Thunderboating - A Personal Memoir - Chapter 8
By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
Getting back to the 1971 Madison Gold Cup…
Race day, July 4, dawned bright and warm. Ten boats had qualified. MISS BUDWEISER with Dean Chenoweth and ATLAS VAN LINES (U-71) with Bill Muncey were the co-favorites, inasmuch as both boats had won two races earlier in 1971.
And the ATLAS VAN LINES II (U-70) with Terry Sterett compared favorably to the U-71. It was fast and was the renamed former MYR SHEET METAL, which had won three 1970 races with Muncey driving.
PRIDE OF PAY ‘n PAK, NOTRE DAME, and HALLMARK HOMES were all highly regarded but had performed unevenly at the first four races of the season. TOWNE CLUB, MISS TIMEX, and THE SMOOTHER MOVER were obvious also-rans.
MISS MADISON had finished second in the season-opener at Miami Marine Stadium but was down to her last Allison engine, having blown the other in a trial run. McCormick and company would have to survive four 15-mile heats with a single power plant in the longest and most important race of the year.
MISS MADISON was the oldest boat in the fleet, having debuted as Sam DuPont’s NITROGEN TOO in 1960. Only one of the previous ten Gold Cup winners had used Allison power. And that was TAHOE MISS in 1966 with millionaire casino owner Bill Harrah.
Jim McCormick had driven the former TAHOE MISS (renamed HARRAH’S CLUB) in 1968. A few days before the race, Jim placed a crucial telephone call to Reno, Nevada. He requested and received the assistance of two former HARRAH’S CLUB crewmembers, Harry Volpi and Everett Adams, reputed for their wizardry with Allison engines. Volpi and Adams flew to Madison and worked along side the five regular MISS MADISON crew members (Tony Steinhardt, Dave Stewart, Bobby Humphrey, Keith Hand, and Russ Willey).
Harry and Everett helped to sort out the MISS M’s water-alcohol injection system and gain some additional miles per hour for the hometown favorite. Volpi’s contribution was highlighted as a key plot element in the MADISON motion picture, filmed in 1999, that told the story of the 1971 Gold Cup.
Once racing got underway, the mortality rate was fierce. Three boats--HALLMARK HOMES, THE SMOOTHER MOVER, and ATLAS VAN LINES (U-71)--sank to the bottom of the Ohio River. And MISS BUDWEISER, the defending champion, conked out and didn’t finish Heat One. And although MISS BUD continued on in the race, she was too far behind in points to have much of a chance for a repeat win.
In 1971, a contest was decided on the basis of total points. Every heat counted for something. Point ties were broken by the order of finish in the Final Heat. How I miss that format today!
MISS MADISON ran conservatively in the three sets of preliminary heats and managed to physically finish second in all three of them. In Heat Two, McCormick managed to steer clear of ATLAS U-71’s roostertail, which illegally watered down two boats--MISS BUDWEISER and NOTRE DAME--at the entrance to the first turn. Referee Bill Newton assessed Muncey a one-lap penalty, which moved MISS MADISON from second to first in the corrected order of finish.
I have considerable respect for the memory of Bill Muncey. I have written a book about the man as a tribute to what he accomplished. He did a lot for the sport and was by far its most eloquent ambassador of good will. But he could be an incredibly dirty driver at times. And fans at the 1971 Gold Cup certainly saw Muncey at his dirtiest, involved as he was in three questionable incidents. Bill didn’t deserve to win that day.
As the sun set on that storied Gold Cup afternoon, the race boiled down to two boats. Everyone else was either out of the race or too far behind on points. ATLAS U-70 had 1100; MISS MADISON had 1000. In order to win the Gold Cup, McCormick would have to finish first in the Final Heat in order to tie Sterett on points.
In sizing up the final field, I predicted that ATLAS VAN LINES II would prevail. Sterett had, after all, bested McCormick twice earlier in the day and also twice the previous week at Detroit. The ABC WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS TV crew obviously shared my opinion. They positioned their camera equipment in the ATLAS VAN LINES pit area in order to interview the victorious Terry Sterett when he returned to the dock.
Being a loyal Seattleite, it irked me that ATLAS VAN LINES II, a successor to the much-maligned GALE V of 1955, was on the threshold of winning another Gold Cup for owners Joe and Lee Schoenith of Detroit.
