A Madison Regatta memory

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Madison Regatta race week is my favorite time of the year in the Ohio River Valley. As far as I’m concerned, those of us who live in Trimble County, Kentucky, and Jefferson County, Indiana, are the luckiest people on Earth.

Those who live in other localities don’t know what they’re missing.

I moved to Trimble County in 1999. But my obsession with the Madison Regatta began long before that.

A native Seattleite, my first visit to Kentuckiana occurred in 1971. I was newly graduated from the University of Washington, unemployed, and broke. My graduation present from my parents was a plane ticket to the 1971 Detroit and Madison Unlimited hydroplane races.

As a writer and historian of power boat racing, the Mid-West hydroplane circuit had always intrigued me. Detroit had hosted its first major race in 1916; informal races had occurred at Madison as early as 1911. My home town Seattle Seafair Regatta, having started in 1951, was a comparative newcomer.

In 1957, I listened to a Seattle radio broadcast of the Indiana Governor’s Cup race. That was the first year in which any of the Seattle hydros ever competed at Madison.

In the years that followed, I began to form a mental picture of the Ohio River town that owned its own Unlimited hydroplane, the Miss Madison, and hosted the Unlimiteds every Fourth of July weekend.

In the late sixties, several friends of mine from Seattle attended the Madison Regatta and brought back glowing reports of the race and of the surrounding area.

I’ve noticed that power boat racing tends to do well in small towns where the louder and more commercial aspects of the sport seem muted and “where slower clocks beat happier hours.”

I started to plan my 1971 itinerary. After flying to Detroit, I would take the bus to Madison by way of Cincinnati.

It was important to me that the 1971 Mid-West trip go well. I figured--incorrectly--that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was almost 27 at the time. It had taken me longer than usual to get through college. I had finally reached a point in my life that most people reach a lot sooner. 

That 1971 Detroit/Madison trip would be a long-delayed rite of passage.

I had been following boat racing for twenty years. In a sense, my life began with the 1951 Seattle Seafair Regatta, because my continuous memory starts there.

I represented a monthly newspaper called “Race Boat & Industry News” at Detroit and Madison. That was my official excuse for being there. “Race Boat” was a California-based “rag” that specialized in drag boats. I never received a dime from RB&IN. But I had a whole page every month to say whatever I wanted about Unlimited hydroplanes. And it was a chance to sharpen my skills as a journalist.

My first sight of Trimble and Jefferson counties were from the window of a Greyhound bus. It was love at first sight. Even though I had never visited here before, it felt like home. If I could have, I would have moved here in a heartbeat.

The bus had stopped for a moment on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, just before crossing the Milton-Madison Bridge. Who would have thought that, 28 years later, following my retirement as a school teacher, I would buy a house, located less than a mile from that bridge.

The beauty of the river valley on that bright summer day in 1971 was breathtaking. In comparison to the blocks of urban blight that I had observed in Detroit, there simply was no comparison.

In previous years, I had met a number of people from Kentuckiana who had visited the western races as crew members of the Miss Madison. These included the late Bobby Humphrey, who was the Allison engine specialist for the Miss M.

At a time when most Unlimited teams had professional crews and commercial sponsorships, the Miss Madison crew was all-volunteer.

When I arrived in Madison that first time, I felt like I was stepping back in time to the Seattle of my youth. That’s because Madisonians looked upon the Miss Madison as Seattleites had twenty years earlier looked upon the SLO-MO-SHUN boats.

The spirit of community involvement that had been such a vital element in Seattle’s hydromania was alive and well in Kentuckiana in 1971. All of this had added significance because Madison Regatta, Inc., was hosting the Gold Cup that year.

Never in modern times had power boat racing’s crown jewel been conducted in a town that size. Because of a misunderstanding, Madison’s bid for the race was the only one submitted to the American Power Boat Association in time.

Of all the races that I have seen with an adult’s perspective, the 1971 Madison Gold Cup stands head and shoulders above all the rest. Certainly there have been other races that may have had more boat-to-boat action--although the 1971 Gold Cup had plenty of that--and other races that likewise had their share of drama. But all of the elements of a classic once-in-a-lifetime experience came neatly together on July 4, 1971. For me, it was probably my all-time happiest moment.

I had been a Miss Madison fan for ten years. The original Miss M had won a secondary race at Seattle in 1961 with that grand old gentleman Marion Cooper driving. The current Miss Madison had scored a victory at Guntersville, Alabama, in 1965 with George “Buddy” Byers at the wheel. The team had been winless since then.

I introduced myself to Miss M pilot Jim McCormick in 1966. Jim hailed from Owensboro, Kentucky. We quickly became good friends. It was a friendship that was to last for 29 years. McCormick was the first driver that I ever got to know on a first-name basis. When Jim passed away in 1995, it was like losing a family member.

