Speeds of 250 miles per hour on the water. That's what fans of drag boat racing might see this weekend on the Oklahoma River at the Oklahoma City Nationals, a race sanctioned by the Southern Drag Boat Association. Let's repeat: 250 miles per hour. That is at the elite, top-fuel level where only four to five boats will be competing.
Jimmy Parsons, a 20-year veteran of the Oklahoma City Police Department, will be racing in the elapsed time bracket, in estimates sprints across the water at 160-180 mph.
"It took a little while to get used to the speed, but like anything else, you take a few laps in it and you get used to it," Parsons said. "As long as you have good, smooth water, it's like a walk in the park."
He said hitting the top speed takes a smooth plane of water, reasonable humidity, low winds and an isolated stretch of river. That is why organizers brought drag boat racing back to the Oklahoma River.
"The way the river sits down, winds come from either the north or south, so it serves as a natural protection. It's just a great setup," said event presenter Mike McAuliffe.
Drag boat racing has a bumpy past on the Oklahoma River, he said. Under a different promoter, the first event to bring the SDBA to downtown in 2005 was very successful; McAuliffe said an estimated 40,000 people showed. But in 2007, record flooding resulted in excess water being emptied into the Oklahoma River. The debris that came with the flood water closed down that year's event, but the promoter was unable to refund tickets. Instead, crowds were told to bring back wristbands the following year for a refund ticket, but McAuliffe said SDBA refused to work with the promoter, so no event.
McAuliffe's promotion company, Oklahoma City Events & Entertainment, decided to take over.
"I do the River Parade and do Riverfest," he said. "The drag boat races were a successful event, good for Bricktown and had an economic impact of $4.3 million, according to the (Greater Oklahoma City) Chamber. I didn't know much about drag boat racing, but I did see that it was good for the city."
One of his first moves to reassure drag boat race fans was to honor the wristband refund from 2007's canceled event and then to sell tickets through Ticketmaster, which guarantees the tickets will be refunded, should the event be canceled again.
He said another big move for the race was securing the support of longtime race fan Steve Price, who is president of the parent company of the Oklahoma City Little Caesars locations, which is sponsoring the races. Price has followed the sport for years and sees the growth potential available at the Oklahoma River.
"There aren't that many rivers that have opportunities for spectators on both sides, since most races are at lakes," he said. "Having 30,000 to 40,000 people at the Oklahoma River is incredible."
The race was moved west down the river near the Dell call center because of ongoing construction by the downtown stretches. Parsons said the event will still offer accessibility that is unique to the river.
"A lot of the races we go to, it's not uncommon to drive 20 miles from the pitting area at the race to your hotel," he said. "Not here in Oklahoma City. Your hotel is right there. The restaurants are right there."
The Oklahoma City Nationals take place 8 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday at the Oklahoma River. Tickets are $15 or $40 three-day pass. "Charles Martin