Madison Regatta- Not All "Just Ducky"
by Terry Hogan
Another 4th of July weekend has come and gone. I found myself again at the Madison (IN) Regatta. I've enjoyed boat racing since my days at Lake Bracken, racing a small hydroplane with a 5 hp (more or less) outboard motor. Apparently Madison enjoys hosting them as this was the 55th year of hosting an Unlimited Hydroplane racing event.
The Unlimited Hydroplanes are generally turbine powered now, driven by the same engines that powered helicopters in Vietnam. The canopies used on the unlimiteds are from jet fighters of about the same vintage. It makes sense, at least poetically, as they fly over the water. In addition are the vintage power boats ranging from small engines to massive V-8s driving them at speeds in excess of 140 mph down the short straight-aways on the Ohio River course. It was much like years in the past, but not quite. Everything was not quite "just ducky" at Madison this year.
The Madison Regatta could have started off with the quote, "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." It was the worst of the times, with the loss of the star of the unlimited hydroplanes and the lost of funding. But it was also the best of times, with free publicity from the release of the movie "Miss Madison". Although it is unlikely to garnish many votes for the movie of the year, it did feature Madison, Indiana and the Miss Madison victory in the 1971 gold cup race in Madison, Indiana. The movie was premiered April 17 in Madison and MGM released it to a select number of cities around the country on April 22. (The movie trailer can be seen on the Internet at www.madisonthemovie.com.) It was expected to provide a boost in attendance for the race weekend.
The most obvious difference, and one I knew would be there, was the absence of the beautiful and richly maintained Miss Budweiser and crew. The bright red unlimited hydroplane was always the favorite to win based on its history of performance. The Budweiser Brewing Company was also a very generous corporate sponsor for the racing series. It provided badly needed funding for the small Ohio River town to put on this big of an event. Dedicated local volunteers can work endless hours, but there still is a need for money. Madison dug deep and squeezed what it could from existing donors.
Beyond the loss of Miss Budweiser and the financial support, the vintage boat races appeared to be down this year. Where there were vintage boats two and three deep along the shore of the Ohio last year, there were ducks, casually swimming along the shoreline, being fed by small children. Perhaps part of my disappointment for this year was the absence of the Obsession, a Gar Wood boat of remarkable beauty and speed that I have featured in past years. She and her crew did not travel from New Hampshire to the Ohio this year. I, for one, sorely missed the rumble of her mighty V-8 and the water beading on the shiny mahogany deck. She is a grand old lady that added class to the show.
But there were still some mighty fine, and carefully restored, vintage boats to watch, admire, and to listen to as they ran the oval course on the Ohio. Probably due to the rumble of its gigantic V-8, I suppose my favorite vintage boat this year was the Miss Dynomytes. It still has remarkable speed for a vintage boat, reaching speeds in excess of 140 mph down the short straight-aways provided for the vintage boats. It is a family operation - a family with more than a few gray hairs. The driver's wife is his crew who carefully kept the boat from rubbing the dock, while they waited for the announcement for the class to leave the dock and enter the course. When the time came, Gordon Jayne, owner and driver, hit the starter and then the throttle hard. The propeller threw water all over his wife and me. This grandmotherish looking woman, uttered, "Why you old f----" and then looked sheepishly at me. I was also dripping wet, as were my cameras. In the first warm-up lap, Miss Dynomytes passed all the other hydroplanes like they were standing still. She turned to me and said, "Well, I guess I can forgive him."
There was also a three-generation crew and support group from Kankakee. There was the grandmother, her son who was the driver of the J52, his wife and their young children who were more interested in the ducks and geese along the shore than the boat races. They had a small canopy tent set up along the shoreline to keep the sun off them. It was a family event.
In the Unlimited Hydroplane class, the local favorite was, of course, the Miss Madison, which also bore the name Oh Boy! Oberto. In amongst the swans with their turbine engines, was a classic throwback. A truly gigantic turbocharged Allison airplane piston engine sat proudly in the Cooper Racing Team's, U-3. The U-3 is owned and operated by a father and son team who live in Evansville and Madison, Indiana. This boat is the sole remaining explanation for the origin of the phrase for this boat race: "Thunder on the Ohio". You won't mistake this boat for a turbine powered system.
Up on the hill, away from the pits, the smell of barbecued ribs was blending with odors of ribeye steaks, fried onions, brauts, hamburgers, and various sausages containing a variety of things that I probably don't want to know about. There was a tent with Marine recruiters; and tents with folks selling T-shirts, cell phones, jewelry, and other items of apparent interest. The best deal was free smoke alarms being given out. Perhaps a life will be saved by someone attending the race. The crowd, as always, had a good time and was well-behaved. It was a family event and children abound.
No, it wasn't a Disney ending. Miss Madison did not win, nor did the only piston-powered unlimited hydroplane, U-3. The honor went to Miss Elam Plus, but the old Allison engine in the U-3 roared into second place - a very respectable finish that may help to keep the "Thunder on the Ohio" for a few more years.
The Madison Regatta remains a great show in a beautiful little river town on the banks of the mighty Ohio River. And Madison has some absolutely stunning restored old homes. Madison once rivaled Indianapolis for power and wealth. The Madison Regatta is "worth the going", even without Miss Budweiser, and even with less funding for the event. Madison, with its corps of volunteers who make this happen, year after year, is the big winner.
It shows what a town can do, when the citizens pull in the same direction.