They are akin to airplanes on the water, going from zero to 120 miles per hour in around three seconds. They can make hairpin turns and they dazzle Formula 1 boat racing fans around the world. This year, they made a stop at the Clark County Fairgrounds when the F1 Grand Prix — a world-class platform in motorsports — came to Springfield in late August.
The event was one of six nationally televised F1 boat races and it set the stage for what promises to be a lasting relationship moving forward.
“Back in 2016, we invited three F1 champions from the all around the country to come look at the site and they all raved about the course and how it was the perfect facility,” said Dean Blair, Clark County Fair director. “It is just the right size and depth and we have a launch area we call the lagoon that virtually eliminates downtime at the events, which they really like. Our role in this is that the Fair is the landlord and we rent the lake to United Powerboat.”
Clark County has a number of ties to F1 boat racing as home of past boat-racing champions Bill Chatfield (Springfield) and Dana Potts (South Vienna). Seeing the possibilities, Potts, now a motorsports promoter in Indianapolis, used his connections to bring world-class Formula 1 boat racing to the former gravel pit adjoining the Clark County Fairgrounds.
“Back in the 90s we utilized the gravel pit by the fairgrounds as a private test lake,” Potts said. “We started doing a feasibility study back in November. Basically we brought some boats over, did a little bit of media and put on a little show to see if it was even viable because I didn’t think the lake was big enough to hold multiple boats at the time. Back when I had tested on it, it was much smaller. They have since dug out the pit into a 115-acre lake and it’s a perfect facility.”
There was significant preparation and investment for the first boating event at the site that was held last June with a collegiate solar boat racing competition and it then took another $50,000 of additional investment provided by local sources, including a Springfield Foundation grant of $25,000, to prepare for the F1 Grand Prix.
“We had to work hard to put on a first-class event and facility. We got the blessing from some boat racers and the sanctioning body to move the Detroit race to Springfield, Ohio,” Potts said. “It was really good to see the city and the county step up. I’ve been all over the world racing and it’s just awesome to come back to your hometown. I never had an issue getting things done. Everybody was there to ask, ‘What can we do to help?’
“What I love about having an event at the fairgrounds is the place is run by farmers. An example is the boat racers came to us and said, ‘You guys don’t have boat ramps built yet.’ And we said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ We’ve got a bunch of farmers in this town with a bunch of front loaders. We’ll figure it out. And we did — that’s what’s great about it. A lot of people don’t look behind the scenes and see the can-do attitude of all the farmers involved. And that’s what I love about it.”
The area has now been re-zoned for entertainment purposes by local authorities.
“The beautiful thing about it is the county fairgrounds does 300-plus events a year. They have the infrastructure, they have the maintenance facility, and they have the wherewithal,” Potts said. “I got really passionate about getting something big that the community can rally around and make it their home. We hope powerboat racing makes this the biggest place in the U.S. and hopefully the world.”
In late August, the Springfield F1 Grand Prix F1 Powerboat Championship was held over three days attracting 5,000 visitors. The 70 camping spots for the event sold out quickly and visitors packed in 66 15- by 30-foot tailgating spots with the coolers, grills and tents. There was also a general admission area for fans with blankets and chairs.
Before the event, around 1,000 area students came to the site for a learning session where they heard from boat racers and got to see some demo runs on the lake. There was also plenty of excitement from the boat racing community leading up to the race, particularly due to various facility challenges at other sites that have led to a number of recent event cancellations.
“We’re so excited about racing in Springfield. There is a long history of tunnel boat racing out of Springfield with Bill Chatfield and his history of championship teams. We can’t wait to put on a show with fan views and a race course second to none,” said Chris Fairchild, Championship F1 Powerboat Racer for Mercury Racing.
The course for the event was over a mile long with four left turns and a sharp right turn, making it one of the most technical courses on the F1 circuit. There were around 50 boats total at the event with 23 boats competing in a 30-lap final.
“We actually had 27 F1 boats registered. Unfortunately, a lot of them didn’t make it through the weekend. They haven’t had 27 boats since I raced and that was about 1995 or 1996. So it’s been a long time since they had that big of an F1 boat count,” Potts said. “From the F1 Grand Prix point of view and the American Power Boat Association (APBA), they’ve never had a facility like this. There are boat races all over the country and I would say 99% percent of those boat races are done on public water. Tradition is you have to go in and you have to cordon off a lake or riverfront and you have to get DNR involved as well as the city and other bells and whistles to make it happen. Not every mayor or city official is going to be a fan of boat racing.
“There are few consistent homes, like an Indy 500 or Daytona 500. Boat racing does not have that currently. They don’t have a home that is a privately held and fenced off where you can charge a gate admission. The APBA looked at this for probably 10 years of actually buying their own lake and creating something like this. They knew this was their biggest challenge as a boat racing community — they need a place that they can call home. Boat racers are excited about the newness, the opportunity, and
the ability to grow from this. That’s something they haven’t had in a long time.”
Boats came from all over the country and even crossed the border from Canada for the event. Some veterans of the race world even got back into racing for this specific race, going as far as a buying a boat specifically for it. Unfortunately, a handful of the racers, being from Houston, Texas, had to cut the weekend short in order to head back home after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey hit their area particularly hard.
Despite some challenges, the Springfield event was a clear success that set the stage for more events to follow in the future.
“I think the fans have really accepted it — the community’s accepted it. I love the passion that we’re seeing behind it,” Potts said. “I just heard from our tailgaters and our campers and everybody wants to renew. They were just blown away by the capability of the entertainment and also the uniqueness to it and the opportunity to let Springfield hang its hat on it and make it their own.”