three years ago, it was an old, water-filled dirt pit — the legacy of a sand mine that operated for many years on the north side of Rhodine Road. Now, a few times a year, the Gulf Coast RC Boat Club transforms the property into a small city of tents, campers and recreational vehicles clustered around the pit-turned-pond. Smells of food mingle with fuel fumes, and every 20 minutes or so, a voice booms over a loudspeaker. "Boaters, start your engines." A beehive of revving motors whirs to life under a canopy by the water. Moments later, the buzzing moves to the artificial lake, as miniature boats whiz around a watery race course, directed by unseen hands at speeds up to 80 mph.
The thrill of remotely steering boats in competitive heats recently drew more than 130 racers with about 425 model racing boats from across the country to the 15-acre pond on Rhodine Road.
Organized by the Orlando Culvert Dodgers, the four-day race at the end of January was believed to be the largest of its kind in the U.S., based on the number of participants, said Orlando club president Wayne Farrow.
Antron Brown, one of the National Hot Rod Association's best Top Fuel drivers, joined the enthusiasts to toss his vessel in the water in the January race, known as the District III Winternationals on the North American Model Boaters Association (NAMBA) circuit.
No stranger to speed, Brown nevertheless gets a thrill from pitting the gas-powered boat he built against other racers in a contest that takes skill and practice in manipulating from a distance instead of behind the wheel of a vehicle.
"This is a pure getaway out here," Brown said. "I get that adrenaline rush."
Other competitors favored electric engines, and more experienced racers ran boats powered by a nitro methane fuel blend. Some, like Buddy Lowe of Creola, Ala., raced all three kinds.
The transformation of an old dirt pit to a major hobby hub occurred through love of the sport and old-fashioned community spirit. The facility is the brainchild of Eric Lis of Riverview, an airline pilot who also flies radio-controlled model aircraft, and Mike Whitney of Apollo Beach.
The two founded Gulf Coast RC Boat Club and coaxed three landowners into letting them make the pond a first-class racing spot, complete with a parking area, launch site, drivers' stand, and a race course marked by buoys.
Lis said friends from Goodson Farms in Wimauma helped grade the site and donated a big storage container that serves as the base of the driver's stand.
He said he probably has sunk at least $10,000 into the facility, and he and Whitney spent weeks building it.
During races, drivers launch their boats and then hustle to a stand overlooking the pond, where they use radio wave transmitters to navigate their vessels to the starting line. Once the race starts, a pitman stands beside the driver to keep track of laps and offer other guidance. Winners from several heats compete in a champion race called a "shoot-out."
Whitney said he finds radio-controlled boats more exciting than other models.
"I tried airplanes. I tried helicopters," he said. "You aren't competing against other people (with those). I like that side-by-side competition."
Most participants build their own boats, he said. It's a hobby dominated by men and boys, but some husbands and wives travel and race together, Whitney said.
He and Farrow said Gulf Coast landed the Winternationals because the Orlando club lost access to a lake where it had held the competition in years before. Land development has led to fewer lakes and ponds being available, Whitney said.
"That's the biggest challenge for this hobby, for clubs to find lakes," he said.
Whitney said NAMBA-approved clubs offer safety information and liability insurance. He estimated a basic race-worthy boat costs from $1,000 to $1,600. A Gulf Coast membership costs $75 the first year and $45 annually after that, which includes insurance.
He suggested that those interested in building and racing a boat visit a race and talk to competitors to avoid costly mistakes. The next Gulf Coast race will be May 19 and 20 at the site, 11612 Rhodine Road.
Susan Marschalk Green can be reached at [email protected]