Pittsburgh area boaters take to the water for outboard racing

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There was a rumble in the air and thunder on the water Memorial Day weekend at Two Mile Run County Park in Franklin.

The glass-like surface of Justus Lake was shattered as outboard boats ripped across its surface at top speed during the 17th Annual Two-Mile Run Regatta, which attracted 200 to 300 spectators from as far away as Canada.

Among the competitors was Doug Follett of Aliquippa, who served as race director and finished third in stock hydroplane.

The event was hosted by the Three Rivers Outboard Racing Association, of which Mr. Follett is a member.

Established on June 10, 1960, in McKeesport, the organization is affiliated with the American Power Boat Association and is now headquartered in Hudson, Ohio, with 20 active members. Mr. Follett joined the organization in 2006 after entering the sport for a second time.

He started racing boats when he was 14 and his family had a cottage at Canadohta Lake in Titusville, where local, nonsanctioned races were held every summer. He dropped out of boat racing when he was 16 and turned his attention to cars.

Years later, the same boating friends he had raced with as a teenager started to get back into the sport and invited him to a race in Franklin.

Mr. Follett, 55, said he had no idea what to expect. After working as pit crew for a few races, he purchased his own hydroplane boat with a stock outboard engine that can reach speeds up to 80 mph.

“The first time I took the boat for a ride, my only thought was ‘what did I get myself into?’” he said. “It was quite terrifying, but you get used to it and then it just becomes exciting.”

The two types of boats used in outboard racing are hydroplanes and runabouts. The hulls of hydroplanes have three points of contact with the water, which create a tunnel that traps air underneath the hull and lifts the boat out of the water, freeing it from resistance.

Runabouts have a flat-bottom running surface, which provides a cushion of air on which the boat rides.

Mr. Follett’s boat weighs about 120 pounds and is a kneel-down model that he maneuvers while crouched down on his knees. Laydown boats, nicknamed "belly boats," are driven by drivers who lie on their bellies. They are raced by a select few.

Safety requirements for the sport include a helmet and a cut-resistant Kevlar driving suit with a life jacket that has impact protection. Mr. Follett also wears Kevlar gloves, socks and boots.

For those on a budget who are interested in getting into the sport, Mr. Follett recommended buying used boats, equipment and safety gear.

To further encourage new participants in the sport, a new stock outboard class has been added by the power boat association, which lowers barriers to entry, has low startup costs and provides a place for new members to hone their racing skills before making a transition into the faster classes.

Mr. Follett said the new class was one of the biggest classes that raced at the regatta and he expects it’s going to be successful across the organization.

While the rush and excitement of racing is definitely a draw, Mr. Follett said he gleans the most enjoyment from being a part of a club with people who have similar interests.

The group meets in January through the end of the racing season in the fall and hosts a number of races. Practices take place on the Ohio River near Aliquippa in addition to runs on the Allegheny River near Oil City.

For those interested in outboard racing, the club is offering a driving school from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 4 at Springfield Lake in Lakemore, Ohio. The day will begin with classroom instruction, followed by a chance to race a hydroplane boat. Cost is $50. Register via the club’s website at www.trora.com.

Shannon M. Nass, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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