The Madison Regatta - Best of the Old & New

by Terry Hogan

It was another 4th of July weekend in Madison, Indiana. The Unlimited Hydroplanes, with their screaming turbine engines pushed the brightly colored boat/plane hybrids across the wave tops of the Ohio River. Spectators on both the Indiana shoreline and the Kentucky shoreline withstood the 90-degree weather to watch these boats skim the surface of the water like demented whirligig beetles. Lap speeds of 140 to 150 mph were typical, with speeds on the straight-aways reaching about 200 mph. There were two accidents involving the Unlimited Hydros. But for many, it was the older boats, the vintage hydroplanes and, well frankly, their vintage drivers, that made the weekend.

Nevertheless, the unlimited hydroplanes, with their beautiful colors and fragile structure offered moments to remember. On Saturday, July 5, for instance, the crew of the Leland Racing team stood on the docks, watching their boat and driver make the circular course on a choppy Ohio River. The wind had picked up, and increased the danger of an already dangerous sport. The Leland hydroplane (U-100) screamed by the docks and pits, giving a close-up view to the fans on the Indiana shoreline at Madison. It was traveling downstream on the Ohio, and entered the first turn, placing the boat at a right angle to the river and the chop of the water. In a moment, the boat was gone, hidden by a sheet of white Ohio River spray, indicating that the Leland had flipped. A member of the Llumar crew, standing on the dock next to me, simply said, "She's over." as the splash raised into the sky.

The emergency response crew was at the site very quickly and a diver was in the water to pull the unconscious driver, Greg Hopp, from the upside down, damaged boat. He was taken to shore where an ambulance rushed him to a hospital. He was later released, with no serious injuries. Greg is fairly new as an unlimited driver, starting in the unlimited racing in 1998. Neither he nor his boat was up to running for the money on Sunday. The unlimited hydroplanes are not made to withstand the impact of landing upside down while traveling at those speeds, but the small, cramped enclosed cockpits save lives when these things happen.

Mark Evans, the driver of the unlimited Llumar Window Film (U-8) probably felt the impact of the flip more than some of the other drivers. Mark, an extrovert, if there ever was one, has a dubious honor. He is the only unlimited driver to have flipped upside down in a heat, and was able to race later in the day and win the race. It was in 1997 at Seattle. It's known within the hydroplane culture as the "Flip and Win". But once it was learned that the Greg Hopp had survived and was not seriously injured, Mark was outgoing, talking to all the crews and spending lots of his limited spare time talking with old friends who were at Madison, racing their vintage boats. Mark had spent the 2001 -2002 hydroplane racing seasons as a race commentator for ESPN.

Not to be outdone, and not wanting to deny the Sunday spectators a little excitement, Mike Weber flipped the Unlimited Hydroplane "Miss Emcor" (U-10), during the first lap of the final heat. Mike attributed the accident to being too aggressive in trying to makeup being behind at the start. The "Miss Emcor" left the surface of the Ohio River and did a 360-degree flip in the air, landing with thr turbine engine still running. He was not injured. However, unlike "Flip and Win" Evans, there was no victory for Miss Emcor at Madison this year.

The vintage boat racing is something to see. Many have large V-8 engines, with exhausts from each cylinder venting to the air, without benefit of mufflers. Chromed stacks are often seen pointing up toward the sky, only inches in front of the driver. It must be a loud ride.

One of my favorite vintage boats was back again this year - "Obsession". The beautifully restored wooden "Gar Wood Speedster", built in 1948 was running on the Ohio River at Madison. She made the trip from Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. When idling or running at speed, the rumble of the mighty V-8 reflects a bygone era. Sitting, enclosed, about mid-boat (in front of the driver and mechanic), is a 454/510 Chevrolet Stroker Motor that is reported to produce 625 horsepower. She was one of a kind on the Ohio River this 4th of July weekend.

However, there was a kindred spirit to the "Obsession" in the wooden "Chrysler Queen" hydroplane. This beautifully restored 7-liter boat once held the world record for its class. Not surprisingly, given her name, she is powered by a Chrysler V-8 engine, mounted directly in front of the driver. It is an open cockpit boat, and the eight exhaust pipes are only a couple of feet in front of the driver.

In this case, the vintage hydroplane was driven by a vintage hydroplane racer. According to his daughter, Buddy Byers is 75 years old. Each year, the family thinks that it will be the last year he drives, but a new summer comes, and with a little help squeezing into a snug driver's uniform, a snug life vest, and a tight cockpit, Buddy is back on the water again. He apparently doesn't tire of doing what he loves to do. He once drove the unlimited hydroplanes, including the local favorite, "Miss Madison". He suffered his own crash one year, resulting in the limited use of one arm. But Buddy was there, running the "Chrysler Queen" on the Ohio in 2003.

I frankly don't know too much about Buddy. His daughter talked with me briefly. She hoped that I would get some good photos of her father running, and send them to her. She said her Dad wasn't thrilled with her photos. They usually cut one part or another of the boat off. It's not surprising. Getting a good photo of a speeding boat going by at speeds of 100mph or so, while standing on a floating dock rocking from the wake of the boats, is no small feat.

But there were several things that let me know Buddy Byers was someone special. First, when he was sitting in his boat waiting for the signal to start engines, he saw me on a nearby dock, preparing to take his photo. Despite being faced with the race about to start, he took the time to pose, sitting still, until I got the picture. I waved a thanks, and he returned a "thumbs up". Obviously a pretty nice guy. After the time "heat" he returned to the dock and was helped out of his boat. Mark Evans, the driver of the Llumar Window (U-8) Unlimited hydroplane walked quickly by me, saying he was going to see his old friend Buddy, and get a photo. Well, my Mother raised no dummies, so I dropped in behind Mark and followed him over to Buddy. Mark got his photo, and I got mine. But I figure if Mark Evans made a trek down the length of the pits to get his picture taken with Buddy that said a bit about both of them.

Yes, there was a winner in the Unlimited Hydroplane race. It was the remarkably well-equipped Miss Budweiser (U-1), driven by Dave Villwock who is the 2002 defending world-driving champion. The winning speed was 134 mph around the 2.5-mile course. If the Madison race makes the Illinois papers at all, it will make it briefly with a mention of the winner and winning speed.

But the real winners are those spectators who come to Madison; endure the heat and humidity; and watch the vintage boats, and their vintage drivers show what racing used to be.