Thunder on the Vermilion coming up at the Gao Grotto

Commercial-News File PhotoCrew members test a speedboat last year at Gao Grotto on Lake Vermilion. The Grotto will serve as hosts July 20-21 for speedboat races this year.

DANVILLE – Following the return of a hot air balloons event after a lengthy absence, a powerboat race will return to Danville next weekend.

More than 100 powerboats are expected to take part in Thunder on the Vermilion, a two-day event on July 20-21 on Lake Vermilion at the Gao Grotto, 2400 Denmark Road.

The race is a fundraiser for Gao Grotto to finish an upgrade to its playground for special needs children and make the Grotto’s bathrooms handicapped accessible. The playground is used annually by the AMBUCS Summer Camp.

The Gao Grotto’s Buddy Freed said with community support, he hopes the races will be an annual event.

The playground project has been Freed’s baby since the beginning.

“I’m really proud of it. It’s come a long way in a year,” Freed said.

The playground had outdated and dangerous playground equipment. It has been replaced with a new wooden pirate ship play area and handicapped-accessible swings. Gao Grotto members still want to upgrade some of the play surface with padding.

The AMBUCS summer camp kids have been coming to the Grotto for 50 years, Freed said.

Powerboat racing

It’s been 29 years since the last powerboat race here.

“It was in 1990,” Freed said.

The idea of having a powerboat race again here came to members after they were trying to brainstorm fundraising ideas for the playground and bathroom renovations. About a year ago, in August 2018, powerboat racers with the Indiana Outboard Association tested Lake Vermilion to have a race here in 2019.

On Thursday, racers Brian Cafarelli and his son, Ashten, of Champaign were back to help build a judging stage and timing clock area for the races.

Ashten said he’s ready and looking forward to the races next weekend.

On Friday, July 19 the racing association will be setting up for the event, such as setting up the course and having practice runs. On Saturday and Sunday, July 20-21, races will start about 11 a.m. and run through 5 p.m. Testing runs will start around 10 a.m. those days.

There will be breakfast available those two days where people can meet the drivers.

In addition to the races, there will be food and drinks available for purchase and bands Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. From 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday will be Dixie Flyer; Cuzin Eddie from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Mike Russell (Hoosier Daddy) from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.

The cost to attend is $5 a person, with children 12 and under free.

Spectators will be able to sit on bleachers, provided by the City of Danville, and view the races outside the Gao Grotto building on the hill.

“They’ll get a perfect view of turn one action,” Brian Cafarelli said.

Freed said they cleared some trees, not what the city had cleared for the Denmark Road project, for viewing.

“It’s going to be a pretty place to watch a race,” he said.

There will be speakers set out for the announcer, and boaters also can tie up their boats nearby and watch, Freed said.

Cafarelli said powerboat racers will be coming from Illinois, Indiana, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and elsewhere. Racers will be ages 9 and up. The racers are grouped in class based on boat weight and size of the motor. A race per class consists of two heats (three laps per heat) and the winner of the two heats is the winner of the race.

There will be an overall winner each day, July 20 and July 21.

“They race for national points and pride,” according to Cafarelli. “Family fun is 90 percent of why we do it.”

Freed is excited about this first year for the race.

“We hope Danville and Champaign and other places support it,” he said.

He said everyone is encouraged to come out and have a good time.

The main sponsor for the event is the late Julius W. Hegeler II and his foundation, which provided $5,000 for the playground. Corporate sponsors are Toni Stone with State Farm Insurance, who donated $1,500, and Chittick Family Eye Care. Other businesses and AMBUCS also have helped, Freed said.

He also thanks Aqua Illinois, the conservation district and Jeanie Cooke with the Danville Area Convention and Visitors’ Bureau.

Freed said they also plan to next year have a driver’s school where people can learn to race the powerboats and learn more about getting into the sport.

“This lake is beautiful. I think it’s good for Danville,” he said about the event.

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