DEPUE — Come hell or high water, or in this case, low water, the DePue Men’s Club has been bringing the Pro National Championship Boat Races to Lake DePue for 30 years.
From its ongoing fight with Exxon Mobil and CBS to clean up the mess they created years ago in the lake and anxiously waiting out a seemingly questionable low water, the Fastest Show on the Lake will go on this week, drawing hundreds of race fans to DePue each year.
First races will rev up at noon Friday with the OSY 400 Hydroplane Division.
“It’s pretty neat. Thirty years ago we got into this and really didn’t now what we were doing and how things would go. We never would have dreamed we’d still be doing it 30 years later,” said village President Eric Bryant, who serves as publicity director for the Men’s Club event. “I’m really proud being a member of that club. Very thankful for all the work these guys have done over all the years. A lot of them haven taken vacation and given up a lot of stuff to put this event on. It is a privilege to be a part of it.”
Bryant is quick to say the DePue Boat Races go beyond the Men’s Club and is a real a community effort, including wives, friends and elderly people involved in various capacities.
What makes the races, are the people in DePue, the boat racers say.
“Kind of a funny deal, I just walked up to the Giants Den for breakfast this morning (Tuesday_, got hollered at by about three people, got mooned at once. We’re all friends. I’ve been coming here for so long, half the town knows me,” Brian Payn of Center Point, Iowa.
“They love us and accept us here and meet us with open arms. You pull in here and it’s, ‘Ah, we’re home,’” said Gary Buskirk of Traverse City, Mich., who won his first national championship in the 350cc Hydroplane last year.
“Everybody here in the town is great. It’s a great place to come every year,” said defending 125cc Hydroplane champion Pete Kelly of Lakeland, Fla.
The history of boat racing in DePue dates back to the 1930s. It ran continually from 1932-61 and from 1965-74 until brought back in 1984, the lake again deemed safe to race after being dredged.
It’s been an event well worth all the hard work since 1984 and one Bryant couldn’t imagine DePue being without.
“We’ve really gone through quite a few things trying to keep the races. It is really the biggest event we got going on in the village year long,” Bryant said. “The lake we feel is a very important part of our village, and we’re working really hard having that lake restored.
“It’s a beautiful natural resource that’s been destroyed. We’re in danger of losing it if we can’t get Exxon Mobil and CBS to agree to restore that lake. They’re doing everything they can to keep from having to do that. That’s the battle we’re in.
“The men’s club has been trying to draw attention to that lake since we got involved. That’s one of the big reasons we keep doing it to show the importance it is has to our community, and I think the whole entire Illinois Valley area.”
Just two years ago, record low waters on the lake threatened the races up to nearly race day. Community leaders and volunteers from around the Illinois Valley pitched in to build a temporary dam and pump water from the river into the lake up until race time.
This year the water level is at a good level, Bryant said, but the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is keeping a close eye on the water level and prepared to trap water in the lake if necessary.
The national boat races will continue through Sunday, starting at noon Saturday and 12:30 p.m. Sunday.
Notes: The Men’s Club is sad to announce that DePue native Al Pierson and Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians will be unable to perform this year due to recent health issues. They report that Pierson is very optimistic he will return to his hometown next year.
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