VENTURA — Overcast skies and perhaps an unfamiliarity with powerboat racing conspired to keep Saturday's crowds down on the inaugural day of the Ventura Offshore Grand Prix Festival.
A Jimmy Buffet cover band played to mostly empty chairs at Ventura Harbor Village about noon. A nearby vendor snoozed undisturbed beside his cast-metal fish art. Across the harbor at Racers Village, the lack of crowds was a pleasant surprise for some spectators and an unpleasant one for grumbling vendors.
"I'm waiting for 50,000 people to show up, and so far I haven't seen them," said Patricia Fay, who had traveled from Oshkosh, Wis., with her husband, Jim, to sell T-shirts with such slogans as "Jet Boats--Low-level F-16s with an attitude" and "Offshore racing--Anything less would be NASCAR."
"If we had to decide today, we would probably not come back next year," she added.
Still, there were plenty of free goodies for those who paid for entrance to the wet and dry pits, where boats could be seen both in and out of the water.
San Chaloupka, 48, of Camarillo and his 9-year-old son, Ben, toted free booty that included hats, ballpoint pens and jelly beans as they watched powerboats being hauled in and out of the water.
"I guess they're racing out there in the ocean somewhere. . . . It was a little hard to see," the elder Chaloupka said. But "it's kind of fun just to look at the boats. They go fast, they are loud. Any time anybody shows you a 1,000-horsepower anything, it's a Tim Allen thing, it's a guy thing."
Among the attractions at the festival was the opportunity to drive smaller versions of the powerboats by remote control.
In general there were more complaints than kudos from those who actually watched the races, and most praise came from those who simply attended the festival.
Longtime powerboat-race fans objected to having to pay to see boats in the wet and dry pits, noting that that isn't the case at some other venues. What's more, some said, the dry pits consisted of little more than dusty lots with mulch thrown over them.
Novice fans thought a scoreboard or loudspeaker system would have helped them keep track of the action.
And the expansive festival--spread over four locations near the harbor--not only made it difficult to get around but also made the thin crowd even more pronounced, said Carla Korda of Agoura Hills.
Finally, misty weather meant that many onlookers lining the dunes near Harbor Cove had trouble following the races.
"We have no idea what's going on," said 32-year-old Helen Sackman of San Francisco, who nevertheless noted that the weather was warmer than in her city, despite the cloudy skies.
"Every once in a while we see a boat go by," said her friend, Bob Baltera of Oxnard Shores. "It's pretty tough to follow."
Racing fanatic George Henry, 62, of Ventura rejected such criticism.
"That's why you need binoculars," he said, peering through the murk. "You can't have a grandstand in the middle of the ocean."
But even veteran powerboat-racing fans were somewhat dismayed by the distance of the boats from shore.
"I thought it was going to be a little closer action," said a disappointed Mark Karr of Sacramento, who had traveled down specifically for the races. "I don't think we're going to come out tomorrow. . . . We're going to go sightseeing."
Curtis Price, lifeguard supervisor at San Buenaventura State Beach, said that the number of beach goers was comparable to a regular Saturday in September.
"I would say there were 600 to 700 people on the beach between San Pedro Street and the pier," he said, noting that the boats roared within 300 yards of the beach. "We could have used a few more people. Maybe it was the weather."
Ironically, the clouds finally parted and allowed the sun to shine just as powerboats began straggling back into the pits after the day's races. Racers hoped the weather would improve and that more people would come out to see the largest, fastest and noisiest powerboats, which are scheduled to run today.
Many who attended Saturday attributed the event's teething problems to its first-year status.
Jim Fay, who promoted a powerboat race in Oshkosh over the Labor Day weekend and lost about $10,000, knows how tough a job it is. The basic elements were in place for a successful event, he said, with only a little fine-tuning required.
"Powerboat racing is foreign to a lot of people and it's not easy to watch, so you've got to have an energy-filled event to get people here," he said. "Any first event is a real struggle to get people to realize they can get down here and have fun all day."
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Grand Prix winners
Class Boat & Driver Avg. speed A (six laps) Purple Haze, Tom Wolfinger 48.32 (retired sixth lap) B (six laps) Stampede, Dave Traitel 63.75 C (six laps) Ultimate Energy, Paul Klein 69.05 D (six laps) Blood Vessel, Sean McWhinney 75.42 (retired fourth lap)
Class A: 25- to 30-foot V-bottoms with single inboard or twin outboards. Top speed 90 mph.
Class B: 31- to 38-foot V-bottoms, Class A-type engines, or triple outboards. Top speed 100 mph.
Class C: 35- to 40-foot V-bottoms with twin big-block inboards, or 28- to 32-foot catamarans with twin outboards to 265 horsepower. Top speed 100 mph.
Class D: Similar to Class C boats. V-bottoms with higher-output twin big block inboards, or catamarans with twin 265-horsepower plus outboards. Top speed 115 mph.