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Get Ready For ‘Thunder on the Ohio’

June 14, 2017
BY IAN HICKS - For the Wetzel Chronicle ( , Wetzel Chronicle

NEW MARTINSVILLE - Those who will be in New Martinsville next weekend may want to keep an eye out for a "Barracuda" in the Ohio River.

No, not the vicious maritime predator, of course. This one cuts through the water much faster.

Almost 70 years after it set a world speed record there, the vintage hydroplane "Barracuda" will make a triumphant return to New Martinsville as one of about 25 boats set to run in the inaugural "Thunder on the Ohio" New Martinsville Vintage Regatta set for June 17-18 at the former Magnolia Yacht Club.

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One of the only raceboats of its kind left in existence today, the "Barracuda" - then driven by Lou Butler of Zanesville, Ohio - set a world speed record during a 10-mile heat in New Martinsville in 1948. Now owned by Tim Settle of Brookville, Ohio, the boat still features all of its original hardware, right down to the trailer used to haul it from event to event.

The "Barracuda's" world record is one of more than 50 set on the Ohio River during the original New Martinsville Regatta.

"From 1938 until nearly the end of the 20th century, New Martinsville enjoyed a special place in the culture of America," said Penny Morris, president of the New Martinsville Vintage Regatta. "New Martinsville was one of the premier sites for national competition in the sport of hydroplane racing."

Fact Box

Raceboats Return To Parlor City

Remember the old days? A friend from New Martinsville emailed me recently, asking if I remember Friday nights during late September in the '60s, watching for the raceboats to come into town?

Oh, my, do I remember.

We were eager just to see the hydroplanes and, before we could drive, we'd sometimes ask mom and dad to cruise around downtown New Martinsville so we could spot some of the boats.

They were beautiful, with flashy, colorful paint jobs and intriguing names: Wildcatter, Southern Style, Barracuda, High Winder, Baby Doll

Friday night was just the preview. Saturday and Sunday were the main event.

We'd go down to the riverfront to watch the boats - actually, part airplanes - skim across the Ohio River at speeds occasionally topping 150 mph. We'd marvel that anyone could control such beasts.

The drivers sometimes seemed absolutely nuts as, even skidding through turns at speeds higher than anything you want to try in your car on a West Virginia road and with other raceboats so close they might have reached out and touched them, they jockeyed for position.

They're back.

After years in which the old boats could be seen only at the annual Wheeling Vintage Raceboat Regatta, they're coming back to the Parlor City. The New Martinsville Vintage Regatta is scheduled for June 17-18.

Even weeks before the event, about 20 boats had been registered for it. It promises to be quite a show.

If you're a New Martinsville old-timer, you know why you want to be there. If you don't remember the old boats, trust me: You need to attend the regatta.

Here's the thing: Nowadays, the vintage boats can't race under American Power Boat Association rules.

They're too dangerous for competition, the APBA says. For one thing, the drivers aren't belted into the boats.

I know some of these guys and gals. They have to play by the rules with "exhibition" runs only. But trust me on this: If you liked the crazy drivers at the old New Martinsville Regatta, you'll like those at the new one, too. You've never seen an "exhibition" like this.

How do I find this event, you ask? Just drive to Main Street in New Martinsville on June 17-18. Then get out of the car and walk toward the sound of high-horsepower engines roaring.

Or, look for the roostertails on the river.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer. net.

In the New Martinsville Regatta's heyday, more than 20,000 people would line the Ohio River at the yacht club to watch the races.

"In the early autumn every year, the fastest boats and the best drivers came to the waters of the Ohio River adjacent to this town to compete for speed records in all categories and the chance to be named one of the best drivers in America," Morris said.

The vintage watercraft will be running at speeds approaching 140 mph beginning at 10:30 a.m. June 17 and noon on June 18. Admission is free, and the former yacht club is located behind Dos Hermanos Restaurant along North Main Street in New Martinsville.

Spectators will be invited into the pits to look at the boats up close and talk to the daredevils who drive them during breaks in the action.

Wheeling resident Dr. Dave Kappel - a vintage hydroplane owner himself who grew up in New Martinsville during hydroplane racing's heyday there - recognizes the importance of the event to the community. "It's really in our sense of place and time. This was a part of our growing up. It's a part of our memory and I am very delighted and enthusiastic to be helping bring some of this back to New Martinsville - to folks that remember and younger people who haven't been exposed to the old boats," Kappel said.

The New Martinsville event now joins the Wheeling Vintage Raceboat Regatta, held every Labor Day weekend at Heritage Port, as local events on the vintage circuit.

Vintage raceboats, built between 1945-1985 with open cockpits, do not meet today's racing safety standards. Therefore, the American Powerboat Association restricts their use to demonstration laps.

Boats from a variety of inboard and outboard racing classes will be running. Among the registrants are entries from Ontario, Canada, Baton Rouge, La., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.



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