The Madison Regatta

by Terry Hogan

Madison Indiana is a sleepy little town that has deep roots into the Ohio River. It is a river town in southern Indiana, with something for just about anyone. Settled in 1809 and growing off the riches of river traffic, the town is full of impressive old homes that are restored. It was once one of the largest towns in Indiana, much larger than the little upstart Indianapolis, built in the center of the state but without the benefit of a real river. The Madison downtown sports a number of antique shops, some small locally-owned restaurants and even a winery or two. It is a quiet little town to spend a quiet little weekend to wind down and find what ever you are looking for, even if you don’t really know it until you see it. It has several bed and breakfasts and a state park, Clifty Creek, nearby, for those who want an alternative to motels.

But like the quiet little home town girl who goes to the big city to work in burlesques, once each year pretty Madison throws off her conservative Midwestern attire and flaunts her attributes by hosting The Madison Regatta. The best and fastest unlimited hydroplanes descend on sleepy Madison. The Ohio River front literally bristles with cranes that with timing that the ballet could admire, pick up the hydroplanes off their trailers and places them gently into the water, just minutes before it is time for the drivers to climb in, strap in, and take their turbine powered boats at speeds of about 150 mph. And this isn’t just a new attempt to bring in revenue to this little town, this is year 52 that Madison has hosted hydroplane racing.

These unlimited hydros skip across the surface of the Ohio River, at times looking like an uncertain bather attempting to enter frigid water. The boats just touch the surface, and then rise up again, appearing to just bounce upon the peaks of the waves. I’m not sure if I should refer to those who are operating the hydros as drivers or pilots. Nor does it appear whether the hydros are satisfied with skimming the water or if they desire to defy gravity and fly. The "big names" came to run their hydroplanes. Probably the most conspicuous in resources and flair is the Miss Budweiser operation. It sports two immaculate red hydroplanes, trailers, tractor-trailer rigs with state of the art workshops, and lots of talented folks to maintain and keep everything spotless. Given the close-up look at the Miss Budweiser operation, it is not surprising that it has such a record of success.

Let me tell you about clean. As I mentioned earlier, the boat is lowered into the Ohio River just minutes before its time trials, the driver is strapped in, and he takes the hydroplane around an oval course on the Ohio River, approaching or exceeding speeds of 150 mph. It returns to the docks where divers and crews make sure the fragile boat does not touch the dock. The driver raises the canopy, climbs out and the crew jumps aboard to remove the cover off the engine. A harness is attached to the boat, and the boat is lifted out of the water by a crane and it is safely returned to its waiting trailer and attendants. For at least the Miss Budweiser, members of the crew promptly climb on board and wipe the water off the glistening red surface of the hydroplane’s deck. I noticed that Miss Budweiser, when it was being hoisted over my head by a crane, has a "Bud" brightly painted on the underside of the boat. I’m guessing that the driver hopes this little bit of advertisement isn’t frequently seeing by the public.

I do owe a thank you to one of the pit crewmembers. As an unlimited hydro is set to start its turbine, the bow of the boat is gently pushed towards the center of the river, to diminish the chance of the boat bumping off the dock during acceleration. As one the turbine-powered hydros was pushed off in this manner, a crew member came over to me where I was standing on the dock, taking photos of another boat. He said, "You may want to move a little so our boat doesn’t melt your camera lenses when it starts up." I looked and the "business end" of the turbine was only a few feet away. I took his advice and stood next to him on the dock as the turbine fired up. Even at the new, greater distance the noise and heat was intense. I won’t make that mistake again. No use flaunting stupidity.

Although the unlimited hydroplanes are likely the most popular with the fans that come to Madison, my heart stayed with the old, restored, smaller boats that the Madison Regatta has had the heart and insight to bring into the events. These are small, mostly family-owned small hydroplanes with "real motors"- pistons, loud exhausts and everything! And most of these boats are made of wood. Some of these small hydros have been beautifully restored with stained wood finishes.

These little hydros, sporting internal combustion engines, not turbines, sound like angry bees as they lightly tap dance along the Ohio River, at speeds of about 105 mph in the straightaway. These 2.5 liter stocks, like race cars, have specific design criteria for the boat, fuel, and engine. They have to be at least 13.5 feet long, use gasoline and weigh at least 850 pounds with the driver.

