Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Madison Movie: Deciphering Fact from Fiction

“It’s a movie.”  It’s a phrase one often says or hears when a movie has moments that are unbelievable, impossible, or just plain silly.  And for the majority of the time, I have no issue with this assessment.  After all, a major part of the appeal of movies is that it gives one an escape from their otherwise routine everyday life.  When “movie magic” becomes an issue, however, is when inaccurate or untrue parts of a movie covering a historical event are accepted as historical fact.  For this post, I will be focusing on the issues that arise from the movie “Madison.”  The movie has a plethora of parts that are historically inaccurate, spanning the movie quite literally from start to finish.  I’ve usually overlooked these, but in recent weeks I’ve heard people say things like Madison hosted the “first professional boat race” (it didn’t) or that the Madison Regatta “dates back to 1903” (it doesn’t , the first known organized boat race in Madison was in 1911, while the first modern Madison Regatta was in 1949) with the grounds of these claims being “well it’s in the movie…” so hopefully I can put some of these falsehoods to rest.
                Since the release of “Rudy’ in 1993, sports movies that are based on a true story have followed a very similar pattern: Take a memorable sports moment, twist  and add facts and events until the plot of the movie barely resembles the story it was based off of,  add a bunch of clichés about how the story’s protagonist refueses to give up on his or her goal although seemingly everyone around him or her is telling him or her to give up, and throughout the movie play licensed music from the time period of the movie as a constant reminder of when the movie was taking place.  The movie “Madison” certainly falls into this category.   As for the inaccuracies of the movie, let’s begin by looking at some of the major plot themes.

