Friday, June 17, 2011

Boat Racing in Madison: A Century of Tradition

Something that has getting way too little recognition this year is that this will be the one hundredth anniversary of the first ever organized powerboat race in Madison, Indiana.    When the people in the area hastily put together that unsanctioned race on the Ohio River in 1911, probably none of them would realize that they would be starting a tradition of racing in Madison that would continue for the next one hundred years and beyond.  The century that followed would see the annual boat race in Madison grow from a small unsanctioned race of people’s own pleasure boats to an annual stop on the tour of the world’s fastest race boats with sanctioning by national and international bodies.  For this article, I will focus on the history of those early days of racing in Madison and how the small community became a mainstay in Unlimited Hydroplane racing.
Little is known of that first race in Madison in 1911.  The names of the competitors, boats, and winners have all been lost to time.  There was no mention of it in The Madison Courier or any other newspaper in the area.  What is known is taken from a single photograph and people’s recollections of that event.  The steamship “Princess” from Cincinnati’s Coney Island anchored in the middle of the Ohio River and boats raced around it.  In the 1996 Madison Regatta program Dave Taylor notes that this is one of the first examples of a powerboat race taking place on a closed course, whereas most races up until that time would be a “point to point” race or (in the case of the Gold Cup in its early years) would race to a certain point then race back to where the race originated.  It should also be noted, coincidence or not, that the Indianapolis 500 was an early example of an auto race being held on a closed course and it was also first held in 1911.
Photograph of the first known boat race to take place in Madison.  Although it was a hastily organized event this photo shows that a pretty big crowd was on hand to see the action.  Photo taken from the 1996 Madison Regatta program

In 1914 another powerboat race was held in Madison and this time it caught the attention of the local newspapers.  It was an event that not only included powerboat races but also canoe races, swimming races, and surfboard exhibitions (don’t ask me how anyone surfed on the Ohio River).  C.S. Gilbert drove his pleasure boat known as the E.L.A. to victory in the free for all handicap race that year. It also marked the first appearance in Madison of a boat built for racing.  The Dayton Kid, owned by Pat Parrish of Dayton, Kentucky did an exhibition run around the five mile Madison course with speeds exceeding 40 miles an hour. 
The Dayton Kid: The true Raceboat to appear at a Madison Regatta.  Photo taken from the 1996 Madison Regatta program.

Another regatta was held in 1915, with the race boat known as Vivo winning the 15 mile free for all event with a time of just over 35 minutes. 
1915 winner Mack.  Photo taken from the 1990 Madison Regatta program.
The Regatta continued in Madison through the 1910’s and 1920’s, with these being unsanctioned races that were usually contested by local competitors.  1929 brought the first sanctioned regatta at Madison.  Under the sanctioning body known as the Ohio Valley Motorboat Racing Association, L.J. Montifer drove the Catharine III to victory.
In 1930 Madison hosted its first major regatta when the Mississippi Valley Power Boat Association held chose to hold its Webb Trophy race in Madison.  The Webb Trophy was the organization’s top prize, the equivalent to the American Power Boat Association’s better known Gold Cup.  In a race that was contested by boats from as far away as Texas, Cam Fisher drove the Miss Cincinnati III to victory. 
Spectators watch the action of the 1930 Webb Trophy race in Madison.  Notice that the boats are racing clockwise, as opposed to counter-clockwise as they race today.  Photo taken from the 1996 Madison Regatta program.

In the years between World War I and World War II the two major sanctioning bodies for power boat racing in the United States were the APBA and the MVPBA.  The APBA held most of its races on the east coast and the Great Lakes region and was largely made up of racers who were wealthy members of yacht clubs.  The MVPBA held most of its races in the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys and was seen as a more “blue collar” class in comparison to their APBA counterparts.  The APBA’s top class was known as the Gold Cup Class while MVPBA’s top class was the 725 cubic inch class.  Both of these feature classes used engines that were used in World War I aircraft.  The superstar of the MVPBA in those years was Bill Cantrell, who won in Madison in 1934, 1935, and 1936.  MVPBA races continued in Madison through the 1930’s until the devastating 1937 flood put a hiatus on much of the commerce and activity that took place on the Ohio River, including powerboat racing.  A few years later, World War II gas rations meant that not only boat racing in Madison but powerboat and auto racing of any kind across the country would be put on hold until the end of the war.
Bill Cantrell, the legendary racer who won at Madison three times in the 1930's and once again in 1954.  The course at Madison is now known as the Bill Cantrell Memorial Race Course in his honor

The long hiatus of boat racing in Madison finally came to an end in 1949.  This was the first year that a race was organized by Madison Regatta, Inc. and would be the first of a line of Regattas organized by that body that continues to this day.  That first Madison Regatta featured 225 cubic inch hydroplanes as its feature class which would be won by a boat known as “Hornet” driven by Marion Cooper, who would go on to be the first driver of the Miss Madison in 1961. 
Action from the 1949 Madison Regatta.  Photo taken from the 1996 Madison Regatta program.

