest hydroplane races: the Columbia Cup, in late July on the Columbia River in the Tri-Cities, and Seafair in early August on Lake Washington in Seattle. The Columbia Cup tends to bring in more than $12 million for the Tri-Cities during race week. Wheeler said he sees even more potential with the Coeur d’Alene races.

Wheeler estimates the event will cost a few hundred thousand dollars. The Diamond Cup board plans to begin fundraising soon, he said.

Fox Sports will broadcast portions of the event this summer and the entire unlimited race next year, said H1 Unlimited Chairman Sam Cole.

Unlimited hydroplanes have roots in the Northwest, Cole said. He plans to announce the location of another big race in the U.S. within the next three weeks.