Wheeling revving up for raceboat regatta

New Martinsville dentist Dr. David Bridgeman puts his hydroplane raceboat “Gemini” through its paces at high speed. Bridgeman and his boat will be among those making exhibition runs at the Wheeling Vintage Raceboat Regatta on Labor Day Weekend. The event is held at the Heritage Port in Wheeling. (Photo Provided)

WHEELING — The 14th annual Wheeling Vintage Raceboat Regatta presented by WesBanco will be held Labor Day Weekend at the Heritage Port in Wheeling.

More than 50 vintage raceboats, several capable of going more than 100 mph on the Ohio River, are expected for this year’s event, according to regatta organizer Debbie Joseph. While racing is not permitted because the boats do not meet modern safety requirements, Saturday and Sunday will be filled with exhibition runs when drivers go head-to-head at high speed within a few feet of one another.

“I don’t know any other sport where you can go and sit in the vehicle that’s being run,” said Joseph, who, with her husband. Dan, founded the regatta. The Josephs are co-chairs for the regatta.

Events at this year’s regatta begin Friday afternoon and evening, with raceboat owners registering. At that time, the pits will be open to the public.

Both Saturday and Sunday, opening ceremonies will begin at 9:45 a.m. A special feature Sunday will be the Marshall University Fife and Drum Corps performing the national anthem.

From about 10 a.m. until noon both days, raceboats will stage exhibition runs. From noon until 1:30 p.m., pits will be open to the public, with drivers signing autographs and allowing pictures with children. The first 100 people into the pits will receive special raceboat posters. Then, after 1:30 p.m., exhibition runs will resume.

Children’s activities will be available both days from noon until 5 p.m.

Large crowds have attended the regatta, for which there is no admission charge, for many years. Though it features entertainment, special activities for children and a multitude of food vendors, the key attraction is the old boats. Some are more than a half-century old and several raced at the old New Martinsville Regatta (where another vintage event now is held every Father’s Day weekend).

Usually constructed of special marine plywood and fiberglass, the light-weight craft are powered by automotive engines, some highly modified to produce 500 horsepower or more. Drivers sit unrestrained in open cockpits; modern hydroplane raceboats require special safety cells.

Often painted in bright colors and featuring names ranging from “Screemin’ Meemie” to “Jade Dragon,” the raceboats are far from off-limits to children. Each day of the regatta, during a noontime break, the pit area where boats are kept between heats is open to the public. Special precautions are taken to keep visitors safe.

Many drivers invite the youngsters to climb into the cockpits for photographs. Autographs are given freely.

A reason many parents seem attracted to the event is the noontime pit visits. Minutes after that session ends, high-speed hydroplane runs resume and moms and dads “watch that same boat their child was sitting in before, out there going 80 or 90 miles an hour,” Debbie Joseph said.

Another aspect to the regatta is that all proceeds benefit the Easter Seals Rehabilitation Center, based in Wheeling but offering services in West Virginia and Ohio from Steubenville south to Parkersburg. Since its inception, the regatta has donated more than $80,000 to the center.

Though hydroplane raceboat events are safe for spectators, they can be dangerous for drivers. A forceful reminder of that came earlier this summer when a popular hydroplane owner and driver, Rick Beatty, 60, of Dayton was killed when his boat struck a log during a vintage event. Beatty and his “Heavy Duty” hydroplane, one of the most powerful on the circuit, have run many times in Wheeling.

Debbie Joseph said a special memorial event honoring Beatty will be held just after opening ceremonies at the regatta on Saturday. After the national anthem is sung and a prayer is offered, three raceboats Beatty had owned will be launched for a run in his memory.

It will conclude with the two smaller boats peeling off, something like the “missing man” formation often seen in flights honoring deceased pilots, leaving only the powerful “Heavy Duty” roaring around the circuit. At the same time, every raceboat engine in the pits will be fired up and run for about 10 seconds.