Originally created 08/17/99

Boat races evolve



Outboard racing in the Augusta area continued to grow in popularity during the 1950s and 1960s, with events moving from Lake Olmstead in the western part of the city to Clarks Hill Lake -- known today as Thurmond Lake.

Harold Bateman, 77, of Martinez was active in the sport from 1959 to 1980, quitting at age 58.

"My brother, C.W. Bateman, got me started in it while he was racing. I'd always been a pretty good mechanic, so one day he asked me to work on his outboard. I asked him, `Where's the manual?' Of course, there wasn't one for his souped-up motor, so I learned to work on them from scratch."

Races were held at Elijah Clark State Park at Clarks Hill Lake and later in Keg Creek opposite Petersburg Landing, with civic groups such as the Augusta Shrine Club and Martinez-Evans Jaycees reaping the financial benefits for their charities.

"The first race on Clarks Hill I remember was held in 1957 at Elijah Clark and drew more than 100 boats -- hydroplanes and runabouts," Mr. Bateman recalled.

Longtime boat racer Billy Fulcher of Augusta had an idea that boat races would be successful at Clarks Hill's Wildwood Park and applied for a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

He was right, with the first race held during the late 1970s under auspices of the Columbia County Recreation Board and the Southern Outboard Racing Association.

Thousands of spectators watched from the banks and from a flotilla of pleasure boats anchored in the mouth of Big Creek just down from the power lines crossing Keg Creek.

Meanwhile, area outboard dealers' shops such as Paul (Bob) Hayes Marine on Olive Road, Bateman Marine on Washington Road, Bowers Marine on Deans Bridge Road and Crosby Marine on Jackson Road became hotbeds of racing activity. Each sponsored outboard racing teams.

Harold Bateman led his contingent of John Saxon, Tommy Slay, Cody Billiter and Bill McDowell, according to 1972 accounts in The Augusta Chronicle. Hayes was represented by Gene Hornsby, Ricky Huff and Tony Mulhoney, while Mike Scearce drove for Howard, and Foster Bowers and Harold Wagner for Crosby.

The Central Savannah River Area Outboard Racing Club was joined in 1972 by the North Augusta Outboard Club, whose members included David Annis, Billy Daniel, Bobby Osteen and Richard "Bubba" Burton.

Others whose names became prominent in outboard racing circles include Martin Tidwell, Mike Gavalas, Bob Crawford, Rusty Campbell, Tommy and Bill Dudley, Wayne Riddle, Dickie Hiers, Tony Mulherin and Jackie Jones.

The Wildwood Park races lasted until the mid-1980s, when area outboard racing took a quantum leap foward.

The weekend of June 21-23, 1985, marked the conversion of "backyard boat racing" to "world class powerboat racing" in the Augusta area.

The inaugural River Race Augusta roared off to a great start on the Savannah River opposite Augusta Riverfront Marina, with an estimated 20,000 fans coming through the turnstiles during the three days.

Concept for the outboard race and other river-related events began in 1981 when the Augusta Port Authority set up a committee to study recreational use of the river.

"We were particularly interested in events that would attract people to the river," said Duncan Wheale, a Richmond County Superior Court judge who was port authority chairman during the first River Race Augusta. "The Augusta Invitational Rowing Regatta evolved in 1984 and after it got going, some of whom I like to call `red-necked' friends told me that since the regatta provided an event for `blue-bloods,' how about doing something for them. They had a hard time identifying with rowing.

"A short time after that, Rowland Dye called me about the powerboat race possibility, describing boats going more than 100 mph. I lived on the river at the time, thought about it and said it was impossible," Judge Wheale said during a 1990 interview published in The Chronicle.

The original race idea was Augustan Bobby Crawley's. He operated a prop repair shop and also built racing propellers. He and Mr. Dye talked about holding the race on the river and later the prop expert spoke with Judge Wheale.

"He told me that the boats were the fastest-turning vehicles in the world, that at 130 mph, they'd be able to turn using less than half the width of the river," Judge Wheale recalled.

"I told him I didn't believe it, so he brought in a boat from somewhere and demonstrated. I was busy with other projects at the time, so I appointed Bobby and Rowland as a committee of two to look into it. They stayed in `the trenches' for nearly two years and, although there were roadblocks, Bobby never gave up. He's the unsung hero of this event."

The River Race Augusta name came about when Mr. Dye, Finley Merry, Jim Wilson, Frank Albert and Frank Christian sat around a table and began writing down names.