                Jim McCormick was not a Madison native nor did he ever live in Madison.  Although he was a regular in Madison and was well known and liked around the community (especially after the 1971 Gold Cup) he lived in Owensboro, Kentucky for most of his life.  The theme of a hometown hero with deep roots within the town driving his hometown boat to victory out of love for his community is simply false.
                The movie’s major theme of a town that is dying due to the declining use of river transport is more fitting for the Madison of 1871, not 1971.  While Madison was by no means an economic powerhouse during this time period (or any other period in post-Civil War America for that matter) it wasn’t because of the loss of barge traffic.  If anything, Madison was experiencing a bit of a small economic boom in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  The IKE Powerplant came on line, bringing a number of jobs and actually increasing river traffic in Madison as barges delivered coal to the new plant.  Historic Madison, Inc. was founded in 1961 and with it the groundwork for the town’s modern tourism industry was put into place.  Also, a number of factories were opened in Madison at this time.  I’ve heard a number of people say that when they were attending Madison High School teachers had to all but beg the older students to stay in school and care about their grades because the promise of a decent paying factory job was always there.  While the warning of “most of those factory jobs will be gone” largely came true in later decades, in 1971 the economy of Madison wasn’t quite as difficult as it was shown.  Sure, the absence of an interstate in the town hurt back then like it does now, but the idea that the city was hurting due to the decrease in river shipping was about a century too late for this movie.
                The Miss Madison was nowhere near the struggling laughingstock as it is portrayed in the movie.  The team already had three podium finishes on the season coming into the Madison Gold Cup and the case could easily be made that the team was “due” for a victory.  Sure, the Miss Madison had some very lean years in the late 1960’s but the old hull was enjoying a bit of a renaissance as the decade turned.  A highway accident en route to the 1970 season opener in Miami proved to be a bit of a blessing in disguise  when boat designer  Les Staudacher came to help with the rebuild, and was able to correct and iron out many other knicks and imperfections that the boat had picked up in over a decade of racing.  When the boat rejoined the tour an obvious increase in speed could be seen by anyone within the sport.  That isn’t to say the Miss Madison wasn’t an underdog coming into the 1971 Gold Cup.  The team was, after all, still a small operation competing against deep pocketed owners with corporate sponsorship.  Despite this, the Miss Madison, as has often been the case throughout much of the team’s history, was able to compete with wealthier teams on the water and the idea that they were barely able to even make a showing in the previous races is stretching the truth.
                Jim McCormick didn’t leave the sport in the years previous to 1971 due to a wreck that took the life of his best friend.  McCormick did leave the Miss Madison team after briefly driving for them in 1966, but that was simply because he left to drive for other teams.  McCormick was also never the Crew Chief of the Miss Madison, although he was an owner for a number of years and during the 1971 season he was actually splitting time between driving duties for the Miss Madison and the responsibilities of owner of the Miss Timex entry.  With this in mind, the Skip Prosser and Buddy Baker characters in the movie are also fabricated.
                Harry Volpi did come to the aid of the Miss Madison team prior to the Gold Cup, but not in the manner which is shown in the movie.  The idea of using nitrous oxide for a boost in RPM’s was an accepted practice in Unlimited Hydroplane Racing by 1971, not the outrageous and dangerous idea that was shown in the movie.  In fact, the Miss Madison was one of the few teams to NOT use nitrous oxide boosters during the 1971 Gold Cup.  Instead, the Miss Madison team experimented with a fuel-alcohol system for a boost in performance.  This is where Harry Volpi comes in.  Volpi was one of the sport’s most renowned experts on Allison engines during this time, but was also without a team due to the fact that the team he had previously worked for  (the Miss Smirnoff) had left the sport.  The Miss Madison team brought in Volpi to assist in getting the bugs worked out of their fuel alcohol system, and the rest is history.
                Madison didn’t get the right to host the Gold Cup thanks to a blind draw, but the story behind how they got to host the Gold Cup is convoluted in and of itself.  The Madison Regatta committee put up a smaller than usual $30,000 bid to host the Gold Cup for 1971, but thanks to a confusion in when the date for when the bids were due, along with the fact that many race sites were timid to bid for the Gold Cup after the financial struggles San Diego faced in hosting the 1970 Gold Cup meant they weren’t going to be on the schedule for 1971 (by the way, San Diego trying to get on the schedule by knocking Madison off the schedule is another inaccuracy) meant that Madison’s bid was the only one in to the APBA offices at the time.  Of course, all of that might be difficult and slightly boring to put into a movie, so I’m willing to give the makers of Madison a pass on this one.  However, the story of Jim McCormick writing a check for money the city didn’t have and then the city scrambling to raise that money is simply made up.
                The 1971 Gold Cup race took place on July 4, not Labor Day Weekend.  The Sunday before Labor Day was the traditional date for the Madison Regatta for a number of years, but Fourth of July weekend has been the date for the Madison Regatta for every season since 1967, with the exception of 1998 when river conditions forced the event to be postponed until Labor Day Weekend.  I suspect this was done due to the fact that most of the riverside and crowd scenes of the movie were filmed during Labor Day Weekend, but the leaves don’t really start changing in Madison until late September so I don’t think that really made much difference.
                As far as I know, the Miss Madison crew never stole an engine out of a fighter plane on display and to be honest I can’t believe this scene made it past the original draft of the script let alone a filmed part of the movie that was included in the final edit .  Nearly every critic’s review I’ve read of “Madison” talks about how ridiculous this scene is, and to be blunt I would have to agree with them.
                The ABC Wide World of Sports broadcast of the 1971 Gold Cup was recorded, not live as was shown in the bar.  Very few Unlimited Hydroplane races have been broadcast on live television to a national audience.  The only one I can remember right off the top of my head was the 1997 Gold Cup race, which was shown live on ESPN 2 back in the days when that station was only carried on higher tier cable packages.  Obviously the main reason for this is that Unlimited Hydroplane racing doesn’t really have a wide national appeal, but also the unpredictable nature of the sport does as well.  Just look at this year so far when both the Madison and Detroit Final Heats took place more than an hour after they were scheduled due to water conditions.  Could you imagine the logistics and explanations that would have to take place if a network was demanding the Final be shown live at a certain point?
                Even in the epilogue there are inaccuracies.  First, the comment that the Miss Madison hadn’t “won a race since 1973” obviously isn’t the case.  When the movie was originally filmed in 1999 the team hadn’t won a race since 1993.  I’m not sure why they just didn’t say this, but maybe 1973 just sounds better.  Also, in between the filming and the release of the movie the Miss Madison won at Madison in 2001.  They were actually showing a trailer of the movie that year on the riverfront, and after Steve David drove the Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison to victory a few people said “now they can film a sequel!”  Also, although Mike McCormick competed for a few years in the Unlimited Lights, he never competed in the Unlimited Class (although he was a crew member for many of his dad’s entries in the 1970’s and 1980’s, rising to the title of Crew Chief).
                These are just a few, like I said.  If I were to go over every inaccuracy in the move I’d pretty much have to go over every scene and the entire plot.  So the question becomes: what in the movie actually is accurate?  Aside from the obvious of the Miss Madison won the Gold Cup in Madison, one scene in particular always comes to mind.  In the opening scene where Mike McCormick hears the engine on the river then races down to the riverfront on his bicycle to watch the boats practice was an integral part of any Madisonian’s childhood for a number of years.  Anymore with expanded social media coverage of the sport, it seems like we know three weeks in advance whenever a team is planning on trailer firing their boat, but in the years before the internet there really wasn’t any way of knowing when the boats would be testing until they actually did it.  Therefore, the scene of hearing the Miss Madison’s engine then riding your bike down to the river to watch it do some testing laps became something of a rite of Spring for a number of years.  Aside from that, there was one point in the movie where a man pronounces Louisville “LOUGH-vul” and yes, that’s how people from Madison (myself included) pronounce it.  So there are at least two points of the movie that are accurate.
                So with all my critiques of the movie, one might be wondering of my opinion of the movie.  First off, it’s all but impossible for me to be objective on this film.  I love movies, I love hydroplane racing, and I love my hometown, so therefore the only major motion picture that has hydroplane racing as a main plot point, as well as one of only two movies to be filmed in my hometown, is going to be appealing no matter what.  If that wasn’t enough, I’m actually an extra in the movie (I’m in the crowd shots when the races are taking place and when the Miss Madison is coming back to the docks) so once again this movie is going to hold a special place for me no matter the quality.  With that said, “Madison” is by no means a great movie.  The numerous plot holes, script writing that swings from very cliché to downright ridiculous, and the numerous historical inaccuracies keep it from being so.   A couple times I’ve shown it to friends who aren’t familiar with hydroplane racing who have said something along the lines of “this is stupid, can we watch something else” about 45 minutes into the movie.  One strong point, however, is that the movie is very well acted.  Jim Caviezel, Mary MacCormack, and Bruce Dern all make the most of some shoddy writing and turn in great performances.  Even Jake Lloyd, who was much maligned for his performance in “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” turns in a respectable showing and portrays a kid that really anyone who grew up in a small town can relate to.  “Madison” does have its appeal, especially for hydroplane fans but also for those who grew up in small towns or have fond memories of Summers with their dad.  So it’s a decent movie, just don’t use it as a reference for a historical argument.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Going for the Gold: When Powerboat Racing was an Olympic Sport

