Editor’s note: There are 38 days until the APBA HAPO Gold Cup Heat 1A race takes place on the Columbia River. At the same time, the Tri-City Water Follies’ annual event is celebrating its 50th year of racing unlimited hydroplanes. So the Herald will take a daily look at past storylines leading up to the Gold Cup. These are in no particular order:
An ode to the volunteers.
Over the 50 years that the Tri-Cities has had an unlimited hydroplane race, the biggest highlight may not be the fastest boats, the flips or the drivers.
It has to be the volunteers.
Without the thousands of volunteers to help put on the largest sporting event in the Tri-Cities, there just wouldn’t be a race.
“The Tri-City Water Follies Association is an all-volunteer association,” said Kathy Powell, event director for the Tri-City Water Follies. “Not only the hands-on 1,500 folks working in the park, but the board members. We meet year-round, and we start planning for the next year’s event immediately following the current event.”
That has been true for all 50 years.
Take this excerpt from the 1971 Herald: “(Don) Cooper is race chairman, which covers a multitude of misery. But he is up to his sideburns in help. Cooper’s portrait is in the Atomic Cup program with that of Keith Bowers, known officially as pit chairman. Behind them are about 250 people who work at staging the $200,000-plus spectacle, most of them volunteers.”
“Every year it gets easier,” Cooper said at the time, “because we have more and better equipment available and more people who know what they’re doing.”
It hasn’t changed today.
The Tri-City Water Follies has been named race site of the year more than once in the last 10 years.
The core of that success comes from the 1,000 or more volunteers who help put on the race, from the board members to the Lampson Crane company donating their cranes and manpower in the pits, to the hospital employees who work the first aid tents, to the rank and file volunteers who man both sides of the river to help out, and to the 150 to 200 volunteers who come down to the river the day after the race to pick up the garbage and pack up the fencing and other materials used on race day.
Some of those board members have been volunteers for decades: John Mostoller, for instance.
The long-time race director and immediate past president started volunteering at the age of 9.
Like most volunteers, Mostoller became a hydroplane fan.
“In high school I got pretty busy with other things,” he said. “When I got out of college, I was still a fan and I wanted to come help.”
Mostoller started out with the Kiwanis Club selling tickets, then he helped with parking. He moved on to various board positions, eventually becoming president of the Water Follies.
He was race director from 1992 until 2003, then did another stint at the position after that.
Mostoller is just one example, said Powell. There are many others.
“Many of our boards members started as kids, walking through the park and picking up cigarette butts,” she said. “Now they’re in bigger positions with more responsibility.”
The Columbia Cup was not always successful.
Back in 2007, the Tri-Cities race was in dire financial straits. So much so that, the board appealed for help from the public.
There was too much trading out of goods and services for tickets.
“Kathy Balcom got involved back then, and with her connections in the community, along with a rejuvenated board, we went to the public and asked do we want this event?” Water Follies board member Mike Denslow told the Herald a few years ago.
Lamb Weston jumped on board as a major sponsor. HAPO did the same as a mid-major sponsor, Denslow said. And the community responded positively.
“I think (Tri-Cities’ success) is a combination of a couple things,” Denslow said then. “The current leadership we have, along with key volunteers, and then the community support. We’ve got those three things in place.”
When a race goes away, getting the volunteers back together may be the toughest thing. That happened to Evansville, Ind., when the race was dropped after 30 years.
Evansville city officials elected not to bring the boats back because of costs.
“It’s really a tragedy when you’ve got an event for 30-something years and then you lose it,” said Steve David, driver of the U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto at the time and now H1 chairman. “It’s just a shame because sometimes when you lose it, you never get it back.”
For the Tri-Cities, Water Follies officials expect to see unlimiteds race on the Columbia for many years after this 50th anniversary race is held in July.
The biggest reason? A solid base of volunteers.