Jay Gardner loves the hydroplane races so much he hopped a plane and traveled 6,000 miles to be here this week.
Gardner, 56, has been a volunteer rescue sled driver for the Tri-Cities Water Follies for almost 30 years.
Even though he sold his partnership in a garbage disposal business in Reno, Nev., last year and retired to a quieter life in Fiji in the South Pacific, he didn’t hesitate to go the distance to be a part of the Mid-Columbia event again this year.
“I have loved these races since I was a kid,” Gardner said. “I used to watch them while visiting my grandparents (Earl and Ruby Hubert) who lived off Canal Drive.”
Now his seat is in the middle of the action.
The rescue sleds are strategically placed around the race course ready to rush to the aid of the hydroplane drivers in emergencies, such as fires, collisions and flips.
The flat bottom boats skim the water quickly to get rescue divers into the river fast if a hydroplane is overturned.
Michael Hendricks, 32, director of the rescue teams, said he first met Gardner when Hendricks was a kid accompanying his parents to the races.
“Jay is always here because he loves this event like the rest of us,” Hendricks said.
Eric Lane, 40, of Kennewick, is a 14-year veteran with the Follies rescue teams. He said there’s a great love for the sport but it’s the camaraderie among the volunteers that makes the event like a family gathering.
“Besides that, the rescue sleds have the best seat in the house,” he said.
But sometimes the job can be a little dangerous being so close to the 159-mph action.
“I remember one time when the Budweiser (boat) almost hit us (at the east end of the course),” Gardner said. “There was water spraying up during the turn so the driver couldn’t see us. He came within a couple feet of us.”
Gardner said being a part of the volunteer crew is more fun than work and he has no plans to stop donating his time to the annual event.
“This is not just a great sporting event, it’s a chance to spend time with friends and family,” he said.
“It’s like a family reunion every year I come for the races,” Gardner said. “Sure the races are exciting, but it’s the people I get to be with for a few days that’s important to me. And the fact I get to do some good fishing while I’m here.”
Soaking up the quiet life of retirement isn't all Gardner does in Fiji.
He also owns a boat and spends time on the ocean, sometimes taking tourists out on deep sea fishing charters.
"But I only do that when I feel like it," he said with smirk.
He’ll stick around after the final heat on Sunday and help clean up the park. Then he’ll head to Seattle and meet his wife Sherri and take in some drag racing.
“Then I’m going to go fishing,” Gardner said. “After that, maybe I’ll go home.”
w Dori O’Neal: 582-1514; email@example.com; Twitter: @dorioneal