Trenton’s near 62-year association with power boat racing represents what is likely the longest-running annual outdoor event Downriver, and perhaps one of the oldest in southeast Michigan as well.
In fact, other than the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade in Detroit, nothing obvious comes to mind that would come close to matching the PNC Roar on the River in terms of event longevity in the metro Detroit area.
It wasn’t always the PNC Roar on the River, of course. From its beginning until about 14 years ago, it was known by a variety of names. To anyone who’s familiar with the event, it’s probably best known simply as “the boat races.”
Begun as a simple challenge race — a “marathon” down to the Ambassador Bridge and back in 1951— the Roar has evolved into a weekend festival that includes many other aspects beside just world championship outboard power boat racing.
While observing the action during the most recent installment, held late last month, I found myself marveling at the dedication of the core group of organizers who pull this event together every year — and the small army of volunteers who each carry a piece of the load throughout the three-day weekend at Elizabeth Park.
Coordinated by Trenton Rotary Club, the event is entirely non-profit, and the reality is that if it weren’t for the fact that the vast majority of the planning or organizational work is done by volunteers, the Roar on the River probably wouldn’t be possible.
The current group of lead organizers includes Rotarians Ronnie Jacek, Paul Jocks, Brad O’Connor, Bruce Diven and Linda Francetich. They have been the pulse of the Roar at least since 2004 when it was moved to Elizabeth Park — if not longer for some of them. There are others who have played significant roles during that stretch, but the time those five in particular have put into the Roar has been far above the call of duty.
But, over the course of 62 years, they represent just one of several contingents of Rotarians and others who have shouldered the load to keep the Roar afloat — as I was reminded recently by one of the members of the original core group, Bob Beleske, who, at nearly 90 years old, now resides in Monroe.
Beleske is glad to see that the Roar “keeps getting bigger and better,” but wanted to see some recognition accorded to the core group responsible for first bringing racing to Trenton and starting the long-standing tradition.
“There are a few guys that worked their butts off and never have been cited for their efforts,” Beleske wrote in a recent note to the Trenton Trib. “These men included David Boyd, Everet “Ep” Hedke, Jim Holden Sr., Jack Chesney and Finance Davis.
“I think it’s time these men should be congratulated for what they did,” he wrote. “Because, if they hadn’t, the Roar on the River would not exist.”
Beleske’s note prompted me to think that there must have been several “core groups” between the first and the current, and they are all deserving of appreciation and admiration for the role they have all played in perpetuating this event.
Since the revenues of the races go up and down from year to year, depending on weather and a variety of other factors, the Rotary classifies the Roar as a “community service project” rather than a fundraiser — though some years there are additional funds that are directed into club charitable projects.
Many years, though, the satisfaction of the organizers lies solely in the knowledge that they have played a significant role in maintaining a great city tradition.
Even though various core groups have taken turns shepherding the Roar through 62 years of operation, there has been one common thread that likely has been the key factor in its longevity.
Back when Beleske and company were running the show, a young whipper-snapper named Fred Miller was trying to break into boat racing. Miller went on to have a lengthy and highly successful boat racing career, as well as a career as a businessman in Trenton.
Now 75, Miller’s name remains synonymous with the Roar, even though he moved to Illinois more than two decades ago.
After his racing career wound down, Miller stayed on as racing director for the Trenton event and has filled a variety of promotional and organizational roles for the American Power Boat Association and for power boat racing in general.
Jocks describes the energy and devotion that Miller brings to the Trenton event while living in Illinois as “nothing short of incredible.”
He may have left Trenton, but the Detroit River remains in his blood. His passion for the event has helped perpetuate it from one core group of volunteers to the next for more than three generations now.
Nicknamed “the Godfather of the races” years ago, Miller’s enjoyment of the event these days indeed seems to emanate from a paternal desire to share the joy of boat racing with each new generation — whether they be racers or race fans.
His biggest thrills at last month’s event came while watching the next generation of racers compete in the youth racing classification — and upon hearing the winner of the SST 45 world championship, Steven Dawe — a very accomplished racer — tell him that the win here represented the high point of his career.
He has absolutely no hesitation in claiming that Trenton is the best place in the world for racing power boats. At this point, who would know better?
Joe Hoshaw Jr. is editor and co-publisher of the Trenton Trib. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org