Glory days may be gone, but Madison's famed hydroplane race is a story of resilience


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MADISON, Indiana — The odds are so stacked against the Madison Regatta — high water, low water, extreme heat, diminished crowds — yet somehow Indiana's most extreme sporting event carries on.

Its troubles are numerous. In 1991, a spectator dove into the race course, disappearing beneath the waves, bringing the entire event to an eerie halt while divers searched.

In 2006, a man fell asleep behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Monte Carlo and plowed into fans assembled on the river bank, nearly killing one of them.

In 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers unleashed millions of gallons of water and accompanying debris from the Markland Dam the morning of the regatta's main event, the Indiana Governor's Cup race (rarely attended these days by an actual Indiana governor). The debris fouled the boats' props and took out half the fleet in what surely was one of the great sports anti-climaxes of 2008.

In 2012, the 115-degree heat index kept ticket buyers away in droves.

Last year, the entire competition was canceled due to high water. This year, the regatta's title sponsor, Lucas Oil Products, did not renew.

But the Madison Regatta's organizers are experts in the art of resilience.

"Things are looking good for us," said Bob Hughes, a Madison businessman who for years has underwritten race expenses and also a large part of the expenses of Madison's community-owned race boat, Miss Madison. (Miss Madison is like the Green Bay Packers of boat racing, though in recent years it has accepted sponsorship money from Seattle-based Oberto Sausage Co., a major player in the beef jerky industry.)

"Long-range weather report is favorable," Joe Hertz, the regatta's volunteer marketing manager, told The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/1mL8UJc ). He oversees a total advertising budget of $10,000; all the race organizers are volunteers, as are the ticket takers and everyone but the police.

If you count paddle-wheelers, Madison has hosted boat races since the 1800s. The first hydroplane regatta was in 1929. A hydroplane is a turbine-engine speedboat that, as it accelerates, lifts almost entirely out of the water, reducing drag and leading to speeds up to 200 mph, as well as instability.

Hydroplanes frequently crash spectacularly, but these days, following safety advances, drivers generally avoid serious injury. In the 1960s and '70s, many were killed (between 1961 and 1982, 12 drivers died while racing, though none in Madison).

Then as now, Madison is one stop, by far the smallest, on the international H1 Unlimited hydroplane circuit that today includes stops in Detroit, San Diego, Seattle and oil-rich Doha, Qatar.

It sounds rather high-toned, but there is not a lot of money in hydroplane racing. The drivers get paid but have day jobs, too. Miss Madison's driver, Jimmy Shane, is an engineer at a Kent, Washington-based aerospace company founded by Jeff Bezos. When Shane is in Madison, he boards with a local family, which gets reimbursed by a combination of Bob Hughes and the beef jerky company.

Madison, in southeastern Indiana, is an unusual place, even at a glance. Thanks to a combination of historic preservation and geographic isolation, driving into town feels like driving into 1954, or even 1854. Madison is Indiana's second-oldest town, built along Indiana's once main stream, the Ohio River. Two centuries ago, it was a bustling river town. But in the 1960s, the town found itself cut out of the new mainstream, bypassed by the interstate system — the nearest four-laner, I-71, is a 40-minute drive.

But in the mid-1990s, while many Indiana towns saw riverboat casinos as economic salvation and begged for one, Madison voted against even trying for one.

Madison hosts Ribberfest (this year's headliner: Taj Mahal), and the Chautauqua Festival of Art (250 craft booths). "But to me it seems like boat racing is more a part of the (town's) ingrained culture," said Fred Farley, a hydroplane racing historian who after retiring from teaching school in Washington immediately moved to Madison for the boat racing.

"It's our claim to fame, it's our trademark thing," said Abby McInteer, a manager at Mumbles BBQ, a riverfront joint that's about to have its biggest weekend of the year. "At regatta, people wait 45 minutes for a table," McInteer said.

"Madison as a city has a lot of other things going for it — the architecture, the great history — but the regatta, they wait all year for that," said filmmaker Bill Bindley, who produced and directed "Madison" (2001, starring Jim Caviezel and Bruce Dern), about a marvelous upset at the 1971 regatta.

The movie is about a plucky town that didn't give up (think "Hoosiers" but with hydroplanes).

It's Madison's favorite movie, says Tony Ratcliff, who owns Madison's historic Ohio Theater, and that's saying something, because the other movie filmed in town was the very first Rat Pack movie, "Some Came Running." The making of it required Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine to live in Madison for several weeks during the summer of 1957. Old people still talk about the multiple star sightings.

"We weren't allowed to approach" the actors, said Hertz, 65, but it was fun diving for silver dollars tossed into the deep end of the country club's swimming pool by a lounging, smiling Frank and Dino. "I spent most of them, but I think I still have three," Hertz said.

But "Some Came Running" is dark, about social climbing and phony people and boozing, whereas "Madison" is about perseverance and overcoming odds. It is shown every year during the regatta outdoors on a big screen. People cheer.

"Regatta" sounds hifalutin, as if blue blazers, Topsiders and conversations about spinnakers were involved. But Madison's is down-to-earth. "A family event" is how organizers describe it. Which means it has come up in the world.

Not that many years ago, the regatta was a booze-soaked, low-rent bacchanalia. Once, a woman streaked the crowd on water skis.

"I remember seeing Hell's Angels when I was younger," said Christel McHargue, 49, who has attended the regatta since the 1970s. "To me, I thought it was cool; I don't remember seeing any trouble."

But there was actually quite a bit of trouble, said Dan Thurston, Madison's police chief.

"My first regatta was '93," Thurston said, "and between 6 p.m. Friday and Sunday afternoon, we had approximately 180 arrests. And I've heard stories of back in the '70s when there'd be 300 arrests."

About a decade ago, the decision was made to limit "primitive camping," and that curbed the wildness. "We started making sure law and order was pretty much a top priority," said Tim Torrence, 2014 regatta chairman. Today, most fans stay in hotels or in RVs. At the last regatta, there were 15 arrests.

But if there are fewer yahoos, there are fewer people, period. Hydroplane racing used to be a semi-major sport. ABC's "Wide World of Sports" covered it — in the 1970s, the show sent legendary announcer Keith Jackson to Madison. As many as 100,000 spectators lined both river banks to see the Indiana Governor's Cup, one of them the actual Indiana governor, Edgar Whitcomb.

This year, between 25,000 and 30,000 fans are expected, and only eight boats, compared with a dozen in the glory days. Indiana's governor, Mike Pence, has other plans, said his spokesperson. And the money at stake is small. Actually, for the competitors, there is no money at stake — each boat is guaranteed $10,000, whether they win or finish last. The only thing the winner gets that the losers don't is acclaim, and a trophy.

Even so, Miss Madison's backers, Bob Hughes and the jerky people, spent $50,000 this year to keep their boat competitive. Why bother?

"So that you can maybe win the race, of course," said Hughes, 80, as if it's the dumbest question he ever heard.


Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com

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