The driver count is starting to rack up for the 2019 Smoke on the Water Drag Boat Races and they are all waiting for the green light to flash.
That’s right, green light.
For the first time in the 19-year history of the event, a lighting system will be used to send the racers off down the course at Lake El Reno instead of the traditional flag-drop.
“We have to evolve with what our customers want. We did a poll on Facebook and everyone wanted the lights,” said co-organizer Josh Finnigan.
The three-day event runs July 19-21, with racing being held on the Saturday and Sunday.
Friday’s session will be a test and tune on the lake from noon until 5 p.m.
Now in its sixth year in El Reno after moving from Fort Cobb Lake, the race course set-up has seen very few changes over its history. Racers run side by side down a 1,000-foot course, starting from a resting position.
A pontoon boat positioned a hundred feet down the course was the starting line and the flag person on top of that boat started each race.
This year the flag person will be replaced by a light tree mounted on a two-person boat. The lights will be controlled remotely. Finnigan says another boat will be near the starting lights to video each start.
“We have been fortunate not to have an accident with that pontoon boat out there so close to the races. Getting that boat out of there will be a big safety feature,” said Finnigan.
Another change will be the hold rope drivers hold onto before they are called to the starting line. It will be moved farther north to get boats into deeper water at the start.
“That cove is rather shallow and by moving the rope farther north, hopefully we can keep some of the boats from getting stuff off the bottom of the lake into their pumps,” said Finnigan.
Finnigan added moving the hold rope is minor compared to the addition of the lights.
“Getting the lights seems to have doubled the interest we have been getting from people. In the last few weeks I have been fielding calls from people that I have never heard from before wanting to know about the races,” said Finnigan.
The addition of lights, said Finnigan, is the only real change from the Outlaw-style format of racing which has made SOTW so popular.
“Our flags will be gone and we are going to the light system. It’s a fair starting system for everyone and there can be none saying there is a homer element. We want it to be fair for everyone.
“It bothers me some going away from the true Outlaw style but I want it to be fair across the board and this is the best way. We are still not a timed event and the racers won’t get in trouble for going too fast. It’s still the fastest to the finish. Nothing is different than the lights,” said Finnigan.
Finnigan is expecting a high boat count due to the number of calls being fielded. Drivers from California, Arizona, Missouri, New Mexico, Louisiana, Kansas and Virginia have already inquired about coming as well as boats from Texas and Oklahoma.
"We are expecting 80-plus boats and the most we have ever had was 65. We could end up having over 100 boats,” said Finnigan.
Fueling the SOTW popularity this year is the fact there are no Southern Drag Boat Association (SDBA) races until August after events in Grove (Grand Lake) and Evanston, Ill., were canceled due to flooding at those venues.
“We are having good fortune off others’ misfortune. Those two SDBA races were going to take boats away from our field,” said Finnigan.
Despite El Reno having more than 30 inches of rain in May and June combined, Finnigan says the race course at the lake is just fine.
“Our lake is back to normal. We would even love for it to have kept some of that water but the dam out there keeps the water flowing out, but we are in good shape and it will be fine for our boats,” said Finnigan.
The prize money is also catching the eyes of drivers who may have skipped SOTW in the past.
“We have a guaranteed $10,000 purse in our Unlimited Top Fuel class and what that has done is erupt our popularity in the boating world, especially after the SDBA canceling those two races.
“Our popularity is still there. People from all over the United States know about us. What is driving them to us is the amount of money we are putting into the prize pool and we could not do that without all our local sponsors like Lucky Star Casino.
“All of our sponsors have been huge,” said Finnigan.
Fans can get an up-close look at the boards on Friday, July 19 with a Show and Glow event starting at dark. Drivers will fire up the engines on their boats to light up the night sky.
Racing will start at noon Saturday and every class will run a double elimination format until there is only one unbeaten driver in each class. That driver will then return Sunday and will have to be beaten twice in order to win the class and the prize money.
Sunday’s start time will be set at the end of the bracket racing on Saturday.
“The weather always plays into the start time on Sunday. We have drivers coming from a long way away and we may start earlier,” said Finnigan.
Fans can come watch the races with the purchase of a gate wrist band. Prices are $15 per day for adults or $25 for a two-day pass. Kids ages 6 to 12 can get a two-day pass for $10 and there is no charge for youth 5 and under.
There will be a corn hole tournament on Saturday, July 20 and a concert by Cade Roth and The BlackSheep that night, both at Lake El Reno.
Smoke on the Water Race Divisions
Stock Tunnel Only
WWC Pro 80
Unlimited Top Fuel
Note: Kill switches are mandatory. Rope deflectors mandatory