After an offseason full of storylines, the first race of the year had plenty of them of its own. The best way to sum up a crazy weekend at Madison is this: The Miss Madison won, twice. This year's Madison race marked the 100th anniversary of the first organized boat race in Madison, the 50th anniversary of Miss Madison's first season, and the 40th anniversary of the Miss Madison winning the Gold Cup. I thought the best way to mark this "year of anniversaries" would be for two things to happen: To see a boat wearing the classic Miss Madison colors on the water and for the Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison to win the Indiana Governor's Cup. Both of these things happened, but not in a way that I or anyone could have imagined.
The story of Sunday at the Regatta really began on Saturday night when it was announced that the schedule would be pushed back, with the second set of heats being run at 1pm instead of around 10:30am as scheduled. The stated purpose was to make the schedule more compact. I said to a friend "if there's an accident in one of the heats it's going to make the schedule really hard to work out" (an omen...) The opening ceremony was great, perhaps the best ever at the Madison Regatta. This was largely because of a flyover by two jets from the Indiana Air National Guard. One thing I will say about this year is that seemingly everything around the Regatta, the judge's stand, the air shows, the promotional tents, the stage, the production and promotion, the support classes, etc., was at a higher quality this year than in previous years. With the increase in sponsorships, TV coverage, a National sponsor, and more attention to the production of the race, Unlimited Hydroplane racing is starting to feel like a real major league sport again.
After an air show the Unlimiteds hit the water for the first test session of the day. It would have been otherwise forgettable except that it saw the christening and maiden voyage of the 88 Degree Men. The maiden voyage was cut short due to the canopy door being unable to close, but they were able to go out and turn a pretty hot lap for its first time out.
Heat 2A included the U-17, the U-22, the U-57, and the U-100. Much like the day before, the U-17 was clearly the class of this heat and Kip Brown drove to an easy victory. Mike Webster made a move for lane one and had the boat crawling, so slow in fact taht the boat went off plane and he had to restart the boat, putting him well behind the field and he was given a one lap penalty anyway for crossing the score up buoy too early. The U-57 looked like it might challenge the U-100 for a lap or so but soon settled for third place. Both the U-57 and the U-22 were badly compressor stalling through much of the heat but both boats finished. Kip Brown waited three years for his first heat win then one day for his second. While Brown and the Our Gang Racing team deserve a lot of credit for their hard work I'm sure that they would be the first to admit that they were the beneficiary of some generous heat draws where the U-17 was clearly the class of the field (Kip Brown apparently acknowledged this, according to Hydro News Kip commented on the heat draws by saying "after Madison, I'm going to Vegas"). I really wish that H1 would get away from assigning heats via a blind draw. I wouldn't want the fan plan method of putting all the fast qualifiers in one heat and the slow qualifiers in another heat, but the Hughes plan which was used a few times (if you want I'll try to explain it in a reply to this post) was a good although confusing way of deciding who would race in the heats and did a good job of keeping the heats balanced.
Heat 2B saw the U-1, U-7, U-11, and the U-88 take to the water. The U-88 had more troubles with its canopy door and returned to the pits for a DNS. Steve David gave the fans a bit of a thrill and a scare on the first lap when he popped the boat way out of the water but drove the boat to victory. Scott Liddycoat looked impressive once again and took second place, even at one time closing the gap on the U-1. JW Myers took third and was going rather slow on the last couple of laps, but this seemed to be an effort to save the equipment and take the third place points.
Heat 2C involved the U-5, the U-21, and the U-96. Jeff Bernard and Brian Perkins have both competed in multiple classes of limited racing and they, along with Kip Brown, seem to be racing somewhere in some boat, often with and against each other, almost every weekend during race season. With this in mind, the two drivers who know each other well in this heat tried to do a little "team driving" by grabbing lanes two and three and forcing Dave Villwock to race in lane the rough lane one and thus keep Villwock from being able to race wide and keep the rpm's up as he likes to do. as the boats came through the second turn before making the charge for the line at the start, Villwock slid the Qatar boat very wide and forced Bernard and Perkins to slow down and go even wider. As the partisan crowd screamed for a penalty, Villwock drove to an easy victory while Bernard finished second and Perkins third.
The P1 boats were the next to hit the water. The Superstock Panther boats had a great heat, with the Oregon Boat winning the heat but the Miss Madison boat and the JD Byrider were both within a couple boat lengths and all three boats held the lead at some point in the heat. The Peters & May boat finished fourth while the K-Ray trailed the field. Next were the offshore V-Bottom boats. Two classes were on the the water: The Super V's and the V-Lights. Only one Super-V boat was here, a large yellow boat with the amusing name of Global Warmer. The boat was fast, loud, and a hit with the fans. The V-Lights had a great heat, where much like Saturday the Typhoon Boat and the Pirate Boat battled deck to deck, but this time the Pirate boat was the winner. The V bottoms had another heat before they even came back to the pits. The Octane boat, which trailed the field in the previous two heats, jumped out to a big lead and ran away with the V-Lights heat. The Pirate Boat spun out in the first turn (yet another omen of things to come...) and didn't finish. The Typhoon Boat finished second and won the overall V-Lights race on the basis of overall points from the three heats.
