Over the course of nine days, the Suncoast Super Boat Grand Prix Festival brings thousands of people to the streets and waterfronts of Sarasota for live music, one of the area's largest fireworks displays, a parade, world-class boat races and other events.
But when you ask Lucy Nicandri what makes the festival special, she doesn't mention any of that. For Nicandri, the festival's director, it's all about providing help for people who really need it.
"It's the 30th anniversary, which is a big deal for us," Nicandri said. "It's a benefit for Sunocast Charities for Children, and in the 29 years of the festival we've raised $14 million for construction of facilities occupied by five non-profits."
The nonprofits offer programs for children with special needs from Sarasota down to the North Port area. Besides building facilities, money from the Suncoast Super Boat Grand Prix Festival helps fund those programs.
But for most of the people who crowd the festival each year, the benefit to the families of the Sarasota area is just a great bonus. What's more important, and what's made the festival one of the biggest annual events in West Central Florida, is that it's just a whole lot of fun.
It started out in the '80s as a boat race, with a course that ran from St. Petersburg down to Venice.
The course has become more compact --it's now a 4.5-mile loop off of Lido Beach -- but the festival has steadily expanded.
"It really started to grow in 1998," said Nicandri, who started as a volunteer with the festival in its second year. "I wanted to have activities for people who couldn't be in town for the boat races, or who just didn't happen to be interested in boat races."
This year's festival got underway June 28. Probably the biggest event that has gone by is the festival's annual golf tournament, which this year expanded from one course to two.
But all the most popular events are coming up this weekend.
Today, starting at 7 p.m., is the Festival Parade of Boats, which runs along Main Street from U.S. 301 to Gulfstream Avenue. The main attractions of the parade are the boats and drivers who come to Sarasota for the race.
Before and after the parade is the "Boats by the Bay" downtown block party, with live music from Nothing But Trouble starting at 5 p.m. and the Billy Rice Band from 8:30 to 11 p.m.
Friday's night's main attraction is the fireworks display off Sarasota Bayfront Park. It starts at dusk, around 9 p.m., and lasts for about 20 minutes.
Nicandri said the festival's fireworks display has become one of the most popular in the area. The festival has been using the same New York fireworks company for many years, she said, and "they've never let us down."
Saturday is packed with events. By far the most popular is "Powerboats by the Bay," from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. at Centennial Park, which will feature food, live music from the Gumbo Boogie band and AJ and the Automatics, and the boats and drivers from the race. And, of course, you won't want to miss the annual Miss Super Boat Grand Prix bikini contest from 3 to 4:30 p.m.
All those events lead up to the actual Suncoast Super Boat Grand Prix Boat Race on Sunday. This year's race features 40 boats, a big increase from last year's 32.
There are two races, one beginning at 11 a.m. and one at 1 p.m. Larger boats have later start times.
The race has become one of the most prestigious in the country, and one of the most popular with drivers. Besides the race itself, she said, drivers love the events leading up to the race, they love Sarasota, and they love the way the town treats them like celebrities while they're here.
"We hear it every year," Nacandri said. "The drivers tell us this is like the Indy 500 of powerboat racing."
Details: Through July 5 at locations around Sarasota. Event times: Various. Tickets: Almost all events are free. Information: suncoastoffshore.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.