The Olympics are in full swing and with that many sports are brought into the limelight that are, shall we say, questionable in their inclusion on the Olympic program.  Some of the usual targets are Synchronized Swimming, Synchronized Diving, Table Tennis, Dressage, and a seemingly endless line of shooting and gymnastics events.  With that said, a look into the Olympics’ past finds even more less than deserving “sports.”  Among these include Croquet, Basque Pelota (whatever that is),Rogue, Polo, Tug of War, and even powerboat racing.  It’s hard to believe now, but for one year powerboat racing had a place on the Olympic program.  In the 1908 London games, medals for powerboat racing were awarded along with the other sports that many have long associated with the Summer Olympics.
                Before looking at the action of the 1908 Olympic Water Motorsports (as it was more commonly called back then) events, it should be duly noted that the Olympics in those early were quite different from the two week festival they have grown to be.  The Summer Olympics in those early years were often spread out over months and were often tied to World’s Fair exhibitions with Olympic competitions merely being another event on the program of these multimonth events.  The 1908 London Games were spread out over seven months, with the Opening Ceremonies being held on April 27 and the Closing Ceremonies held on October 31.  Instead of representing their country, athletes often wore the colors of their athletic club, University, or simply what they chose to wear, although the 1908 Opening Ceremonies were the first time that Olympic athletes marched behind their nation’s flags.  The events on the Olympic program often had a local flavor, sometimes even hosting events that were rarely if ever played outside their host nation.  For example, in the 1904 St. Louis Games Basketball, which was a sport that was thirteen years old but was quickly spreading in popularity through American YMCA’s, was staged as a demonstration sport.  With this in mind, powerboat racing was wildly popular in Great Britain at this time.  The first Harmsworth Trophy race (officially the International Motorboat Trophy) was held in Queenstown, Ireland in 1903, over two decades before the first British Grand Prix.  These Harmsworth Trophy races were often huge events that drew crowds of over a half a million spectators.  Despite the wide popularity in Great Britain, the footprint of powerboat racing in the early 20th century didn’t go much further than France and the United States.  So despite the fact that the sport was rarely if ever staged outside of these three nations, the fact that the Olympics were held in the hotbed of powerboat racing of that time was enough to get the sport on the program.  It should also be of note that, despite these were the London Games, the races were held 75 miles south of London in Southampton, another example of the wide open feel of the Olympics of that time.
The Water Motorsports events were scheduled for August 28 and 29, 1908in Southampton.    

