Sprint Nationals speedboat race permit denied over safety concerns after death at last year’s race

On one weekend a year for more than 70 years, the sound of roaring, and sometimes screaming, engines have startled or thrilled residents on or near the coast of Long Beach. The racket is caused by speedboats from all over the country when the Sprint Nationals boat race fires up in early August each year at Marine Stadium.

The boat race, which annually lures 15,000 to 20,000 speedboat fans and partiers to the banks of  the legendary water stadium, will be eerily quiet this summer after Long Beach’s Office of Special Events & Filming denied the Southern California Speedboat Club a permit to hold the event this year for reasons of public safety.

Ross Wallach, president of the SCSC, which has been putting on the speedboat race for the last 20 years, expressed bafflement of the event’s sudden cancellation by the city.

“We’ve never had a member of the public get hurt in the 20 years we’ve run the race,” said Wallach. “The city keeps alluding to new fire and safety regulations, but no one has told me what they are.”

Wallach said he’s left 50 or 60 phone messages to the special events office, but none have been returned.

Tasha Day, the office’s manager, referred questions to Long Beach Fire Department Assistant Chief Matthew Gruneisen, who did, in fact, cite safety concerns for the permit denial.

“At the conclusion of every event we have a part in we conduct a post-event review to make sure if we need to add or take away some component,” he said. “And one thing from last year was the death of a driver.”

Gregory Paul Duff, a 36-year-old driver from Newport Beach, was injured when his boat was struck by another boat that had gone airborne on a turn. He died about a week later.

The fact that no fans or others were injured was lucky, Gruneisen said.

“Have we been lucky for 40 or 50 years?” he asked. “Our number one goal is to ensure the safety of spectators and how vulnerable they are to a high-speed boat going into the crowd or launching onto the beach.”

Wallach, nevertheless, is distraught about the loss of the Long Beach race, the second-largest annual sporting event in the city.

“There’s been a concerted effort with someone in the city to stop the event,” he said. “This is wrong, to kill an event just for the sake of killing it.”

The race has had its share of mixed reviews over the years, just like the Grand Prix, most of it concerning noise. Those complaints may be a shade more than what Wallach says “you can literally count on less than two hands.”

Councilwoman Suzie Price, whose 3rd District includes Marine Stadium and its surrounding residences, has long been critical of the speedboat races, chiefly, again, because of the noise, but she denies having anything to do with the event’s denial of a permit this year for the races, which were to be held Aug. 4 and 5.

“I do not believe those races are conducive to the surrounding neighborhoods,” she said. “I have been on the record of saying that before. But I did not do anything to prompt the denial, nor was I consulted about it. The first I heard was when the City Council was told about it.”

The absence of the event this year also affects Belmont Shore, where the drivers, crews and mechanics of the boats would annually meet with the public at Legends on Second Street the day before the races, much like the Grand Prix’s Roar in the Shore event.

“I always enjoyed the boat races as a kid,” said Legends owner Eric Johnson, who grew up on the Peninsula.

“Legends has hosted a ‘meet the drivers’ event for the last few years after Dogz got flooded and they couldn’t do it,” said Johnson.

“And whether it was at Dogz or Legends, it was always a great event for kids and parents. It’s brought a lot of people and it’s a really, really great group of people and they come year after year and bring a lot of money to the city, going to restaurants and bars and shops up and down Second Street.

“Parents dig it,” Johnson said. “Kids dig it. I’d be bummed if it left.”

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.