Navigate / search

Restoring the roar on Lake Guntersville

Photo by Chris Denslow

By John N. Felsher

After more than 30 years of absence, boat races will return to the largest lake in Alabama when the Guntersville Lake Hydrofest comes to the northeastern part of the state on June 22-24.

“Lake Guntersville has a long history of boat racing with many world records set on these waters,” says Katy Norton, the president of the Marshall County Convention and Visitors Bureau in the town of Guntersville. “Races have been held on the lake since the lake formed in 1939. We had annual boat racing events all the way through 1986. Because boat racing had such a history on the lake, we felt it would be a great time to bring the races back during the state bicentennial celebration.”

After the qualifying events on June 22, two types of craft will race across the waters for the next two days. Sometimes called “NASCAR on the Water,” H1 Unlimited hydroplanes propelled by turbine engines producing more than 3,000 horsepower can hit speeds exceeding 220 miles per hour as they race around a two-mile oval course. These powerful boats can throw “roostertails,” or streams of water that can reach 60 feet high and a football field long.

“This is the first year that we’ve brought the boat races back to Lake Guntersville since 1986 and this will be the first time we’ve had the H1 Unlimited Hydroplanes here since 1969,” Norton says. “We’re really glad to see this type of event come back to Lake Guntersville.”

The famed Miss Budweiser, the boat that won the 1969 races, will be on static display. Normally, people who want to see this historic craft must travel to a museum in Seattle, Wash., but for three days, people can climb aboard it on the shores of Lake Guntersville and take photos of themselves at the controls.

Guntersville Lake Hydrofest will kick off another season of H1 Unlimited hydroplane racing in the country. Drivers only race these craft in five cities. Besides Guntersville, the smallest venue on the circuit this year, the boats will race in Detroit, San Diego, Seattle, the Tri-Cities area of Washington state and Madison, Ind.

“We’re the smallest community by far that’s going to host the races this year, but that’s a testament to the quality of the lake and the history we have here with boat racing,” Norton says. “It’s our goal to make this an annual event and bring back boat racing to the lake as part of our summer activities.”

Drivers in smaller hydroplanes will also race against each other in front of the crowds gathered along Sunset Drive on the lake shoreline in the town of Guntersville. These “Grand Prix World” hydroplanes measure about 24 feet long and 12 feet wide. With 1,300-horsepower engines, they can hit speeds topping 170 miles per hour.

When not watching the boats zoom across the waves, people can participate in many other activities on shore. Wakeboarders will give demonstrations on the lake. Vendors will offer food and refreshments. Children can enjoy visiting a special area and activities set aside just for them. Besides Miss Budweiser, people can also see static displays of various boats among other events and activities on tap for the three days of celebration.

“People don’t want to miss the opening ceremonies, scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Saturday, June 23,” Norton says. “The National Guard will do a water jump, parachuting into the water. We’ll also have some flyovers.”

At 7 p.m. that Saturday evening, a country music concert will be held at the Lurleen B. Wallace pavilion. Rising star Suzi Oravec will open, followed by the headliner, A Thousand Horses, a band known for its hit song “Smoke.”

Norton said she expects to see more than 20,000 people come to hear the roaring engines and enjoy the other festivities in a town normally with a population less than half that size. Some people might come a few days early to fish the famed bass lake that spreads across 69,100 acres and stretches 75 miles along the old Tennessee River channel. Others may simply relax before the big event or partake in some other recreational activities available in the area. For area information, see www.marshallcountycvb.com.

“We expect people to come from all over Alabama, across the Southeast and from many other states,” Norton says. “We’ve had calls from people coming from as far away as California and Washington. Some people will come a few days early to enjoy the lake and the area before the races begin and stay through the weekend. This should be a major economic boon to the town of Guntersville and the surrounding area.”

For schedules, event maps, ticket information and other details, see www.guntersvillelakehydrofest.com or the event page on Facebook. People can also call the Marshall County CVB at 256-582-7015.

Photo by Chris Denslow