When Chris Denslow attended his first Tri-City Water Follies as a boy in 1973, he was blown away by the hydroplanes' awesome speed and power.
"You have big, loud boats shooting hundreds of feet of water behind them," he said. "What's not to be captivated by?"
Follies fans like Denslow are looking forward to a competitive weekend of races as boats hit the river today for qualifying and testing, and rev up for heats Saturday leading up to the final races Sunday afternoon.
Kathy Powell, Follies event director, estimated 50,000 people jostled for waterfront views along the Kennewick and Pasco shorelines last summer. She thinks that number could climb this year.
"There's so much early enthusiasm, and our private area sold out early," Powell said. "We suspect there will be a bigger crowd this year."
Merle Oliver, 71, of Kennewick, remembers a time when the races were even more popular than they are today.
He's been a Follies fan since 1966, attending every year except 1970, when his daughter was in the hospital on boat race weekend.
"In those days, you could hardly walk around the park it attracted so many people," Oliver said. "That was quite an experience."
Like Denslow, Oliver was amazed by the boats and how the riverbank shook as they sped by. But he also was enamored of the racers themselves, especially Bernie Little, who owned the Miss Budweiser boat that raced from 1966 to 2001.
Little died in 2003, but his legacy of supporting hydroplane racing lives on.
"I drank Budweiser beer, so naturally (Miss) Budweiser became my favorite," Oliver said. "(Little) was positive. He wanted to win. I got to meet him later. ... I don't think they'll ever replace him."
Denslow recalls that hydroplane racing was as popular when he was a kid as NASCAR is now. He hopes to see a resurgence in the sport.
The races are part of a six-city circuit sanctioned by the American Boat Racing Association. Similar races in Seattle in August and San Diego in September will complete the season, and Denslow will attend them all for the first time this year to photograph the races. He's published several books of his photos from past Tri-City boat races.
But before Denslow started creating memorabilia, he collected it, starting with booster buttons in the 1970s and 1980s, when each team had its own.
He has hundreds of buttons -- too many to count -- from simple text buttons to one from Detroit's Gold Cup race featuring a photo he shot.
He was even pictured in a photo of Follies button collectors that ran in the Herald in 1975. He still has a yellowed copy tucked away in plastic.
He also has assorted patches, miniature hydroplanes, programs and other collectibles from over the years.
He expects this year's races to be some of the best competition he's seen.
"There will be a lot of good racing going on," Denslow said. "If you haven't already gotten a ticket, get one and get down there because it's going to be fun this year."
Admission is free today but parking costs $5. A general admission ticket, valid Saturday and Sunday, costs $25 for adults and $5 for children ages 6-12.
Tickets for general admission are $15 Saturday and $25 Sunday for adults and $5 for children ages 6-12 both days. Bleacher seats cost an extra $5 for adults and children 6 and up. Parking will cost $10 Sunday.
Pit access daily passes can be bought at the gate for $10.
Tickets are available at area Albertsons stores. Daily passes can be bought at the gate.
For more information, go to www.waterfollies.com.