Offshore Powerboats Return Next Weekend

OCEAN CITY- The grand spectacle and sheer energy of powerboat racing returns to the resort next weekend with the arrival of the first leg of the 2009 Geico Offshore Triple Crown.

Produced by OPA Offshore Racing and sponsored locally by Sunset Marina, the event will turn Ocean City into the center of the offshore powerboat-racing universe next weekend. Roughly 60-65 of the top boats on Geico Offshore Boat Grand Prix will start arriving in the resort area late next week for the first leg of a summer-long series throughout the country with stops in Michigan, Long Island, Ohio, New Jersey, Tennessee and back to Maryland for an event in Cambridge in September.

The Ocean City race is the first of the summer-long circuit, making this year’s event even more special, according to Phil Houck, owner of the Bull on the Beach restaurants, who has his own boat and racing team participating in the circuit. Houck produced offshore powerboat races off the coast of Ocean City throughout the 1990s with the first event in 1992. There were a few years in between when there were no powerboat races in Ocean City, but the circuit returned four years ago and has become a staple of the early summer season.

“We missed a couple of years there, but the circuit returned to Ocean City four years ago and the event has really grown,” said Houck. “This year will be extra special because it’s the first race of the year. Everybody will be charged up because it’s a brand new season. It’s like Opening Day.”

Ocean City is a favorite stop for the powerboat racing teams for a variety of reason, not the least of which is the wide variety of amenities in the resort. It is also a fan-favorite for many of the same reasons, but the offshore course has made it difficult for the average fan on the beach to see the action up close and get a real appreciation of the raw power of the boats.

The roughly two-mile course starts in the south around 6th Street and runs up to north to around 22nd Street. The course’s closest point to the shore is around 14th Street and the Commander Hotel, which will host the official racing viewing events. While the Ocean City race has drawn high praise from the competing teams, one of the drawbacks from a spectator standpoint has been the distance of the course to the shore.

Earlier this spring, however, the Ocean City Mayor and Council approved a request from OPA Racing to move the course closer to shore in some areas from a previous distance of 880 feet to as close as 600 feet in some cases. Although they technically don’t have the authority to close the ocean to swimmers in the race area, town officials gave their blessing to a request to close the surf to swimming for several hours during the actual race events next summer and the measure has been signed off on by the Beach Patrol and the Coast Guard.

“One of the only disappointing aspects of the Ocean City race is just how far offshore the course is,” said Houck. “They’ve addressed that somewhat this year by moving the course in a couple of hundred yards.”

While the event is obviously about the powerful boats racing off the coast of the resort, there is plenty of action inshore all weekend for the fans and the racing teams to enjoy. Sunset Marina in West Ocean City will be the staging area for many of the events starting next Friday with registration and a meet-and-greet with the drivers and the race teams during which fans will be able to see the boats up close and personal and talk to the competitors.

On Saturday, similar events will be held at host Sunset Marina as the anticipation builds for race day on Sunday. Finally, on Sunday, a driver’s meeting will be held and the course buoys will be set in place. The first of two races will start at noon, followed by a second race at 2 p.m. The weekend’s festivities conclude with an awards ceremony at Seacrets on Sunday night.

Houck, who has been involved in powerboat racing in Ocean City for years and was instrumental in bringing the event to the resort, will have his own Bull on the Beach boat competing in the race. Houck’s teams won world championships in 1999 and again in 2006 and will compete in the summer-long series again this year with an eye on returning to Key West for the world championships again.