White water river racing traces its roots to 1948 when a race was held on the Klamath River in Northern California. The race was from Yreka from approximately where I-5 crosses the Klamath River to the town of Klamath at the mouth of the river, a distance of 170 miles.
The race was held over a two day period with the midpoint at Ishi Pishi Falls where there was a portage. The boat, an outboard river skiff, carried a two man crew with a support group that followed the craft for support and help with the portage. This race lasted until 1952. Gentleman's racing continued through the fifties on the Lower Klamath as well as on the Rogue, Trinity, Chetco and Smith rivers of Southern Oregon and Northern California.
The boat of choice was the basic river skiff primarily used for running the rivers and fishing. In the late fifties the D utility with a Mercury 55H racing outboard and a few B utility's used in circle racing were adapted to running the rivers. The fisherman were at first upset with the little skippy boats ruining their gentlemen's race but the speed soon created a whole new sport of competitive river racing.
In 1959 one of the first official white water races was created in Grants Pass on the Rogue River. It is called Boatnik, a derivative of the word Sputnik the first satellite. The Cal-Ore river racers were formed out of this loose knit group which included the River Racers club of Grants Pass and the Hoopa Valley Powerboat Association. The circuit included races on the Trinity, Klamath, Smith and Rogue rivers.
The first two years the D utilities were run with two man crews dating from the river skiff days and the two man D runabout used in circle racing. In 1961 the class went to single driver entries which prompted other designs to be tried. . In 1962 Kenny Franks of Klamath added sponsons to his utility which added more speed and stability and most other utility drivers followed.
In 1963 at least two cabover hydroplanes were being tried, one belonged to Jerry Hull of Grants Pass (which had won the Sammamish Slough race in Washington) the other to Howard Ames of Hoopa along with Johnny Walker of Trinidad the following year. They were fast and almost unbeatable on flatter water. Some drivers, including Byron Grant of Hoopa and Delmar Kyle of Eureka, were also trying out conventional D hydroplanes from circle racing but like the cabovers did not handle the rough water well.
In 1964 Richard Freeman of Crescent City built the first white water hydroplane followed by Don Burnison of Grants Pass and Lyle (Red) Brown of Grants Pass. The white water hydroplane evolved over the years with both conventional and picklefork designs to what is running today.
The first few years the motor of choice was the Mercury 55H with the 44 cu. In. Mercury power head starting to replace it in the early sixties. There was not an engine rule but most drivers used the four cylinder Mercury but at least one Anzani and one Scott/McCulloch were tried.
Modifications were allowed to the Mercury with Quincy Welding, Hubbell, and Lon Stevens doing the modifications. The expense of these modifications was causing a dwindling number of entrants. In the mid seventies the stock 44 cu. In. Mercury power head was adopted. The only modifications allowed are the addition of a megaphone stacked exhaust system, cut down flywheel, and a balanced reciprocating assembly. The block itself cannot be ground or machined.
The carburetors and ignition must be stock. Any racing lower unit with 1:1 or one tooth reduction can be used. Propellers are limited to two blades. The boats must be a minimum of 13'6' with a finish weight of 575 lbs. including driver. Most boats carry a ten to twelve gallon gas tank. The fuel is limited to 92 octane pump gas with either Mercury or Chevron oil.
The original races were conducted over a 45 to 50 mile course nonstop with boats traveling both ways with usually two to four laps. There were few incidents over the years until 1997 when the sport suffered three fatalities. Starting with the Labor Day Grants Pass race in 1997 till present all racing has been conducted point to point with restarts at both ends. There is no two way racing allowed unless the course is divided by a buoy line.
Today's racing is conducted over 8-15 mile courses with multiple laps (legs) to make the distance. At the finish of each leg the boats line up in the order of finish and restart for the return after the sweep boat has cleared the course. No refueling is allowed and only minor repairs can be made.
In 2000 The Cal-Ore River Racers affiliated with the American Powerboat Association (APBA), bringing additional safety measures such as cut suits, standardized life jackets and helmets. This also brings the ability to co-sanction with other APBA events. Another benefit is the ability to set National speed records.
Driver Jeff Lewis and Team Nostalgia of Grants Pass, OR currently holds the straightaway Kilo record at 82.880 mph(3/29/15). Sonnyman Downs of Cresent City, CA currently holds the 1/4 mile record at 77.956 mph (3/15/14)
Boatnik held on Memorial Day on the Rogue River at Grants Pass is the big race of the year. It is currently the second largest free event held in Oregon. The other current races are the Trinity River Challenge in Hoopa, the Rooster Crow in Rogue River, The Lower Rogue Challenge in Gold Beach, the Newt Grant Memorial in Willow Creek and the Labor Day Regatta at Grants Pass on Labor Day.
History courtesy of Larry Darnielle