Will Thunder Return?

When the U-3 Master Tire narrowly beat the U-11 Peters & May in a hydroplane exhibition June 15 during the Shrinersfest, it marked the first race of its kind on the Evansville riverfront since the last Thunder on the Ohio in 2009.

But how long it will be until the hydroplanes come back again is anybody’s guess. Next year’s Shrinersfest will feature the Blue Angels, which will require additional funding. Raising enough money for the air stunt team and a sanctioned hydroplane race will be difficult.

Shrinersfest spokesman Dale Thomas estimated that about 30,000 people were on hand to view the hydroplane race, along with other events that included a D-Day reenactment featuring LST 325 and an air show.

“Right now, we are sitting back wondering what was the draw,” says Thomas. “The D-Day reenactment was right before the hydroplanes on Saturday, and that was huge. We had a lot of things going on, so as an organizer, I look at it and wonder if it was a single item (that brought in a big crowd) or was it a formula with a mix of events.”

Whatever the draw, there is no question this was the most successful Shrinersfest in the four years since the Hadi Shrine took over the former Freedom Festival. Thomas estimated that more than 60,000 people attended the five-day event, and says nearly every one of the 20,000 admission buttons that had been printed was sold.

This year’s hydroplane exhibition came together quickly. Two local businessmen — Ryan Hobby and Dennis Wright — approached the Hadi Shrine in February with an idea. They wanted to stage a two-boat race as a litmus test to find out how much support existed for bringing back a full race. The Shriners agreed, but only after making sure it would not cost them anything.

Hobby and Wright got the support of the Peters & May U-11 boat, as well as that of Evansville’s Ed Cooper Jr., who owns the U-3 Master Tire. They also were able to raise enough money to fund the exhibition.

“I needed an answer by April 1, because I was holding out on advertising, design of the buttons, billboards, everything,” says Thomas. “Once they raised the money, we went forward. We kind of stayed out of the way and let them do their thing. And I think it went fairly well.”

The last time Thunder on the Ohio was held in 2009, it was under the APBA Unlimited Hydroplane sanctioning body. That league has since been renamed H1 Unlimited. Running an H1 race in Evansville in 2015 would cost upward of $300,000. That would be on top of the $150,000 budget for the Shrinersfest and another $100,000 for the Blue Angels.

Hobby, who formed Evansville Hydroplanes LLC along with Wright, says finding more than a half million dollars in less than a year isn’t likely.

“The Blue Angels are coming next year, and that’s no secret,” says Hobby. “Funding for both events is going to be hard to find. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it will be difficult. So we’ll have to look at whether it’s worth doing next year or not. And if it isn’t, that’s not to say we can’t come back in the future.”

Thunder on the Ohio was held in Evansville from 1979 through 2009. When the race shut down in 2009, it did so with deep financial problems. Hobby says the people who ran the race in its last years didn’t evolve with changing times.

“It wasn’t the community’s problem,” says Hobby. “I think the fan base is still here. The problems of the Freedom Festival were no fault of the fans.”

Ed Cooper Jr., a resident of Posey County, Indiana, hadn’t had his boat in the water since 2010 when, after running a qualifying lap at Madison, Indiana, he pulled out of the race due to a dispute with H1 Unlimited. He was glad to see the U-3 race again, even if he was too busy in the pits to see the size of the crowd.

“It was great, we had a good time, and everything worked the way you’d want it to,” says Cooper. “That made for a good weekend. People came and told me there was a great crowd, but from the riverfront looking up, you can’t tell.”

The U-3 is the last piston-powered unlimited hydroplane, with others now powered by turboshaft engines originally designed for helicopters. When the U-3’s engine — which is much louder than the turboshafts — was fired up for a practice run on Friday, it brought a round of applause from spectators.

“Every time we were supposed to run, we did run,” says Cooper. “We put on a pretty good race. It was a good deal. They gave me the opportunity to run my boat in my hometown, so I took the opportunity and I enjoyed it.”

Cooper would like to see a full race return to Evansville, and says the city’s riverfront is a perfect course for both racers and fans. However, if H1 is involved, Cooper might not be.

“But that has nothing to do with whether they have the event or don’t have the event — that is my own situation,” says Cooper.

A decision on whether there will be any kind of hydroplane racing at the 2015 Shrinersfest will likely come by the end of August. The committee that puts on the festival will meet again in mid-July to compare notes. Thomas says to get a full hydroplane race, the Shriners will need a partner and corporate sponsors.

“We are not in a position where we can put the Shrine at risk,” says Thomas. “That would be the last thing we’d want to do. We’ll have to pull the public and private sectors into this. We’ll have to talk to local government officials to see what they can bring to the table. But we don’t want to be in a position where we lose money.”

For more information about the U-3 Master Tire race team, visit its Facebook page at facebook.com/go3racing. For more information about the Hadi Shrine, visit hadishrine.org.

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