       Plans for the event were apparently optimistic, as three different classes of boats were scheduled to compete for medals: an open class, an under 60 feet class, and a 6.5-8 meter class which essentially broke the competition down into a “large, medium, small” event.  Despite the seemingly optimistic staging of the event with three different medal competitions, the boat attendance had to damper that optimism.  Only six boats showed up to compete in the events, five of which were British boats and one of which was a French craft.  Only two boats entered the three events, and the events were, shall we say, less than competitive.
                The first event to be held was the Open Class (officially Class A).  Two boats, the Dylan and the Woleseley-Siddely, answered the starting gun.  The race was scheduled for eight laps around the five mile course, but before one lap was completed the Dylan withdrew.  The Wolseley-Siddeley completed one lap, but then returned to the dock after it was determined that the weather was too severe to continue.
The Wolseley-Siddeley making its way through the rough Southampton course

                Despite the first race being called due to inclement weather, later on that day the Under Sixty Foot class (officially Class B) event was held later that day.  Once again only two boats entered, the Quicksilver and the Gyrinus.  Just to clarify, the Quicksilver that competed in this class was an offshore style boat that would cut through the water, and was not the same Quicksilver boat that would compete in the Unlimited Class many years later.  The Gyrinus boat was a pioneer, and early attempt at having a boat plane over the water.  The Quicksilver boat was noteworthy at the time for having a female member on the crew who rode along.  Wife of Quicksilver driver J.M. Gorham, identified only as Mrs. Gorham, was described by a contemporary account as “worthy of special remark as an example of female endurance” for being able to endure a ride on the rough Southampton waters that day.  Both boats ended the first lap pretty much even, but on the second lap the Quicksilver began to take on water and was forced to retire.  The Gyrinus also took on water, but crew members Bernard Boverton Redwood and John Field-Richards were able to dump water off the boat quicker than it was coming on allowing Isaac Thomas Thornycroft to win the first Gold Medal ever awarded for Water Motorsports.  Later in the day a third race, a handicap race between larger and smaller boats, was ran but was not an official part of the Olympic program.
                The next day’s activities began with a Class C (6.5-8 meters) race.  The competitors this time was a small craft known as the Sea Dog, and once again the Gyrinus boat.  For the first few laps it appeared to once again be a very competitive race, with both boats exchanging the lead and officially scored as less than a second between them.  The Sea, Dog, however, had a faulty valve and wound up breaking down on the course.  Thus Thornycroft once again was able to drive to a Gold Medal with no running competition.
Gyrinus II, one of the first examples of a boat that attempted to plane over the water