As the boats took to the water for the last time, I hung on to the hope that ATLAS II would somehow fail to start and allow MISS MADISON to win by default. But that hope quickly vanished. As McCormick fired up and pulled away from the pits, there was Sterett, entering the race course right behind him. If my friend Jim McCormick was going to score his first-ever career win on this day, he would have to earn it--the hard way.
I watched the race from the press section of the Judges’ Stand. Sitting next to me was the sports editor of one of the Cincinnati newspapers. The man had covered sports for 25 years, but this was his first boat race. Throughout the day, I tried to impress this guy with my knowledge of the hydroplanes and to show him how cool and professional I was. I conveniently neglected to mention that I was representing RACE BOAT & INDUSTRY NEWS for free.
The man must have seen through my facade. But he was a good sport about it and didn’t burst my bubble.
Moments before the one-minute gun, MISS MADISON was cruising down the front-straightaway near the start-finish line. Then abruptly, MISS M made a hard left turn into the infield. McCormick’s strategy was obvious. He wanted the inside lane to force the other boats to run a wider and longer track.
The starting gun fired. ATLAS VAN LINES II crossed the line first in lane-two, followed by MISS MADISON in lane-one. The boats slid around the narrow first turn and thundered down the backstretch with ATLAS in first and MADISON in second on the inside.
Then McCormick made his move. MISS MADISON shot by Terry Sterett as if ATLAS VAN LINES had been tied to the dock.
The partisan crowd screamed in unison, “Go! Go! Go!” MADISON and ATLAS sped under the bridge and into the second turn on the first of six times around the 2-1/2-mile course.
When MISS MADISON powered into the lead, I blew my professional cool. After having spent the entire afternoon trying to impress the Cincinnati sports editor, I started screaming like a mad man at the top of my lungs, urging “Gentleman Jim” on to victory. I’ll never forget the look of disbelief in the sports editor’s eyes as he regarded the raving lunatic jumping up and down next to him.
Ordinarily, when I watch a race, I outwardly appear rather detached. That’s because I’m focusing my total concentration on what’s happening out on the race course and mentally “giving instructions” to the drivers. But I lost it big-time that day. My mindset shifted back to the fifties. I related to MISS MADISON in 1971 with the same intensity that I had for HAWAII KAI III in 1958.
All around me, people were likewise going nuts. The hydro happy Seattle fans of the fifties couldn’t have surpassed the passion demonstrated by the Madison fans on July 4, 1971. For the first time ever, the hometown boat--an aging under-financed museum piece--was holding off the elite of the American Power Boat Association in the race of races.
It was the hydroplane equivalent of David and Goliath, a modern day Horatio Alger story come to life.
Out on the race course, McCormick had a commanding lead over ATLAS VAN LINES, while Terry Sterett held off a persistent challenge from Dean Chenoweth and MISS BUDWEISER, while PRIDE OF PAY ‘n PAK and TOWNE CLUB trailed way back.
Sterett shook off the BUDWEISER challenge after a few laps and then went all out after MISS MADISON. ATLAS was fast on the straightaway but not as fast as MISS M. Sterett cornered well but not as well as McCormick.
From one end of the race course to the other, on both sides of the river, all eyes were focused on MISS MADISON. The burning question: Could she keep going at a winning pace? From the standpoint of driving, Jim McCormick was clearly outperforming Terry Sterett. But only twice in MISS M’s career had she ever finished 60 miles in one day.
The 28-year-old Allison engine, prepared so meticulously by Bobby Humphrey, was running flawlessly. MISS MADISON hadn’t performed this well since the late great Ron Musson guided her to an upset win in the 1960 Silver Cup as NITROGEN TOO. But that was a long time ago when the boat was new. MISS M was now running in her 151st heat of competition--more than any other Unlimited hydroplane in history up to that time. Was it too much to ask of MISS MADISON this late in her career?
With three down and three laps to go, I thought I would burst. In my whole life, I had never been this excited. It was almost too exciting. In my mind’s eye, MISS MADISON had become one with all of the other great race boats that I had rooted for over the years.
The hardest part for me was watching McCormick negotiate the bridge turn before entering the front straightaway. That was in the days before skidfins. Unlike today, it was necessary for the boats of that era to slow down considerably in the turns. The roostertails would drop and then kick skyward again when the drivers got back up to speed.