"Finally, someone said, `How about Augusta River Race?"' Mr. Dye said during an early interview. "I replied, `How about River Race Augusta?"' We wanted to get the city's name, the river and the sport into the title and that does it."

J. Pat Timmerman, at the time employed by Banker's First, was "loaned" by his boss, Monty Osteen, to become the first race chairman.

"My thought was to put together a working committee composed of people who were socially compatible and in various levels of expertise," Mr. Timmerman said during an interview.

"Bob Crawford, an engineer at Procter & Gamble and a former boat racer, Dayton Sherrouse, Lee Neel, Rowland Dye, David Fenstermacher, Ray Peters, Bert Harbin, Gerald Wise, George Streeter, Pierce Blanchard and Jim Leverett were among the early ones to come aboard. It was a learning experience. Everybody did their thing and it all came together at race time."

The inaugural River Race Augusta was sanctioned by the American Power Boat Association and the European-run Formula One Drivers Association (FONDA) and run under the National Powerboat Association banner.

"Thanks to the wonderful welcome Augusta has given to us, this has led to the biggest turnout of race boats the NPA has had in the last four years," race director Duke Waldrop said. "Twenty-three states and two foreign countries are represented here."

Great Britain was represented by Jonathan Jones of Cardigan, South Wales, and Steve Kerton of High Wycombe, England, while Michael Werner came from West Germany to compete in the Champ Boat (now called Formula One) class.

Mr. Jones won the 50-lap final, followed by Bill Seebold Jr. of St. Louis and Buck Thornton of Atlanta. Chris Bush of St. Paul, Minn., put on a dazzling display of driving to win the Mod-VP class, with Augusta's Mr. Campbell finishing second. Harley Wilson of Kissimmee, Fla., won the SST-140 (now called Formula Two) class.

Mr. Campbell went on to dominate the Mod-VP class and then moved up to Formula One, winning his only River Race Augusta title in 1996.

River Race Augusta now is held under the Professional Outboard Performance Tour after its National Powerboat Association and later International Outboard Grand Prix banners.

On this date:

LOCAL

1978: The Richmond County school board issued a revised school system policy manual forbidding its employees to take political action as a group.

NATION/WORLD

1807 Robert Fulton's North River Steam Boat began heading up New York's Hudson River on its successful round-trip to Albany.

1863 Federal batteries and ships bombarded Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor during the Civil War.

1896 A prospecting party discovered gold in Alaska, a finding that would touch off the Klondike gold rush.

1943 The Allied conquest of Sicily was completed as U.S. and British forces entered Messina.

1945 Indonesian nationalists declared independence from the Netherlands.

1969 Hurricane Camille killed 248 people when it slammed into the Gulf Coast.

1978 The first successful trans-Atlantic balloon flight ended as Maxie Anderson, Ben Abruzzo and Larry Newman set down in their Double Eagle II outside Paris.

1987 Rudolf Hess, 93, the last member of Adolf Hitler's inner circle, died at a Berlin hospital near Spandau Prison, apparently a suicide.

1988 Pakistani President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq and U.S. Ambassador Arnold Raphel were killed in a plane crash.

1989: The Commerce Department reported the U.S. trade deficit had shrunk to $8.7 billion in June.

1994: Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman resigned under pressure, the latest Clinton administration official felled by the Whitewater controversy.

1998: President Clinton gave grand jury testimony via closed-circuit TV from the White House regarding his relationship with Monica Lewinsky; he then delivered a TV address in which he denied previously committing perjury, admitted his relationship with Lewinsky was "wrong," and criticized Kenneth Starr's investigation.

1998: Russia allowed the ruble's value to drop by up to 34 percent.

1998: The Federal Reserve Board approved the megamerger of NationsBank and BankAmerica.

Bill Babb, The Chronicle's outdoor editor, can be reached at (706) 823-3304 or newsroom@augustachronicle.com.

River Race Augusta

Tickets to River Race Augusta, to be held Friday through Sunday, are on sale at Jones Intercable, Smile Gas, Pump 'N Shop, Cellular One and Polaris America locations throughout the Augusta area, and at Belvedere Marine.

The races are on the Savannah River opposite Augusta Riverfront Marina off Prep Phillips Drive.

*Patron Pit Pass: $50

Advanced series tickets: $20

Series tickets at gate: $25

Friday testing only: $3

Saturday racing only: $15

Sunday racing only: $15

*²Patron Pit Pass package includes all three days of racing and other amenities.