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Madison Celebrates Legacy in Racing

Jim McCormick, in Miss Madison, battles with Fred Alter in Towne Club during the 1971 Gold Cup. Photo by Randy Hall.

By Craig Fjarlie

The Ohio River city of Madison, Indiana, celebrated several historic dates in hydroplane racing during the annual Madison Regatta festival over July 4 weekend. The evening of July 1, a gala buffet banquet was held and a number of notable guests were in attendance. Former Regatta President Nate Davis was host of the event, and speakers included emcee Jeff Ayler, Madison Mayor Bob Courtney, Historian Dave Taylor, Miss Madison, Inc., President Charlie Grooms, Miss Madison financial backer Bob Hughes, and Tony Steinhardt, who reflected on the 1971 Gold Cup race. Also on hand were Unlimited hydroplane drivers Jimmy Shane and Jeff Bernard, and former Miss Madison driver and current crew chief Mike Hanson.

The 2021 Regatta marked 110 years since the first powerboat race was held in Madison. In a separate interview, Dave Taylor described several details about the long history of racing in Madison. “I’ve been told that the winner was a boat called Little Bill, says Taylor about the 1911 race. “I think that was a hastily-organized race that year. A number of local motorboat enthusiasts got together and decided they were going to have a race. The steamboat Princess was in town. It was moored in the middle of the river. Other pleasure boats formed a circle around it. Between the boats and the steamboat was the oval racecourse. Basically, we have no records of any of the winners or even the participants. All I’ve been told is that Little Bill was the first winner.”

In 1951, the Indiana Governor’s Cup was held for the first time. The winner was Marion Cooper of Louisville, Kentucky, in a boat named Hornet. “He later was the first driver of Miss Madison,” Taylor points out. “He was driving a 266 cubic inch hydroplane. The race was actually set up to be a race for 7 Litres and Unlimiteds at that time, but so few 7 Litres showed up, they invited lower-class boats to come up, so that’s why a 266 was the eventual winner. That boat also won here in 1949, in a free-for-all race.”

Marion Cooper in the first Miss Madison at Seattle in 1961. Bob Carver photo

In 1954, the Indiana Governor’s Cup became a race exclusively for Unlimited hydroplanes. The winner that year was the legendary Bill Cantrell, aboard Gale IV, a boat owned by Joe Schoenith of Detroit. “The boat actually had a hole in the bow, but he was able to keep it above water level,” Taylor says.

Gale IV with Bill Cantrell driving. Bob Carver photo

The City of Madison began campaigning its own boat in 1961. Industrialist Sam DuPont, of Delaware, donated his boat, Nitrogen, to the city and told civic leaders they should use it as a floating billboard to advertise Madison. DuPont had become frustrated when he told acquaintances that he was going racing in Madison; most assumed he was referring to Madison, Wisconsin, rather than the small, charming city in southern Indiana.

Taylor tells a great story about delivery of the boat to Madison. “Graham Heath and Bob Underwood left Madison to go to Delaware to pick up the boat from DuPont,” he begins. “They were on their way back to Madison. They had driven all the way through Pennsylvania, through part of West Virginia, and they were 50 miles inside the state of Ohio when they came to a weigh station. They pulled over to get weighed and inspected. The trooper came up and said, ‘We want to see your Ohio traffic permit,’ because they had a three-axle trailer. They didn’t realize they needed one. The cop said, ‘Pull it over, we’re going to keep it here overnight.’ As soon as they got the truck pulled over to the side of the weigh station, a report came across the radio that a fugitive who had escaped justice was coming that way. So, the trooper moved Heath and Underwood into the back of his cruiser and they went flying down the road chasing after the fugitive. Eventually they caught up with the fugitive but they were scared to death they were going to get shot, being bounced all over the back seat. Well, after the fugitive was caught, they were taken to the nearest town and paid their fine, $31. ‘That’s good, now can we go?’ ‘No, this is Sunday, you’re going to have to wait another day to get your Ohio permit.’ Finally on Monday they got their permit. So, Miss Madison, before it ever got its feet wet, got arrested.”