 1950 was the first Madison Regatta to be sanctioned by the APBA as well as the first appearance of a modern Unlimited Hydroplane.  My Darling, a single step hydroplane powered by an Allison engine, won the one heat, fifteen mile free for all race with a speed of 76.000 MPH.
My Darling, the first Unlimited Hydroplane to ever race (and win) at the Madison Regatta, is shown here racing many years later at a vintage hydroplane event.

The next year saw the first year of another longstanding Madison tradition.  1951 was the first year in which the winner of the feature event was awarded the Indiana Governor’s Cup.  The first installment of this race saw a familiar winner, as 1949 Madison winner Marion Cooper’s Hornet took the first Governor’s Cup.
Hornet, winer at Madison in 1949 and winner of the first Governor's Cup Regatta in Madison in 1951.  Photo taken from the 1996 Madison Regatta Program

This race is also front and center in a little piece of historical controversy surrounding hydroplane racing.  For many years, the next year’s race, won by a boat known as Wildcatter driven by Burnett Bartley, was counted as the “first” winner of the Governor’s Cup.  Even the Madison Regatta program, which for many years included a year by year account of every Governor's Cup race, didn't include the 1951 Madison Regatta and instead stated that the first Governor's Cup was in 1952.  It wasn’t until 1972 when Fred Farley published a paper on the first Governor’s Cup race that the 1951 race got any attention.  This set off many disputations and controversy over what truly was the first official Governor’s Cup race.  Perhaps adding to the drama is that contemporary accounts of the 1951 Governor’s Cup found the race less than competitive.  No official times were taken unlike the other races held at the 1951 Madison Regatta.  The Madison Courier called the one heat Governor’s Cup Race little more than an exhibition.  Gale II, the only Unlimited Hydroplane in the race, made wide turns while pacing the smaller boats before going dead in the water and allowing the small 225-class Hornet to win a race intended for 7-litre and Unlimited Hydroplanes.  Whatever the reasons there have been many disputes over what is truly the “first” Governor’s Cup race, although much of this has died down over time.  Fred Farley wrote a fine article on this topic that can be read here:
The first years of the Governor’s Cup race were one class free for all events that did not count in the national High Points.  This changed in 1954 when the Madison race met the requirements of being an official Unlimited event that counted towards the Unlimited Hydroplane National High Points championship.  The Governor’s Cup was won that year by Gale IV, driven by Bill Cantrell in an event that was attended by five Unlimiteds.

Bill Cantrell receives the 1954 Indiana Governor's Cup.  Photo taken from the 1992 Madison Regatta program.
  Despite being a National High Point event by 1954 that did not mean that all the major Unlimited Hydroplanes were competing for the Governor’s Cup in those days.  Hydroplane racing in the 1940’s and 1950’s was largely a regional affair, with the Gold Cup race being the only true national event.  That began to change in 1957 with the formation of the Unlimited Racing Commission and with it a stronger focus on the national tour and on the National High Point Championship.  1957 was the first year in which boats from Seattle, quickly becoming the focal point of Unlimited Hydroplane Racing in those years, came to compete in Madison with the Hawaii Kai III winning the Governor’s Cup.

By the late 1950’s Madison’s spot on the Unlimited Hydroplane national tour was now secure, but many boats were still skipping the Madison race.  The Madison race was held in September or early October in those years and sometimes boats would stay home rather than make the long trip from the West Coast back to the Midwest for Madison’s late season race.  Only four Unlimteds raced in Madison in 1958 and in 1959.  Other years had similar low boat numbers in an era when it was not uncommon for over twenty boats to compete on the Unlimited Hydroplane circuit.  Then, in 1967, the decision was made to move the Madison Regatta to its now traditional date on the Fourth of July weekend.  The early season race that was more in line with the Unlimited Hydroplane tour’s Eastern swing thus guaranteed that the majority of Unlimited Hydroplanes would come to Madison.
In the years that followed Madison, Indiana would almost always be the smallest town to host an Unlimited Hydroplane race but would also be one of the most secure with only Detroit and Seattle having a longer string of continuous Unlimited races.  During that time Madison has hosted three Gold Cups, two U.I.M. World Championships, over sixty Governor’s cup races, and serve as home port to the now three time defending High Point champion.  There have been struggles over those years, with the financial sustainability, safety, and even the relevance of Madison having an Unlimited Hydroplane race being called into question along with wonders of whether the event will go on.  Those questions, however, are often pushed to the side as sponsors, donors, a group of tirelessly hardworking volunteers, and tens of thousands of fans who show up every Fourth of July weekend to Madison show that this event does have a purpose and a positive impact for the community.  A century after the first known boat race in Madison, it could be said that the event has never been stronger or more popular.  Boat Racing in Madison truly is a century of tradition that will endure for many years to come.
This post would not be possible without the fine work that has been done by Fred Farley and Dave Taylor in various articles on racing in Madison.  Leslie Field's Hydroplane History website, Jim Sharkey's Hydro Who's Who, and various Madison Regatta programs were also used as sources for information and images 

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