The three-day Bright House Super Boat National Championship is back for its fourth year and with it, the roar of mighty powerboat engines, the cheer of capacity crowds and the welcome cha-ching of cash registers.
"This used to be one of the slowest times of the year for the beaches and tourism," said former Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst, who co-founded the Clearwater event with bay area restaurateur Frank Chivas. "Last year was like spring break. It just keeps getting bigger and better."
A Saturday seafood festival in Coachman Park on the downtown waterfront has been added this year. There are concerts, driver and crew meet and greets, VIP parties and much more, but the big action takes place Sunday with boats running heats off Clearwater Beach at noon and 2 p.m. That's when the fast and the furious in a variety of classes vie for national titles. With some boats equipped with F-16 canopies, spectators can expect fly-bys at speeds of 150 mph.
The boats race 4.4-mile (more or less) laps that stretch from Pier 60 to the north end of Clearwater Beach and back.
The Super Boat racing season begins in May and concludes in November with the Key West World Championships.
The sport is not without danger. Three racers died at last year's World Championships in two separate accidents.
Some of the drivers and throttlemen come from as far away as Norway, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates and Germany. Their need for speed is matched only by their desire for recognition as thousands of fans cheer from beaches, anchored pleasure boats, and hotel and condo balconies.
Aungst, a Bright House Networks executive, said police and the Coast Guard estimated last year's Sunday crowd at 85,000, with related events over a three-day period drawing many thousands more. Most spectators watched the Sunday races from about 5,500 boats gathered offshore along the race course, Aungst said.
Race officials hired Research Data Services of Tampa to conduct an economic impact study after the 2011 championship. Among the findings: The average occupancy rate for lodging on Clearwater Beach was 86 percent, and nearly 6,000 event-related room nights were sold. The total economic impact of out-of-county visitors for the event was estimated at more than $13 million.
Here's the breakdown of the fun:
It all starts at noon today with the opening of Baystar Race Village in Coachman Park, where fans can visit the "dry pits," get autographs, enjoy food and drink, and participate in a variety of activities.
Later today, Clearwater's Cleveland Street District is the place to be for Bright House Networks' Blast Friday, running from 5:30 to 10 p.m. The Tampa Bay Times Super Boat Parade starts at 6:30 p.m. and is followed by an outdoor concert with the Atlanta Rhythm Section (So into You, Spooky, Imaginary Lover).
On Saturday, Baystar Race Village is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The seafood fest features dishes from about a dozen local restaurants. Enjoy grouper sandwiches, hogfish sliders, ceviche, crab cakes and more, along with some traditional American and Mexican fare. Beer and wine will be available.
Saturday evening brings Clearwater's Star Spectacular to Freedom Park at the west end of the Cleveland Street District. The free concert runs from 7 to 11 p.m. and features the Boulder County Conspiracy, whose members come from a variety of well-known national bands.
VIP passes are available for fans who wish to get the best views, attend private parties, and visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure for free. Passes are $100 for adults and $25 for children 16 and under.
Passes may be purchased at the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce. Proceeds benefit the Clearwater Community Sailing Center, the Make a Difference Fishing Tournament and Sailability.
On Sunday, after the heats, the race awards are presented in Baystar Race Village at 4:30 p.m.
Chivas said traffic isn't as bad as people might expect and shouldn't keep them away.
"Lots of people ride the Jolley Trolley or come by boat," he said.
He said he's hoping to get the World Championships moved to Clearwater one day.
"Everyone tells us (Clearwater) is the best site on the race circuit," Chivas said. "Our long beaches and abundance of hotels make it a great place for spectators."