                After another exhibition handicap race and a sailing race, and other races featuring yacht dinghies and another handicap powerboat competition, the rerun of the Class A “open” class took place.  Once again, the race was seen as a letdown.  The London Times account of the event noted “It will be noted that nothing has been said of the Olympic Race for motorboats of any length or power.  But really, there is very little to be said.”  Once again only two boats entered the event.  The Wolseley-Siddeley returned from before, and the lone French entry the Camille, driven by Emile Thubron.  During the course of the race, the Wolseley-Siddeley ran and was unable to continue, govomg the race to Thubron and the Camille.  The inaugural Olympic powerboat competition was done: three events, six entries, only three finishers.  Before the following Olympics in Stockholm, the International Olympic Committee passed a rule that said no events on the program will include motorized vehicles (a rule that still stands to this day) which ended powerboat racing as an Olympic Sport.  However, considering the nature of the Olympic Water Motorsports racing I’m guessing the news was met with little disappointment.
                What’s just as noteworthy about the Olympic Powerboat competition is how little attention it got, certainly not what one would expect of an Olympic Sport.  Few contemporary accounts exist of the event.  No major competitors were drawn to the competition, as none of the six boats that competed ever won the Harmsworth Trophy, and as far as I know none of them had even entered the competition.  Even during the actual events, the other races held seemed to attain more attention from the spectators and from the newspaper writers covering the event.   So the 1908 Olympic Water Motorsports event exists as a historical anomaly that gets little attention and even in the most complete Olympic accounts.  So while it got little attention, the races were far from a crowdpleaser, and they’re more exemplary of the wide open days of the early Olympics, it should be noted that, yes, the Olympics once really did have powerboat racing on the official program.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Seattle Preview: Will Home Waters be defended?

The H1 Unlimited Tour turns its attention to Seattle this weekend.  The race is almost always one of the biggest and most attended races of the year, and it serves as a homecoming for the majority of Unlimited Hydroplanes teams in the sport's post-World War II era.  Since the Slo-Mo-Shun III won the Gold Cup on home waters in 1951, nearly every Unlimited race in Seattle has been won by a "hometown" boat.  This, of course, has changed in recent years. For the last two Seattle races, and three of the last five, the Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison has been able to win the race going away and capture a road win for its fans in Southern Indiana (although to be fair the team has a Seattle sponsor and the boat itself was largely built in Seattle).  This of course does not mean the race will be a cakewalk and a very fast fleet of thirteen boats, eleven of which are based in Washington, are looking to capture one of the sport's most coveted prizes.

The U-1 Spirit of Qatar 96 comes into Seattle with a points lead that was much more narrow than it was the previous week and a sudden sense a vulnerability.  It's hard to imagine that just last week there was talk of the Qatar boat sweeping the season series, but after a blown engine, a blown gearbox, and a disappointing third place finish in both its final preliminary heat and in the Final Heat the seemingly unbeatable team suddenly looks very beatable.  Of course this is a very prideful hardworking team and in previous years when the Qatar team has looked beatable they have responded with a dominating performance in the next race (see: 2008 and 2009 Seattle and 2010 and 2011 San Diego).  Fans should expect nothing less than for this team to come all out for a win this weekend, especially considering that the team has lost the Final in Seattle two years in a row in head to head fashion.

Despite what has largely been an uneven season up to this point, the U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison finds itself a scant 190 points behind the leader thanks to consistent performances and numerous heat wins.   In fact, the team finds itself in a place where they would be in the lead in the High Points if it weren't for a couple of untimely penalties in Detroit and Tri-Cities.  The season's midpoint no doubt presents a turning point for the Oberto-Madison team.  If they can put the mistakes behind them and perform well on a course it has been the class of the field the last few years, then the team could be en route to a fourth High Point title.  Otherwise it might just have to be written off as "just one of those years."

Coming off a win, the U-5 Graham Trucking has to be feeling good about its chances coming into Seattle.  Jimmy Shane continues to get more comfortable behind the wheel of his very fast ride, and the results are showing with multiple heat wins in both Detroit and Tri-Cities.  Of course, Seattle is a very different course from Detroit and Tri-Cities and the team struggled in the one other short track race this year in Madison.  If the team can turn in another strong performance this weekend, getting back into the High Point race is not out of the question.

The U-37 Miss Beacon Plumbing comes into Seattle showing marked signs of improvement on a weekend that saw the team come out on the short end of the closest finish in a Final Heat in Unlimited Hydroplane history.  In theory, the team should do even better in Seattle with the boat's ability to hold tight in the corners but lack of top end speed.  The boat finished fourth in its Seattle debut last season, and as the team continues to dial in their still new hull an improvement should be expected.

