Sunday, August 10, 2008

Model Day At The Races


JEFFERSON—The Rock strewn parking lot at Saffin Pond was filled with cars, and all of them were unoccupied except for one with a long-haired teenager with his head down, playing a Game Boy.

It was a sleepy Sunday morning, and dark, ominous, storm clouds slowly filled the sky. With a light, chilly wind, the clouds moved into town and rudely set their place in the sky to stay. Here, they rested for the remainder of the day and threatened all below with the possibilities of a tremendous downpour.

That didn’t stop the Roostertails, a Morris County team that builds and races motorized boats, from hosting its N.J. Heat Racing/District Points competition. That’s because the Roostertails, like many other teams around the world, belong to the North American Model Boat Association, an international nonprofit organization where people of all ages share their ardent passion for building boats and racing them.

They do it for the sheer thrill of it all. June 25 was their day to host the competition, and nothing in the world, not even a little bit (or a lot) of rain was about to spoil their fun.

The path down to the pond was rocky and shaded by verdant trees and vegetation, and at a distance could be heard the sounds of wildlife and…the revving of engines?

The whirring noise of a sputtering engine that sounded like a race car could be heard loudly cutting corners in the water and splashing all about in the distance. Through the limbs of the trees, a red flash could be seen darting across the water like a laser beam and cutting a sharp turn around what looked like an orange buoy that say placidly in the pond.

Nearer to the pond, not only could these water rockets be heard, but they also could be smelled as a metallic scent wafted in the air and collected in a person’s nostrils and on the roof of the mouth. That’s the smell of methane from nitro and gas powered boats, and that’s the heat that raced on Sunday. Electric boats also are known to race, but they hold a separate competition since they are generally faster and more efficient than gas or nitro.

Doug Twaits of Stanhope, a member of the Morris County Electric Boat Club and a former president of NAMBA from 1991 to 1993, was one of the first to introduce electric-powered boats to the club. He was also the first person a visitor saw when entering the camp set-up for the day.

With graying hair and a cordial smile, and wearing a bright red shirt and blue overalls, he resembled an older version of Super Mario. His thumbs were nestled behind the straps of his overalls as he sauntered over with slow and deliberate steps to a bench that sat near the pond and said something in the ear of a man wearing jean shorts, a red shirt, and an M&M’s baseball cap. The man with the cap (who had an M&M-modeled boat to accompany the hat) laughed. The man was David Neelman of Bloomingdale, president of the Roostertails.

David Neelman and his father, Herb Neelman of Boonton, watched attentively as racers for the day, wearing galoshes, hurled a variety of boats into the water to take off. This is called mill time and is practice before the actual events. David Neelman turned around on the bench and introduced his father and Tracy Hunt of Rockaway, a redheaded woman wearing shorts who kept the stats.

After meeting other members who came to the event not too much later, Neelman discussed the rules, then got on the microphone and enthusiastically said, “Racers, start your engines.” The men with their boats raced to their tables and set up shop, revving their engines with a partner and readying their boats to toss into the water to take laps.

An onlooker, standing relatively close to the racers, was told to step back by Neelman. The man backed up. The sky was getting darker.

At the start of the first race, an official boxed voice on a radio counted down how much time the racers had to get their boats ready to send out into the water: “22, 21, 20…” Two boats were sent out on the pond; they shot out on the water like racehorses. They flew past the orange buoys at the end of the pond and then took a sharper turn around a green buoy in the middle.

At that moment, one of the boats went down. The counter continued: “3, 2, 1” and then a bullhorn bellowed, and the last boat at its station got out just before the horn went off. That final boat was flying at such an exhilarating rate that it couldn’t make the first turn. It fell out of the race and hit a dead stop.

Only one boat made it in to the finish line. All the other dead boats had to be scooped out of the water by a member willing to go out in the retriever boat.

Another race was finished with only two winners, and then it was on to the one-eighth-scale-race, an exciting one. In this competition, all the boats were modeled after actual boats but only one-eighth the size of them. There are strict guidelines for this competition as to the size of these models, and for all their worth, they looked very close to the boats they were detailed after. In this race were two Budweiser boats, one brown, one red; a Miller High Life boat; a Chrysler Jeep boat; and an Olympian Beer boat.

As the boats were thrown from the pit area, the buzzer just went off. It was a tight one; the red Budweiser boat and the Chrysler were close until the Chrysler sank, but in the end, only three boats made it in. Budweiser Red was up front, followed by Olympian Beer, followed by one last boat.

And then…rain.

It finally came down. Everybody rushed under tents they had set up for such an occasion. Some left their boats out uncovered on tables, but nobody really cared. It already was coming down too hard and too fast for anybody to really notice. Once covered underneath the tent, Herb Neelman commented, “We used to race in more than this.”

The deluge lasted for about an hour and a half, nonstop, and everybody pushed the pockets of rain off their tarps as the rain continued to come down hard. Tracy Hunt spent the time slapping horse flies off her uncovered legs while most others shared stories about how their boats just weren’t holding up that day, probably because of the weather. And while it rained, a blue snake slithered through the stream made by the mud, possibly signaling that the rain wouldn’t last much longer.

Moments later, the rain stopped almost miraculously. And like a cavalier of warriors, everybody came out from under their tents, set up their boats and were back on the pond that now looked like glass. Smoke sputtered out from their creations, and they raced as if it had never even rained.

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