ST. PETERSBURG — As Marty Davis climbs the steps of the wooden tower overlooking Blue Heron Lake, recreation vehicles, trucks and picnic canopies that line the water's edge come into view.
Hickory-scented smoke rises in the wind carrying the aroma of hot dogs and burgers on the nearby grill.
This year the Tampa Model Boat Club secured a three-year, renewable lease with the city of St. Petersburg at the 54-acre site at 10000 16th St. N.
The 30-member club worked with Public Works Administrator Mike Connors and agreed to an annual rental fee of $37.
Davis, 68, the group's vice president, said the deal marked the end of the lengthy search for a home for the 15-year-old organization.
In a nonresidential setting, the lake is ideal for model boat racing. The radio-controlled watercraft, some with motors fashioned after weed trimmers, run on gasoline. Others are purpose-built engines that operate on nitromethane. Here, the boats can run full throttle.
"Our models make some noise," Davis said. "So it's not real good for us to be in an area of intense residential or high consumer use where noise is offensive. The pond is perfect for us. It's fairly isolated."
On May 14, the club held its inaugural race, where 150 boats competed in 130 heats.
"At some point we'll have some sanctioned and record trials set up in order for people to set world records," said Davis. For now, they're a registered club with both national model boating organizations — the International Model Power Boat Association and North American Model Boat Association.
Along the shoreline, the model boat operators hold radios with long transmitting antennas, looking more like fly fishermen than speed boat racers. But they're just as serious as those who race the big boats.
Up in the judge's tower, Davis studies the run sheets and pulls the microphone close. The racers have 2 1/2 minutes to get the boats in the water and lined up to start. The competition begins with a more than competent judge at the helm.
Davis, who started racing in 1974 and also manufactured model boat kits, said he has won seven national titles and Excellence of Performance trophies, and has held a number of speed records. He is a former national vice president of IMPDA and is in the national Hall of Fame.
"Some courses are more narrow and it's a lot harder to go around," said 15-year-old Josh Kindred of Cocoa Beach, who races a 26-inch Nitro Mono Hull and a Sport 40 Nitro. "If you're getting chased or you're chasing somebody, it's exhilarating. To get to be first and keep first, you have to keep everything perfect so that person doesn't pass you."
Sheila Cardoso, 68, of Brandon is one of few women in the sport. She, too, races a 26-inch Nitro Mono Hull. She started racing cars as a teenager in Iowa, where there wasn't much else to do, she said. She went to stock car races every weekend.
A lot of years passed before she found herself in Florida, transitioning into the new, less risky and less expensive hobby.
Cardoso said she would like to see more women enjoy the sport.
"Some women aren't competitive. They're too shy," she said. "But if you have any competitiveness in you, try it. You might like it."
The racing schedule isn't as stringent as it was with stock cars. There are about 10 events a year, including a nationally attended race held in the fall in South Carolina that attracts as many as 300 boats, and about 100 drivers and their families.
The Tampa Model Boat Club plans to host two to four events this year, according to its website.
At Blue Heron Lake the storm was approaching, and young Josh Kindred figured they'd call the race. He took it in stride, in the same way he handles his trophies.
"Once you've been getting them for eight years, it's kinda like just another trophy to put at home," he said.
As Josh predicted, the race was called.
While many looked to the skies and took cover, Marty Davis looked ahead to a District 3 NAMBA event next month and big plans for the club's future. He hopes to host a national in the next four years, and a world championship in the next 10.
"I raced at probably 50 sites across the U.S. in my 30 years and this is the best I've seen. Normally they're smaller ponds," he said. "For international events, this is really a superb pond."