CLEARWATER — The bad boys of the deep blue sea are back in town.
Some of the wildest, fastest offshore power boats in the world are here in Clearwater for the third annual Bright House Clearwater Super Boat National Championships this weekend.
Because these vessels — many equipped with F-16-style canopies and turbine engines — are capable of going up to 180 mph, it's often called "NASCAR on water."
The big action takes place Sunday with two heats, at noon and 2 p.m. It's the final national race of the season, and teams will be competing for national titles in 10 classes set by size and horsepower.
The purse is $75,000.
You don't have to wait until Sunday to set some record-breaking fun.
Things get rolling on downtown Cleveland Street tonight with Blast Friday, featuring a new event this year, the St. Petersburg Times Boat Parade. It heads down Cleveland Street beginning at 6:30 p.m. Afterward, meet drivers and crews and get their autographs. Female driver Jackie Piper, who drives a 44-foot V-bottom boat called Sheds Plus, is expected to attend.
You can also enjoy tunes by Orleans (that '70s band known for hits Dance With Me and Still the One).
Once again, Coachman Park serves as Baystar Race Village, "the dry pits" where spectators can view boats, chat with drivers and crew teams, and listen to more music.
This year features a Saturday night concert with the romantic refrains of Bertie Higgins and his Band of Pirates (Key Largo). Other bands include the Tempests, Sal Belloise, David Muse and the Star Spectacular All Star Band.
On Sunday, fasten your seat belts for a 4.4-mile loop offshore race running in the gulf waters off Clearwater Beach.
To get the best vantage point, serious fans may want to consider purchasing VIP race passes to view the action from strategic locations at the Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort or the Hyatt Regency.
The VIP passes allow admission to special parties, too. They cost $100 for adults, $25 for children 16 and under. Buy them through the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce. Proceeds support the Clearwater Community Sailing Center, the Make a Difference Fishing Tournament and Sailability.
Tens of thousands watch from the beach. Another option is to watch from Pier 60, where tickets are $5 to $20.
Officials expect about 100,000 to attend the three-day festival. Race fans come from all over the United States and abroad, which helps to supercharge area tourism.
Brian Aungst, who co-founded the Clearwater event with restaurateur Frank Chivas, said the economic impact of last year's event was an estimated $8 million to $10 million.
"Every year it grows; we are expecting a potential $12 million impact this year," said Aungst, a former Clearwater mayor and currently the community relations director for Bright House Networks.
The U.S. Coast Guard reported that last year's offshore spectator fleet had doubled in size from the previous year. "They said there were over 5,200 boats and an estimated 50,000 people on those boats," he said.
Landlubbers — about 25,000 of them — lined the beaches or watched the races from hotels, restaurants and condos.
Aungst says those large numbers shouldn't scare people away. "We now have ample parking on Clearwater Beach as well as transportation through the Jolley Trolley and Ambassador Limo."
The Jolley Trolley will provide continuous shuttle service between downtown parking garages, Coachman Park and Pier 60 for $1. (VIP pass holders ride free.)
Ambassador Limos will provide bus transportation back and forth between Coachman Park and Pier 60 for $1.
Baystar Race Village (Coachman Park), noon to 10 p.m. Free admission. View the boats, meet drivers and crews. Food and drinks available for purchase.
Bright House's Blast Friday, 5:30-10 p.m., 400 block of Cleveland Street in downtown Clearwater. St. Petersburg Times Parade of Boats. Music by Orleans. Food and libations. Photos and autographs with the drivers. Games and prizes.
VIP Party, 5:30-10 p.m., Clearwater Harbor Marina Promenade. Drivers meet and greet. Steel drum cocktail party with appetizers.
Baystar Race Village (Coachman Park), 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Free admission. Watch powerboat practice runs, chat with drivers and crews, buy food and beverages.
Star Spectacular, 7-10:30 p.m. Coachman Park. Music festival with Bertie Higgins and his Band of Pirates and several other bands. ($25 VIP seating available — not part of VIP passes)
Clearwater Beach Pier 60: Make a Difference Fishing Tournament at 8 a.m., Coast Guard Search and Rescue Demonstration at 10:30 a.m., Pier Festival at 6 p.m., fireworks at 9 p.m.
Shephard's Beach Resort VIP Party, 9 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Sunday (race day):
Races at noon and 2 p.m. off Clearwater Beach.
Baystar Race Village (Coachman Park), 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free admission. Boats, drivers, food and beverages, vendors. Super Boat Awards at 4:30 p.m.
After-race party at Shephard's Beach Resort.