Hydroplane History: River City Roars Again


The heyday of hydroplanes can be found in a history book. Boat racing in Evansville started in 1938. Back then it was called Thunderbolt Regatta.

“At that time the technology wasn’t great,” Randy Lientz says. He’s been around boat racing for a long time and is helping reignite a craving some have in the River City.

By 1980, Evansville had become a crown jewel on the racing circuit. Lientz and veteran drivers credit one man with the best hydroplane racing ever, and this weekend the sport he helped create returns to one its storied homes.

HydroFest is built on a retired boat, an old hotel, and a passion to go fast. The boats and hotels look a little different now, but the passion has never changed.

This is an event many say has been almost 9 years in the making. Evansville’s riverfront is once again being transformed into one of the best hydroplane venues in the country.

Thunder on the Ohio brought the roar and some of the best hydro racing on the river. Veteran driver, Scott Pierce remembers the glory days. Pierce and others say Evansville loves boat racing. In the 1980s some estimates put crowds for Thunder on the Ohio at upwards of 60,000.

“It’s the pinnacle, it’s the Penske of racing.” says Pierce of his time driving in Evansville. “I was fortunate enough to win the race in Miss Budweiser in ‘91, the year we won the world championship.”

He remembers the man who made it happen.

“Bernie hired the very best drivers, the very best crew, built the very best boats.”

He remembers why it was so good.

“The reason it isn’t what it [was] now is because Bernie’s gone.”

Of all the plaques on the riverfront honoring Evansville history, there is only one facing the river. It’s centered along the Greenway near Main Street and outlined in gold color.

Bernie Little was by far the most successful owner in hydroplane racing history. He owned Miss Budweiser and the Riverhouse Hotel, using it as his racing headquarters.

But like the sport he helped build, is better days are history. Just the same, a renovation is underway there and HydroFest hopes the best racing will follow.

“I believe Bill Muncey and Dean Chenoweth, who drove for Bernie Little,” Lientz says smiling, “and Bernie himself, who are now in heaven are looking down and are very happy with what they see.”

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