Long-standing tradition resumes on the Milton-Madison riverfront

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H1 Unlimited Historian


Madison, Indiana, is steeped in a competitive tradition that dates back to the 1800s when steamboats raced each other on the legendary Ohio River. Perhaps because of this, boat racing is very deeply engrained in the public consciousness.

According to folklore, one of the earliest boat races to occur in the vicinity of Madison was a keelboat competition that supposedly matched Mike Fink, the flamboyant “King of the River,” with Davy Crockett, “King of the Wild Frontier.” Crockett emerged the winner (by barely a boat length) in the apocryphal race that began in Maysville, Kentucky, and ended in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The earliest documented powerboat regatta at Madison took place in 1911. The steamship PRINCESS from Coney Island tied up in the middle of the river. Power launches ran an oval track roughly around the boat. This was also one of the earliest examples of competition as it is currently characterized around a closed course.

The first boats to be specifically built for racing appeared in 1919. Among these was the famous DAYTON KID, a step hydroplane, owned by Pat Parrish.

The first major regatta to be run in Madison occurred in 1929 under the auspices of the Ohio Valley Motorboat Racing Association of Cincinnati. L.J. Montifer’s CATHERINE III emerged as the champion that Labor Day weekend. Equipped with a 1914 vintage Hispano-Suiza (“Hisso”) aircraft engine, the craft won $400 for its victories in the 725 Cubic Inch Class race and the Hydroplane Free-For-All around the approximate 2-1/2-mile course.

The winningest driver at Madison during the years between the World Wars was popular “Wild Bill” Cantrell of Louisville. Cantrell, who would become a racing legend in the post-war Unlimited Class, won the 725 Class title three times—-in 1934 and 1935 with BIG SHOT and in 1936 with WHY WORRY.

The disastrous Ohio River flood of 1937 brought down the curtain on organized boat racing in Madison. Competition did not resume until 1949 when a local group, which later became Madison Regatta, Inc., staged an unsanctioned “wildcat” affair for Limited inboard and outboard racing craft. The largest class to participate in 1949 was the 225 Cubic Inch hydroplanes. The winner of the 225 Class race was the HORNET, driven by Marion Cooper of Louisville, who in 1961 would achieve fame as the original driver for the community-owned MISS MADISON Unlimited hydroplane.

The Madison Regatta entered the modern era in 1950, which was the first year that an American Power Boat Association (APBA) sanction was in effect. It was also the first Madison race to be attended by a modern Unlimited hydroplane, the MY DARLING, which posted a winning average speed of 76.000 miles per hour with owner Andy Marcy from Springfield, Illinois, at the wheel.

The inaugural running of the Indiana Governor’s Cup was the highlight of the 1951 Madison Regatta. Marion Cooper’s HORNET claimed this first in a long line of Governor’s Cup races at a speed of 65.886. Also participating in 1951 were the Unlimited Class GALE II, driven by Lee Schoenith, and the 725 Class IT’S A WONDER, handled by George Davis.

All of the Unlimited races run at Madison between 1950 and 1953 were multi-class events that consisted of a single heat and didn’t count for APBA National High Points. The first race to count for National Points was the 1954 Indiana Governor’s Cup, which was won by Bill Cantrell driving Joe Schoenith’s Allison-powered GALE IV from Detroit.

From 1954 onward, the Madison Unlimited race has always been scheduled for two or more heats with National High Points at stake. The tiny Ohio River town of 13,000 was now in the major league of water sports.

The first heat at over 100 miles per hour in Madison history occurred in 1955. Danny Foster, the Governor’s Cup winner that year with bandleader Guy Lombardo’s TEMPO VII, averaged 102.079 with an Allison engine.

Bill Muncey became the first three-time consecutive winner of the Indiana Governor’s Cup in 1960-61-62 with MISS THRIFTWAY (also known as MISS CENTURY 21). This occurred on the same race course where Muncey almost lost his life in a spectacular crash while driving an earlier MISS THRIFTWAY in the 1957 Madison Regatta.

Another three-time consecutive winner was Bill Harrah’s TAHOE MISS, which won the 1964 and 1965 races with Chuck Thompson as driver and the 1966 race with Mira Slovak.

Bernie Little, the sport’s most successful participant, first raced at Madison in 1963 with a remodeled former pleasure boat named TEMPO. Little’s first in a long line of MISS BUDWEISER hydroplanes appeared in 1964, although his first Madison victory didn’t occur until 1970. That was the year Dean Chenoweth did the honors after a head-to-head battle in the Final Heat with Leif Borgersen in NOTRE DAME.

