MICHIGAN CITY — When Billy Mauff came to Michigan City 11 years ago for the inaugural Great Lakes Grand Prix, it was love at first sight.
Eleven years later, the driver of the WHM Motorsports powerboat feels the same way.
"It's Michigan City," Mauff said. "You walk downtown and the trees are lit up. It's like the Jimmy Stewart movie (It's a Wonderful Life). Every year, we have a huge following. The car show, the parade, it's just crazy here. I said (Saturday), 'If it was 75 degrees here in November, this is where the world championship would be.' The park is magnificent. The zoo is magnificent. Blue Chip (Casino) is a beautiful hotel. It's just a great place."
Mauff's first time here, he visited the nearby Washington Park Zoo, and it has become an annual stop for him before his race. The zoo curator now comes and picks him up on his golf cart and gives him a ride over to see his animal pals.
"The atmosphere just calms you," he said. "After the drivers meeting, I went to go see the lions, tigers and bears. They high fived me. We do a lot of (animal) rescue work. We made a nice donation to the zoo. Seeing my friends at the zoo was the best part of the day. It takes your mind off racing and gets it where it should be, on animal safety and rescue. That means more than anything."
Lake Michigan has also been good to Mauff's WHM boat, which won the Super Cat classification with a wire-to-wire victory in its 10-lap race. The triumph was its first in the season series, but extended its string of victories at this venue to three.
"That's pretty impressive," he said. "We're second in the points now and probably not too far from first."
In the Class 1 finale, the Australian powerboat 222 (Triple 2) got off the line fast and cruised to its second victory on the American Powerboat Association tour, which concludes in October in Fort Myers.
"The first part was good," driver Darren Nicholson said. "Victory (the Dubai boat) is always good off the line. They're usually better than us. I like the fresh water, it's nice on the equipment. It was a bit lumpy, but I'm happy to come across the line like that. This makes it very open for the last race. It shows the reliability of the Mercury engine. The whole package, we're all very close."
The Grand Prix drew its largest fleet of racers thanks to the unification of associations. Win or lose, the weekend is always an enjoyable one for drivers like Billy Allen of Super Stock class Allen Lawn Care and Landscaping from Pleasant Hill, Iowa.
"It's one of the best events on the tour," Allen said. "They do an outstanding job accommodating the racers and the fans' support is huge. Michigan City is usually a little rougher. It was a flat race and we struggled with the flat water. If it's a little bumpy, we do better."
Tim Hill, who directs the Roar Offshore national championship in Fort Myers, is a regular at the Grand Prix, and said it's the people that make the Michigan City races special.
"One-hundred percent, it's the best fans," Hill said. "The Florida races are the most well-attended, but it doesn't have to be a coastal destination. We get a lot of people from the Midwest and Northeast in Florida and they pull in a lot of people from outside the Midwest here. It's my fifth year here and I love coming up. You see the crowd, you gotta love it."
The AquaX (jet ski) division started the busy day on the water. Points leader Brian Baldwin has picked up the nickname Mr. Consistency on the circuit, and he showed why this weekend, winning Sunday's third heat to follow up on second- and third-place runs Saturday.
"The last couple years, it's been top three, win, top three, win -- that's a big part of it," Baldwin said. "Once we got the race going (Saturday), I was thinking, 'I wish we hadn't changed that,' so we went back to where we were when I came up here and that worked out really good. It comes down to determination and a lot of stamina, even though it's flat. It's still 30 minutes, wide open and as fast as you can go. You cross your Ts and dot your Is and go as hard as you can. Our machine set-up by Riva Yamaha has been huge."
Baldwin, who cut his racing teeth on the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean in Florida, was making his first trip to Michigan City.
"Riding the ocean is a different kind of riding. It separates the men from the boys," he said. "It's super nice to come here. The fresh water is cool. The skis handle it a little differently here. It runs way better."
The 2017 P1 world champion from Denver, N.C., heads to Pensacola, Fla. for the final race with a firm grip on the top spot in the standings before the championships in the Bahamas.
"Every time I take my foot off the gas, I make a mistake," Baldwin said. "I just keep the pedal to the metal."