The U-88 Degree Men had a nice rebound weekend in Tri-Cities after their blowover in Detroit.  Scott Liddycoat returns to Seattle where he drove his former ride to an impressive second place that saw him cross Steve David's wake and throw a hip check on Villwock in order to preserve that second place.  Much like the rest of this year's schedule, Seattle is much of an unknown for the team after their long hiatus, but no doubt Liddycoat and the team will be looking to come out for a podium finish and perhaps even a win in the Final.

Arguably the most consistent performer thus far, the U-9 Sun Tan Presents Sound Propeller Systems has found its way to the Final Heat in both Detroit and Tri-Cities.  The Jones Racing entry has been a regular in Seattle even in years when it ran a reduced schedule and has turned in some solid performances despite never winning in Seattle.  While a win in Seattle might be out of the question this weekend, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Jon Zimmerman drive the U-9 to the front row of the Final once again.

The U-17 Miss Red Dot had quite the adventurous day in Tri-Cities that saw Kip Brown break a leg bone in qualifying and force Nate Brown to fill in as driver once again.  Nate will be driving in Seattle, once again acting as de facto owner, driver, and crew chief of the U-17.  The team got a little media attention this week with news that the boat might be up for sale.  While the boat might be changing hands in the future, the focus on this weekend will be getting the U-17 into the Final of its hometown race for the first time.

Unlimited Racing Group has picked up local sponsorship for the weekend wand will be racing as U-11 Acura of Bellevue presents Miss Peters & May in Seattle.  The team had a bit of an uneven day  in Tri-Cities when they finished third, fifth, and sixth in the preliminary heats.  Also, the team would certainly like to do better than their 2011 performance in Seattle where the team failed to finish a heat and actually lost points thanks to penalties.  Obviously, J.W. Myers and the team would like a rebound in Seattle, and this team will come out shooting for a spot in the Final Heat

The U-100 Fox Hill Plumbing had another solid day in Tri-Cities  where the team qualified for the Final but didn't start, although it will probably best remembered for the very hot start the boat had in the third section of heats.  If you haven't seen the video already, go on to the H1 Unlimited site and see the video that looks like something out of a Michael Bay movie.  This has been an emotional season for the Leland Unlimited team, and this race will no doubt be full of emotions, as Fred Leland's entry was a longtime fan favorite in Seattle and was also the site of the team's first win in 1994.  No doubt Greg Hopp will be looking to get into the Final,but this weekend will probably be fondly remembered by the team regardless of the result.

The Evans Brothers racing has secured a number of local sponsors for Seattle and will race as the U-57 Miss DiJulio although attention will always be on Mark Evans thanks to his personality, on the course the team has largely been an also ran and has yet to make it to a Final.  Of course, Evans has turned in some solid performances in Seattle before highlighted by the famous "flip and win" of 1997.  While another victory might be out of the question this weekend, Mark Evans having the U-57 on the front row of the Final isn't.

The U-21 Go Fast Turn Left entry rolls into Seattle after a solid debut at Tri-Cities.  With Seattle being the probable season finale and the team planning on building a new boat for 2013, it could be possible to see the team go all out this weekend.  Brian Perkins has shown a knack for putting a boat in the right place in the right time during his Unlimited career, so with some luck the team could be in the Final and perhaps even finish on the podium.

The second Leland entry, the U-99 Fox Hill Plumbing Too is looking to build off its performance in Tri-Cities.  Driver Ryan Mallow, still relatively new to the Unlimiteds, will be looking for more experience as he continues to get his feet wet in the Unlimited Class.  The team will once again use the "dustbuster" hydro, so in Fred's hometown the team will be paying a sort of silent tribute to Fred Leland's innovative nature and desire to try out new ideas.

Rounding out the field is the U-18 Bucket List Racing.  Kelly Stocklin came into Tri-Cities with very few expectations, but turned heads with a qualifying speed of over 130 mph.  Despite nearly getting lapped in its one heat of competition, it was no doubt a solid performance for this team using the still largely untested T-53 in hydroplane competition.  For Seattle, the team will probably look to build off its performance and get some more testing laps in.