The all-time high water mark of Unlimited racing at Madison is obviously the fabulous 1971 regatta, which was won by the community-owned MISS MADISON before the hometown crowd. Driver Jim McCormick won all of the marbles in a combination APBA Gold Cup and Indiana Governor’s Cup event and defeated the likes of Terry Sterett in ATLAS VAN LINES II, Chenoweth in MISS BUDWEISER, Billy Schumacher in PRIDE OF PAY ‘n PAK, and Fred Alter in TOWNE CLUB in the Final Heat.

Years later, in 1999, a Hollywood motion picture re-created the 1971 Gold Cup and was filmed on location in southern Indiana. The movie, titled MADISON, starred actor Jim Caviezel in the role of Jim McCormick.

Not for thirty years did the MISS MADISON team (sponsored by OH BOY! OBERTO) repeat as winners on their hometown race course. This happened in 2001 with driver Steve David doing the honors.

The first turbine-powered hydroplane to win a Madison race was Fran Muncey’s ATLAS VAN LINES in 1984. With Chip Hanauer driving, the ATLAS was the first truly competitive turbine boat in the APBA Unlimited Class. Following and as a result of the 1984 Madison Regatta, the large-scale transition from Allison or Rolls-Royce piston power to Lycoming turbine power was inevitable.

The second turbine winner of the Madison race was MISS 7-ELEVEN in 1985. Driver Steve Reynolds finished first, second, and first to score the victory over second-place Scott Pierce in EXECUTONE.

The popular Reynolds was involved in a horrific crash while leading at the 1987 Madison Regatta with CELLULAR ONE. Steve spent the next few years in recovery. The F-16 safety canopy, installed the year before, was credited with saving Reynolds’s life.

Since the introduction of the safety canopy, only one fatality has occurred in Unlimited racing (George Stratton at San Diego in 2000). Over the past quarter-century, drivers have literally walked away from accidents that most certainly would have been fatal in earlier times.

By the 1990s, the APBA Unlimited Class was predominantly a turbine class. All ten of the Indiana Governor’s Cup winners at the Madison Regatta used Lycoming turbine power. The most victorious team at Madison during the decade of the nineties was Bernie Little’s MISS BUDWEISER, which won five times with drivers Chip Hanauer and Dave Villwock.

Hanauer emerged as the winningest driver at Madison during the nineties. He achieved five victories with MISS CIRCUS CIRCUS, MISS BUDWEISER, and MISS PICO.

As the twenty-first century dawned, Little’s MISS BUDWEISER would not be denied. Owner Little, driver/team manager Villwock, and crew chief Mark Smith claimed a twentieth National High Point Championship for sponsor Anheuser-Busch. This was on the strength of six victories in seven races, including the Indiana Governor’s Cup at Madison in 2000.

Heading into 2001, Miss Madison, Inc., president Bob Hughes announced the hiring of Steve David as the nineteenth driver for the team since 1961. One of the sport’s most respected competitors, David would go on to be the winningest driver in MISS MADISON team history with fourteen race victories and six national driving titles so far.
Sponsored by OH BOY! OBERTO, Steve scored his first victory with MISS M at the 2001 Indiana Governor’s Cup before the hometown crowd. This hadn’t happened in thirty years. David made a perfect on-the-nose start in the winner-take-all Final Heat. For five heart-pounding laps, Steve held off a dynamic challenge from second-place ZENETIX and Greg Hopp, who forced David to work for it every inch of the way to the checkered flag and victory.

The front-page headline of THE MADISON COURIER the following day summed it all up in just two words: “Oh Boy!”

In subsequent years, Steve David and OH BOY! OBERTO/MISS MADISON have repeated as Indiana Governor’s Cup champions in 2010 and 2011.

The winningest driver at Madison in the twenty-first century thus far is Dave Villwock. He has victories in 2000, 2003, and 2004 with MISS BUDWEISER. Following the retirement of the MISS BUD from racing, Villwock transferred to the Ellstrom Manufacturing team, winning in 2006, 2007, and 2009 with MISS E-LAM PLUS and in 2012 with SPIRIT OF QATAR 96.

The Madison Regatta has elevated the picturesque Ohio River town into the national sports arena and shows what can be accomplished when public-spirited citizens from all walks of life band together to stage an exciting production that gains nationwide favorable publicity for the area.