Walled Lake Thunder – Walled Lake, MI
The Motor City. What was once confined to just the city, people’s love for anything with a motor has now permeated the entire state. Michiganders affinity for motor sports started with cars back when Henry Ford rolled out the Model T in 1908. Michigan being the Great Lakes State, with nearly 65,000 inland lakes and ponds, it wasn’t too long after 1908 that engines were brought out onto the water.
After traveling through Europe, boat builder Chris Smith and his sons built the first ever hydroplane in North American in Algonac, MI in 1912. After that, boat builder John L. Hacker and the Hacker Boat Company designed Kitty Hawk, the first truly successful step hydroplane that exceeded the then-unthinkable speed of over 50 mph, which was the fastest boat in the world at that time. He followed that up with more Kitty Hawks, which continued to break sea-speed records over the next few years. After moving the company to Michigan in 1914, the Wolverine State got a taste for fast boats and never looked back.
So what is a hydroplane?
A hydroplane is a fast motorboat, where the hull (bottom of the boat) shape is such that when traveling through the water, the weight of the boat is supported by planing forces, rather than by simple buoyancy. The idea behind it is fairly simple; The step design allows the boat to ride on just two short planes which reduces the surface area of the boat that is touching the water, reducing the water friction, and thus reducing the resistance. The step design actually takes the boat out of the water, allows it to skim the surface of the water, which dramatically increases the boat’s speed compared to normal speed boats. The boat’s motor is within the boat itself, and the race driver sits in a capsule while manning the helm. The boat skims across the top of the water, leaving a gap between the boat and the water’s surface, and the only parts of the boat that continuously touch the water are the propeller and the steer fin.
Where there’s fast boats, there’s racing of course. When the weather is warm in Michigan, the hydroplanes hit the lakes with nearly 1-2 racing events each week on different lakes throughout the state. It’s the perfect warm weather Michigan sport, marrying the state’s love for its abundance of fresh water as well as its affinity for engines, horse power and speed. In Michigan you’re never more than 6 miles from a lake, so the boating and lake culture is ever-present during the warmer months. If you or your family doesn’t own a lake house, then it’s a good bet that someone you know does. Power boats, pontoon boats, skiing, wakeboarding, tubing, and fishing are happening day in and day out on lakes all over the state. The cold weather months leaves Michiganders yearning for lake activities, so when the weather is nice everyone takes full advantages of the many watersport-ing opportunities.
Which brings us to the Walled Lake Thunder, one of six hydroplane races being held in Michigan during the month of June. Walled Lake is your average Michigan lake, surround by a quaint downtown area, lake homes, docks, and a small beach. But on this weekend the lake is overtaken by fast boats and thunderous engine roars.
46 boats over 8 categories took to the lake over two days, putting on a show of speed, power, and gracefulness on the water. Drivers competed in front of an estimated 10,000 people, winning cash prizes for each race and category. Boats are divided into categories depending on the size of the boat and the size of its engine, which also plays a part in how fast those boats can go. Speeds during the Walled Lake Thunder ranged from around 95 mph to over 200 mph. People lined the docks, filled the beach, took to waterside bars, and even gathered in neighbors backyards to watch the boats seemingly fly around the oval racetrack.
In addition to the sheer speed and power exhibited by the boats (unlike anything I’ve ever seen on water), people are attracted to the sport because of its low barrier to entry. One driver told us that he just went to a race one time, fell in love with it, asked around to get put onto a “team” where he could help out for free, and the next thing he knew he owns a boat and is racing it from lake to lake.
“It’s an easy transition if you’re into cars,” he said. “I bought my first boat as a kit just like I would’ve with a car, and put it together myself.” That low cost (anywhere from $350-$3,000 for a hydroplane kit) and historical Michigan affinity for building motorized vehicles makes hydroplane boating a relatively accessible sport for many in the region.
Last but not least, and maybe even most importantly, these races are tons of fun! With so many happening throughout the state, there’s bound to be one happening near wherever you may live, and there’s really no excuse not to come and check a race out. Grill out on the beach and watch these incredible boat drivers navigate turns and maneuver positioning at speeds faster than you’ve likely ever driven in a car, all while only a small part of the boat actually touches the water!
And the thing is, if you’re from Michigan and it’s a weekend day when the sun is out, then you were probably headed to a lake anyway.