The original Miss Madison provided the city something to cheer about during its initial season. In Seattle that year, the Seafair celebration featured three separate races. The top seven qualifiers raced for the World Championship. The next four boats, including Miss Madison, competed for the Seattle Trophy, while the slowest three boats battled for the Seafair Queen’s Trophy. Miss Madison, driven by Marion Cooper, won its race. “When we won that race, back here in Madison you’d have never known it was a second tier race,” Taylor recalls. “It was big news to us, you know. Got a lot of publicity here and even across the country.”

Miss Madison was damaged during a race in Detroit in 1963. The name would continue, however, because before the damage occurred, the city was in negotiations with DuPont to acquire his second boat, Nitrogen Too. “In 1963, from what I understand, Sam DuPont was going through a divorce and had to liquidate some of his assets,” Taylor explains. “He still had the Nitrogen Too that he wasn’t running. He offered it, plus all of the equipment that he had related to boat racing, to Madison. It was valued at $80,000. Sam DuPont sold it to the city for $5,000. That boat was already in our possession – it wasn’t in Madison yet – but it wasn’t a total loss when the first boat was wrecked in Detroit. We knew we had something to fall back on.”

The second Miss Madison completed the 1963 season in place of the original boat. The team’s new boat showed its potential when it finished second in national point standings in 1964. “Buddy Byers had taken over (as driver) at that time,” Taylor notes. Byers scored Miss Madison’s first major victory at Guntersville, Alabama, in 1965.

In 1971, the APBA Gold Cup race was held in Madison. The team focused on a chance to win the Cup before their hometown fans. Jim McCormick had assumed cockpit duties. “As long as that boat held together, there was nobody that could beat him on any given course,” Taylor says. “It just happened that here in Madison and in Tri-Cities, we were lucky with how things worked out.”

Qualifying for the Gold Cup started early in the week. “The boat came down and qualified on the first day with the only engine we had available,” Taylor remembers. “Apparently it was only good enough to qualify with. They went back to the shop and pieced together enough parts to have one to run on race day. They ran that whole Gold Cup on one engine.” The team also had installed nitrous oxide in the boat. It gave the Allison engine a burst of power while accelerating when McCormick pressed a button on the steering wheel. McCormick drove the best race of his career and won the Gold Cup. Broadcaster Jim Hendrick began his race report by saying, “This town has gone absolutely wild!” The story of the race, albeit with a bit of poetic license, was made into the movie Madison.

The crew congratulates Jim McCormick following his victory in the 1971 Gold Cup.
Photo by Randy Hall.

When Bill Cantrell retired from the Gale racing team following the 1975 season, he moved to Madison, where he and Graham Heath operated a machine shop. They also campaigned the former My Gypsy under the name Miss Kentuckiana Paving at Ohio Valley races for two seasons. Cantrell died in early 1996. “He was a mainstay for all those years,” Taylor says. “I was the President of the committee that year and got together with Jon Peddie, former driver of Miss Madison; Markt Lytle, a former Mayor and at that time a State Representative, and Dave Johnson, who was with the vintage group. They put together the idea of naming the course for Bill. I presented that to the committee, the committee agreed to it, so Markt Lytle, Jon Peddie, and Dave Johnson were the ones who got the stone that we have up here; it’s above the plaque. Markt Lytle was responsible for getting the bronze plaque from the state. So, this is the 25th year since we named the Bill Cantrell racecourse. We buried his ashes here in the river that year during the race.”

Hydroplane racing has a long and colorful history at Madison. The legacy continues, because Jimmy Shane drove the Madison boat, now carrying the sponsor’s name Miss Goodman Real Estate, to a thrilling victory in the 2021 Gold Cup. A vintage event is scheduled in Madison on September 18-19. The Ohio River can be lumpy, even treacherous, but the best drivers always find a way to win and add to the record of racing at Madison, Indiana.

The second Miss Madison that won the Gold Cup in 1971. Bob Carver photo

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