I tried to be optimistic about the chances of McCormick and Miss Madison in the 1971 Gold Cup. The team had really come on in late-season 1970. The crew had the boat running the best of its long career. But the hull was eleven years old. Miss Madison had maybe one tenth of the operating budget of Miss Budweiser, Atlas Van Lines, and Pride of Pay ‘n Pak. And economics dictated that Miss Madison had to use an Allison engine instead of the more-powerful Rolls-Royce Merlin.

McCormick and Miss M could mix it up with the “hot dogs.” But it was still difficult for most people to take Miss Madison seriously. For her to win the Gold Cup at home seemed like an impossible dream.

Race day, July 4, dawned bright and warm. Ten boats had qualified. Miss Budweiser with Dean Chenoweth and Atlas Van Lines with Bill Muncey were the co-favorites, inasmuch as both boats had won two races earlier in 1971.

Miss Madison had finished second in the 1971 season-opener at Miami Marine Stadium but was down to her last Allison engine, having blown the other in a trial run. McCormick and company would have to survive four 15-mile heats with a single power plant in the longest and most important race of the year.

Miss Madison was the oldest boat in the fleet. Only one of the previous ten Gold Cup winners had used Allison power. And that was Tahoe Miss in 1966 with millionaire casino owner Bill Harrah.

Jim McCormick had driven the former Tahoe Miss (renamed Harrah’s Club) in 1968. A few days before the race, Jim placed a crucial telephone call to Reno, Nevada. He requested and received the assistance of two former Harrah’s Club crewmembers, Harry Volpi and Everett Adams, reputed for their wizardry with Allison engines. Volpi and Adams flew to Madison and worked along side the five regular Miss Madison crew members (Tony Steinhardt, Dave Stewart, Bobby Humphrey, Keith Hand, and Russ Willey).

Harry and Everett helped to sort out the Miss M’s water-alcohol injection system and gain some additional miles per hour for the hometown favorite. Volpi’s contribution was highlighted as a key plot element in the “Madison” motion picture, filmed in 1999, that told the story of the 1971 Gold Cup.

Once racing got underway, the mortality rate was fierce. After three sets of preliminary heats, three boats had sunk to the bottom of the Ohio River.

The race boiled down to two boats. Everyone else was either out of the race or too far behind on points. Atlas Van Lines II with Terry Sterett driving had 1,100; Miss Madison had 1,000. In order to win the Gold Cup, McCormick would have to finish first in the Final Heat in order to tie Sterett on points. A tie in points would be broken by the order of finish in the Final Heat.

In sizing up the final field, I predicted that Atlas Van Lines II would prevail. Sterett had, after all, bested McCormick twice earlier in the day and also twice the previous week at Detroit.

As the boats took to the water for the last time, I hung on to the hope that Atlas II would somehow fail to start and allow Miss Madison to win by default. But that hope quickly vanished. As McCormick fired up and pulled away from the pits, there was Sterett, entering the race course right behind him. If my friend Jim McCormick was going to score his first-ever career win on this day, he would have to earn it--the hard way.

I watched the race from the press section of the Judges’ Stand.

Moments before the one-minute gun, Miss Madison was cruising down the front-straightaway near the start-finish line. Then abruptly, Miss M made a hard left turn into the infield. McCormick’s strategy was obvious. He wanted the inside lane to force the other boats to run a wider and longer track.

The starting gun fired. Atlas Van Lines II crossed the line first in lane-two, followed by Miss Madison in lane-one. The boats slid around the narrow first turn and thundered down the backstretch near the Kentucky shore with ATLAS in first and Madison in second on the inside.

Then McCormick made his move. Miss Madison shot by Terry Sterett as if Atlas Van Lines II had been tied to the dock.

The partisan crowd screamed in unison, “Go! Go! Go!” Madison and Atlas sped under the bridge and into the second turn on the first of six times around the 2.5-mile course.

When Miss Madison powered into the lead, I blew my professional cool. I started screaming like a mad man at the top of my lungs, urging “Gentleman Jim” on to victory.

All around me, people were likewise going nuts. The hydro happy Seattle fans of the fifties couldn’t have surpassed the passion demonstrated by the Madison fans on July 4, 1971. For the first time ever, the hometown boat--an aging under-financed museum piece--was holding off the elite of the American Power Boat Association in the race of races.

From one end of the race course to the other, on both sides of the river, all eyes were focused on Miss Madison. The burning question: Could she keep going at a winning pace?

NEXT WEEK: See the conclusion of Fred Farley’s flashback to Miss Madison’s 1971 Gold Cup win.

Milton resident Fred Farley is the official historian for Unlimited hydroplane racing. His articles have appeared in numerous periodicals throughout the United States.