But I think my favorite boat at the Madison Regatta was "The Obsession" that is owned by Bill John of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. Bill is both the owner and the driver. The 21-foot "Gar Wood" Speedster was built in 1948. It is powered by a 454/510 Chevrolet Stoker Motor that produces 625 hp. I was told by the "riding mechanic", Donnie McLean, (the boat is a two seatter) that it will run about 70-75 mph. It was originally built in Marysville, Michigan (near Detroit), and lovingly restored, and modified, in New Hampshire. The boat is wood, stained a mahogany with a high gloss finish, and supports a large gold "G-48" on the hull. When the chromed Chevy engine starts up, the roar could be from a drag strip, as easily as from this engine sitting just a few inches above the Ohio River. When the boat is not out and about at events like the Madison Regatta, it can be found at Lake Winnipesaukee and the New Hampshire Boat Museum, Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.

These small restored boats are an act of love, and often a family affair. Walking amongst them, as they are being tinkered with, before being placed in the water, you hear calls of "Dad", "Mom" and even "Grandpa". There were a number of gray-headed old men, who looked like they’d know better, squeezing into the cockpits of these small pieces of wood with big engines. It did my heart good. They were living their dreams and had the support of their families. I saw one beautiful little hydroplane that had Grandpa’s name as the owner and driver, and the names of children and grandchildren as crew members. And judging from the age span and the turmoil around this little hydro, I believe they were all present on July 5 to help grandpa get ready for the time trials.

But I would be amiss if I gave the impression that this was an all-male sport, except for pit crew help. In the 2.5 liter group, I came across Beth Gilday who owned and drove her own hydroplane. She couldn’t have weighed a hundred pounds when she thought her heaviest thoughts, but she came in a very respectable second. She said she thought there were about three woman drivers in the approximately 500 drivers in the in-board boats. The name of her organization was "You Go Girl Racing". And she does, and she did on July 7.

Of course, not all the time is spent racing or even testing of hydroplanes. At set times, all activities come to a halt. All boats are plucked from the water to the safety of their trailers and the Mighty Ohio reverts from being the showplace of hydroplane racing, to being a working river. Large towboats begin to ply the river moving pass Madison, pushing barges of coal, grain, chemicals, and the like. They have been treading water upstream and downstream of Madison, to allow the hydroplanes their day, but these barges have places to go and "stuff" to be delivered and to be picked up. After the speedy little hydros skipping across the surface of the Ohio River, these massive barges, requiring about 11 feet of water, look all the more like the working boats they are. They have their own story to tell, but I have not heard it.

During this break in the action, I had the opportunity to people-watch and to look at the many tents and trailers that are set up to nearly meet your every wish. Because of the high temperature and humidity, bottled water, lemon shakeups, and soft drinks were in high demand. In the form of substance, barbecued ribs, rib eye steak sandwiches, pork chops, and corn dogs, were all to be had. The more unusual venders set up for the event, included a woman who was a Tara Card reader and a guy selling cell phones. Neither appeared to be doing the business that the food places were doing. I guess ya just gotta know your market.

But back to the Madison Regatta. One of the neat things about the event is that it is on the Ohio River, which is straight, along the Madison stretch. The entire course can be seen and the bank of the Ohio River is high and gradually sloping, which allows for the placement of blankets and lawn chairs. Shade is provided by lots of trees, but shade remains a premium location, so the earliest get the best locations.

The Madison Regatta is a mix of carnival, a living museum, a family event for some racers, and a media event for the sponsors of the unlimited hydros. I should also mention, that all this is put on by the City of Madison and a whole herd of volunteers who work themselves to the breakpoint making the event go smoothly.

And yes, there was a winner of the unlimited hydroplane race that was held on Sunday, July 7, following the build-up of the time trials and practice runs on earlier days. But frankly, it didn’t matter too much to me.* The Madison Regatta is special. It is special because of the Unlimited Hydroplanes streaking across the river. It is special for the speed and glitz.

But the Madison Regatta is really special for the lovingly restored old boats put together and maintained by families and raced with care and love. If you think about it, it makes no sense whatsoever for them to do it. I guess that’s why you run into a 54 year old boat that looks newer than new, sporting the name "Obsession". It’s the only explanation.


*If you insist on knowing who won the Unlimited Hydroplane Race because this is, after all, a newspaper, it was won by Miss Elam Plus, with a speed of 138.862 mph. Surprisingly, Miss Budweiser finished third with a speed of 130.878.

July 7, 2002