Unlimited Heat 3A saw the U-1, the U-5, the U-21, and the U-22 take to the water. Perkins and Bernard did some team driving again and put Steve David out in lane three at the start. After two laps Jeff Bernard had about a two roostertail lead with Steve David closing when the first horrific accident of the day happened. From where I was standing (between the west end turn and the start/finish line) it appeared that Brian Perkins had spun the boat and the race was red flagged. Then came the word that Perkins had missed a buoy, went around to pick up the buoy, but in the process collided with a patrol boat on the water. After such a horrific accident it took a little while for normalcy to be restored and the racing was delayed for about an hour as the people on the patrol boat were taken to the hospital. The U-21 had some pretty significant damage to its right sponson and took in a lot of water as it was being brought to the pits. Due to the accident and the late start of the heats, the third section of heats had to be cancelled . In case you were wondering, the U-7, U-11, U-96 and U-100 were scheduled to race in 3B while the U-17, U-57, and the U-88 were scheduled to race in 3C.
The P1 superstocks had their final heat next and put on another great show. The JD Byrider boat jumped out to an early lead, but lost out to the Miss Madison boat who went on to win the heat and the overall race to the delight of the fans. It wa cool to see a boat race, and win, while wearing the traditional Miss Madison colors. All in all the P1 boats put on a great show and I'm glad to see the partnership between them and H1 Unlimited. The Madison Regatta has had a lot of different action on the water in between Unlimited heats through the years, everything from other classes of hydroplanes to tunnel boats to vintage boat exhibitions. One year they even had a rubber duck race in between heats which, aside from being totally lame, actually delayed the Unlimited heats when the rubber ducks proved difficult to corral. Of all these different classes and forms of boat racing that have raced at regatta through the years, I would say that the P1 boats are right at the top in terms of a support class and I hope to see them coming back to Madison for many years.
At last came the final heat which will probably be discussed for years to come. The front row consisted of the U-96, U-1, U-17, and U-7 with the U-5 as the trailer boat. During the mill up period Steve David took the Oh Boy! Oberto and, after going two laps around the course, brought the speed way down with a little over two minutes left before the start. This caused the other boats to slow down to claim their lane and as the one minute gun fired all the boats were in the first turn with David in lane one, Villwock in lane two, Brown in lane three, and Liddycoat in lane four. For three laps of the final, Steve David and Dave Villwock staged a great race, with Villwock holding a slight edge but not being able to overlap Steve David who kept gaining ground in the inside lane. Then, in the first turn of the fourth lap, Villwock came unhooked and spun his boat out. The Madison crowd cheered, but then a quite scary event happened as Villwock spun into David's lane thus causing the U-1 to hit the U-96 and flip over the boat and suddenly a quiet concern washed over the Madison crowd as the worries quickly turned to the safety of the two drivers after such a horrific accident. The heat was stopped, and since more than half of the laps were completed it was clear that it wouldn't be rerun. As both the U-1 and the U-96 were being towed back and word got out that both drivers were ok and thus allowing the crowd to relax, H1 officials met to converse the result of the race. After about twenty minutes the decision was announced: The U-96 spinning out into another boat's lane without the legal overlap would have been a disqualification even without the accident, the U-1 hitting the U-96 was seen as a direct result of the U-96 coming into the U-1's lane, and thus Steve David in the U-1 was declared the winner. The remaining crowd cheered their approval but the attention quickly turned to the two returning damaged boats. Both the U-1 and the U-96 were severely damaged. This is what I could see from the shore: the U-96 had two pretty big holes in the side of the hull, a destroyed cowling, and had lost it's stabilizer, while the U-1 also lost it's stabilizer along with the canard wing and had a pretty big crack in the left sponson. As of Sunday night there hasn't been any word on if either boat will be repaired in time for Detroit, but if two teams can spearhead a round the clock rebuilding effort, it's the Ellstroms and the Miss Madison team.
The decision was highly controversial, and I'm not going to say if it was the right or the wrong call. Partially because I'm biased (I'm a Madison native and yes, a huge Miss Madison fan) which clouds my judgment but mainly because I realize that any call the officials made in such a situation would have stirred up controversy. Such an accident, with all the scenarios surrounding it, has rarely if ever happened in Unlimited Hydroplane racing, so the officials did the best with what they had and took the time to make a decision that was best in line with the rules.
Undoubtedly there will be a great deal of attention paid to the role that shorter Madison course played in both of the accidents. Once again, I'm not going to say that the shorter course did or didn't cause either accident, but this was the type of accidents that the drivers, team members, and fans worried about with the Madison short course. Both accidents happened in the West turn, the turn that remained the same from previous years and has been the site of many horrific accidents (Theoret's blowover in 2009, Hopp's blowover in 2003, Villwock's barrel roll at the start of the Final Heat in 1999) and so many boats have had spinouts in the west turn of the Madison course similar to the one Villwock had today that I'm not going to try to count them all. I would say that it was a coincidence that two horrific accidents happened back to back in a notoriously treacherous turn, but the short course certainly didn't help matters. I'm sure the course will be extended to two miles for next year.
All in all it was another successful regatta. I'm sure the events of today will be talked about for some time. Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison once again finds itself in its familiar place atop the High Point standings, but it's hard telling at this point how the repairs to both the U-1 and the U-96 will affect the rest of the season. For me, the lasting memory of this regatta will be standing on the shore and seeing both of these boats which have dominated H1 in recent years while engaging in an intense rivalry with one another sitting heavily damaged on the docks. After the first race of the year we have a lot of unanswered questions, but that will make for an exciting rest of the season.