Madison Regatta — Artistry on Water

by Terry Hogan

Time flows quickly, like water under the bridge. It was another 4th of July and the little Southern Indiana town of Madison again hosted the hydroplane races. Despite dire weather predictions, spectators lined the shores of the Ohio River and were treated to a delightful show of vintage and unlimited hydroplanes.

Young children stood along the shoreline and do what children do — they played in muddy spots and threw rocks into the river. Moms did what moms did- try to keep the kids out of the mud and out of the river. Dads did what dads did — watch the boats and other interesting sights that walked by. As I talked with one young mother, she explained the bright white new shoes on her toddler. His other shoes got wet the day before, so she went to the store to buy a new cheap pair as the others had not dried. The white shoes were the second cheapest she could find. The cheapest pair of shoes were pink, but because the toddler was a little boy, she opted for the white ones. It was at about this point that the toddler found a small mud hole along the generally rocky shore. The shoes were no longer white, nor were his shorts as he settled into the mud to play.

On slightly higher ground, there were also games and goodies for the older folks. Along the blocked streets you could buy food, snacks, and shirts, play carnival games, and have your fortune told. You could also get a shirt for applying for a credit card. If you couldn’t find some way to spend money, you weren’t looking.

You could also listen to the soft voice of a very old man singing with his guitar. He was at the Regatta last year too. He lives in Madison, I was told. There is hope for tomorrow. I stood and watch. It was mostly young women who put money into his coffee can and patty him softly on the shoulder. There was goodness in Madison on the 4th of July.

Vintage boats came from everywhere to race here. Some were driven or crewed by old folks living memories. Others were making their own new memories. The Red Pepper, a seven liter hydroplane, made the long trip from Derry, New Hampshire. It is owned and driven by Al Craig who is following in his grandfather’s footsteps. Al now owns three vintage boats. His grandfather raced boats in the 1940s, Al recalled.

Another small hydroplane was from just up the Ohio River in nearby Vevay, Indiana. The owner and driver had raced remote control hydroplanes for twenty years. But he decided to step up to the real thing. His wife helps out. Their 17 year old daughter may become the next driver. She is much lighter and weight is important in this little boats.

The Madison volunteers were everywhere, doing their best to make it the best. Sometimes it is a family thing. Joe and Wanda Hertz were all about the place trying to make sure that all was going well for the media folks. They’re long term residents and Wanda knows everybody, including the "tree people" who occupy the shade of the same tree each year for the race. They’re locals. She knows them all and their stories. Madison is, after all, a small town.

And if you don’t like the hydros, but your spouse does, I have a secret for you. Madison is full of neat old river town architecture, small restaurants, wineries, and antique stores. And, they are all located within walking distance of the races. Also, just downriver is the Clifty Creek State Park, offering a calm and quiet alternative.

There is one cloud on the horizon for the Madison Regatta and the unlimited hydroplanes. Budweiser has been the sponsor of "Miss Bud" racing team and the sport for years. That is ending. It is unlikely that Miss Bud, at least by that name, will dance along the wave tops of the Ohio River at Madison again. Hopefully, the racing team will find a new sponsor and the team will survive under a new name. We can hope.

My personal favorite boat was back. The solid mahogany inboard Obsession returned to race again. It is a long way from New Hampshire, but the crew, driver, and the public love this old boat. The 510 cubic inch 630 hp Chevy V-8 engine is hidden discretely below the polished mahogany deck. It springs to life and rumbles with a deep-throated sound of old-school internal combustion power, unfettered by muffler or catalyst. This grand old lady runs in the low 70 mph range. It seemed to like the rough water of the Ohio this year. The Obsession traces its roots to Detroit in the 1930s and 1940s, produced by the Gar Wood boat builders. It is an antique that loves water.

Of course there were races and some won and more lost, but for the vintage hydroplane folks it was more of a reunion. Everyone seems to know everyone. Largely untouched by big-time sponsorships, the vintage boats are still a sport, where hard work, tight budgets, and free labor, results in a few minutes of racing fun. But the labor is one of love or it wouldn’t be done. It would make no sense any other way.

On the other end of the spectrum are the unlimited hydroplanes. It takes real money to compete and even more to win. The Budweiser outfit is first class. When you see chrome plated vises attached to the red trailers, it makes you start to look at the small things. For example, the chrome wheels on the semi trailers and on the boat trailers. Then you notice the cleaned and "dressed" tires on the semi trailers and boat trailers to make them showroom perfect.

I saw a guy in the pit crew area in a 4x 4 tent. He was spraying an unlimited hydro prop with a yellow-green fluid and then very gently washing it off with a stream of water. It turns out that unlimited propellers cost (off-the-shelf variety) about $12,000 a piece and last for about 45 minutes of running time. Custom design props are more costly. His job was to check the props for hair-line stress fractures. After completion of the spraying and the rinsing, he would exam the prop with an ultraviolet light. A residue of the liquid would remain in any stress cracks and fluoresce under the UV light, showing the problem before it became a big problem.

For the Galesburg folks who are fond of Stearman biplanes, one could be found flying low and slow over the Ohio River during the air shows. The hills of the Kentucky shore provided a nice backdrop to the Stearman’s own internal combustion roar. Antique boats, antique planes, and good fun, it’s a combination hard to beat.

A compression of all that is the Madison Regatta will be aired by the Speed Channel. I was told that it will be shown on July 18. However as they say, "check your local listings."

The Madison Regatta is scheduled for July 1, 2005 and the volunteers, after a day sitting at the pool, recovering, will likely start planning for it.

Mark your calendar. It’s worth the drive. If you come, track me down. I could use some local quotes.

Oh yea, I almost forgot.

The Miss Budweiser won.