KLASEY: Whirring down the Kankakee river | Local News
Masked at first by a dense cloud of water spray, several brightly colored speedboats emerge from a bend and immediately accelerate down the Kankakee River, each dragging a high arc “rooster tail” of disturbed water.
It was barely, in the words of an old song, “Cruise the river on a Sunday afternoon.” Instead, it was “Roarin ‘on the River on a Labor Day afternoon,” a Kankakee tradition for nearly 60 years. Under various sponsorships and under many different names, motorboat races were held on the river most Labor Day weekends from 1955 to 2013.
The first Labor Day racing event, held in 1955 as the Midwest States Championship Boat Races, was sponsored by the Chicago Outboard Racing Association and the Kankakee Valley Boat Club. Several thousand spectators lined up on the banks on September 4 and 5 to see 225 boats compete in 10 different classes. While some of the attendees were local, the majority were professional drivers from across the Midwest.
The regatta (as the boat racing event was commonly referred to) in 1955 was, of course, not the first example of a personal watercraft competition on the Kankakee. Like teenagers racing dragsters on country roads, speedboat owners often participated in formal or informal races. An old postcard from the Kankakee County Museum’s collection, dating from around 1910, showed several boats traveling the river just upstream of the IC Railroad Bridge, with the message “Get ready for a boat race”.
An article in the Kankakee Gazette in the summer of 1890 described what was probably the first recorded boat race on the river. In this case, however, the boats were propelled by human muscle power rather than outboard motors. Held on a stretch of the river in Gougar’s Grove, south of Kankakee, the races involved participants from three Chicago rowing clubs. Competitions were held for boats powered by one, two and four rowers on a half-mile course. The newspaper notes that “a large number of Kankakeeans were present” and that “it was certainly a perfect day for such an occasion”.
Labor Day races from the 1950s onwards attracted not only large numbers of local spectators, but racing fans from across the country as well. This was especially true in the years that followed, when the event became the National Outboard Performance Craft Sprint Championship. Typically, crowds of over 10,000 people were recorded on each race day. The influx of racing fans, along with the competitors and their support teams, injected approximately $ 1 million into the local economy each year.
Over the years, the center of activity has been the Beckman Park Marina and the racing headquarters at the adjoining Kankakee Valley Boat Club. The racetrack was a 1 mile oval with the turns marked by buoys. One turn was downstream from the yacht club, the other almost to the Interstate 57 bridge, allowing spectators on the riverbanks a clear view of the boats racing down the straights.
On these straights, boats of the fastest class, Mod-U, could reach speeds of up to 160 mph. The combination of speed, poor visibility and aggressive competition makes boat racing a dangerous sport. To respond to accidents, the Kankakee Regatta Safety / Rescue Team deployed seven boats along the racetrack, along with divers and paramedics. Each year, during the Kankakee event, one or more drivers suffered injuries as a result of collisions or overturns of their boat in the turns. Although most of the injuries were relatively minor, some were serious enough to require a hospital stay, and one was fatal. The death of Jacqueline Grosso, a rural Kankakee teenager, occurred in 1999. Competing in one of the low-speed classes, she lost control of her boat in a turn. When another boat collided with hers, Miss Grosso suffered fatal injuries.
In the 1990s, when Kankakee began hosting the OPC National Sprint Championships, the weekend event expanded to four days, with practice on Friday and races on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. The event was also expanded to become a “Festival”, with activities aimed at attracting additional spectators. On the south side of the river was a craft show / flea market, a stage for live music, a carnival, and a variety of food vendors. Food stalls were also available on the north side (Beckman Park) of the river.
A popular family-oriented event was the Cardboard Boat Race held on Saturday afternoon. That day, at 9 a.m., each competing team would be given large sheets of corrugated cardboard, plastic sheeting and rolls of duct tape. For the next six hours, team members cut, folded and taped a ship they hoped to stay afloat. At 3 pm, the boats are launched from the south shore; the first (if any) to reach the north shore would win the event,
The expanded format and festival events continued to draw good-sized crowds, but costs grew faster than revenues; the 2013 weekend ended with a profit of only $ 1,000 after all expenses were paid. On April 10, 2014, the Daily Journal reported: “The roar on the river is over. The Kankakee Regatta and Festivals Committee announced Wednesday that the… tradition of Labor Day weekend boat races is over.