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River City Racin' brings loud fun to Chamberlain

Hydroplane boat driver David Warren runs a test lap Saturday around a 1 mile loop laid out on the Missouri River near the American Creek Campground in Chamberlain as part of the weekend's River City Racin' event. (Chris Mueller/Republic)

CHAMBERLAIN -- Rick Glass wasn't kidding. "It's going to be loud," he said.

The smell of burnt race fuel and the engine noise of about 20 hydroplane boats were carried by the wind out of American Creek Campground in Chamberlain on Saturday.

The boat's drivers gathered to compete in a variety of races over the weekend on the Missouri River as part of the Pepsi Racing Power Cup Challenge. Glass, a resident of Lake Geneva, Wis., and a mechanic for MRM Racing, came to the event with a friend and hydroplane boat driver Mark Manos, of Oak Park, Ill. It was the first time either had entered an event in South Dakota. Manos has raced hydroplane boats since 2000.

"I'm just here to have a good time and help this guy (Manos) out when he needs it," Glass said.

With them, the two brought a 1,100-pound black and silver hydroplane boat. Made mostly of fiberglass, aluminum and carbon fiber, the lightweight boat is powered by a 5 liter, 8 cylinder Chevrolet engine, which Glass estimated produced about 360 horsepower. Its top speed exceeds 110 mph.

Manos' boat was built by a Canadian boat builder using an engine built in the Chicago area and a trailer full of parts from California. It took about three years to complete at a cost of about $35,000.

"It's a combination of a lot of people putting everything together," Glass said. "Each boat might look the same, but they're not built by the same people." Despite the price tag, Glass said most of the competitors were just "average Joes." "They do it for fun, they do it for sport, and to be honest about it, a lot of these guys don't care if they win or lose," Glass said. "All they want to do is finish the race."

The weekend in Chamberlain is only the second event Manos has competed in with his current boat. He finished an event just a week earlier in Michigan without any problems.

"It's a good boat, it handles very well," he said. "It has a tendency to fly a little bit more than I would like, so I'm getting used to that."

Manos competes in races alongside other drivers with boats of similar size and speed.

"It's really up to the driver to do the best that he can to win," Glass said. "Most of these boats are fairly equal."

Although controlled using a setup similar to the average car -- with foot pedals and a steering wheel -- the experience of driving a hydroplane boat is unlike anything in day-to-day life, Manos said.

"It's you and the boat," he said. "Because you're strapped in there, you hear every noise. When water hits the boat, you hear everything. You're in tune with the boat and the water completely."

Manos described the feeling of driving as "complete exuberance."

The physical strain on a driver can be extreme, said Glass, who has never driven a hydroplane boat himself.

"They're really just scraping the top of the water," he said. "When you hit a wave, you feel it."

Gliding over the top of the water can quickly become flying, flipping and crashing over the water if anything goes wrong. It's an experience Manos has been through twice.

All drivers are required to follow strict safety regulations to prevent any potential mishap after a crash. Each boat is equipped with an air tank and mask to provide drivers with about eight minutes of oxygen should the cockpit fill with water, and each driver is required to wear a mostly orange helmet so they are easier to spot underwater.

Manos escaped each of his crashes without incident. Well, almost.

"I hurt my knee getting back into the safety boat," he said with a grin.