The bridge turn was the turn that I could see the clearest. For each of MISS MADISON’s six laps, I would try to predict when McCormick’s roostertail would kick up again. Each time, I would be a second or two early. And each time, I would nearly have a heart attack. On each lap, for one horrifying moment, I would think that MISS MADISON had blown her engine and was slowing to a halt. Thankfully, MISS M proved me wrong on all six laps.
As much as the final result meant to me, I would not want to repeat the experience of “coaching” MISS MADISON through the bridge turn again. It was just too much agony. But then again, all of that agony made the victory all the sweeter.
And the victory was sweet indeed. MISS MADISON made one last perfect turn and was quickly back up to speed, maintaining a wide margin over ATLAS VAN LINES II. Only then did I start to breathe easier. I glanced up at the official tower. The checkered flag was displayed. This meant that MISS M hadn’t committed any rule infractions.
McCormick sped under the bridge, past Bennett’s dock, and over the finish line, adding a new chapter to American sports legend, as pandemonium broke loose on the shore.
Horns sounded, bells rang, firecrackers exploded, while radio announcer Jim Hendrick exclaimed, “The town of Madison, Indiana, has gone absolutely wild!”
It was the single greatest emotional high that this writer has ever experienced. I turned to the Cincinnati sports editor who stood next to me. But I was totally incoherent, an absolute basket cast, shaking from head to foot, and drenched with sweat--and not just from the humidity.
Years later, I ran into that same sports editor at one of the Owensboro, Kentucky, races, where I re-introduced myself. He replied, “Oh, yeah, I remember you. You’re the guy that was going bananas on the Judges’ Stand at Madison.”
Ordinarily, at the conclusion of each heat, I sit down and write a detailed synopsis while the details are still fresh. But not this time. I was too excited. Besides, the Final Heat particulars of the 1971 Gold Cup would be forever burned in my memory.
This was a victory for the amateur, for the common man, a triumph that everyone could claim as his own. And seemingly everyone did. Judging by the crowd’s reaction, everyone was a MISS MADISON fan and, whether they lived there or not, a Madisonian. Even members of rival Unlimited teams applauded the outcome. MISS BUDWEISER owner Bernie Little proclaimed, “We’re celebrating right along with MISS MADISON.”
On a personal level, it was the first race that I had ever attended where the winning driver was a personal friend. Jim McCormick had toiled long and hard in the ranks. He richly deserved to win that day. And I couldn’t have been happier for him, a sentiment that I shared with his former mentor, George Davis.
When McCormick caught sight of George after stepping from the boat, he threw his arms around him and embraced him as if they were father and son. Jim whispered, “I couldn’t have done it without you.” It was one of the most touching moments that I have ever witnessed. Davis wept unashamedly at this, his protégé’s, moment of triumph.
Everywhere I looked, I observed people overcome with emotion. There were a lot of happy tears in that pit area on that unforgettable Fourth of July. Not until 30 years later, when a successor MISS MADISON (disguised as OH BOY! OBERTO) won the 2001 Indiana Governor’s Cup race with Steve David driving would I witness such joy at the Madison Regatta.
In the frenzied aftermath of the MISS MADISON’s Gold Cup victory in 1971, I literally bumped into Denny Jackson, a college student, who years later would become President of Madison Regatta, Inc. Although strangers to each other, we spoke excitedly about the incredible event that we had just witnessed. Seeing the hometown boat win obviously meant as much to Denny as it did to me. Deep down, I knew that I had found a friend for life.
In truth, the MISS MADISON’s Gold Cup win wasn’t the thousand-to-one long shot of popular legend. Coming off a successful 1970 campaign, the community-owned craft was a bona-fide contender. MISS M was certainly one of the strongest supercharged Allison boats of all time.
The so-called “miracle” or “impossible dream,” trumpeted by the media, was nothing of the sort. The MISS MADISON team won because they had competitive equipment, quality crew people, a top-notch driver, and the ability to work together to achieve winning results. There’s nothing miraculous about that.
What was miraculous was the timing. MISS MADISON, as competitive as she was, would have won a race sooner or later. Since mid-season 1970, she had knocked on the door of success several times. That door would have opened eventually. The fact that it opened on July 4, 1971, on home waters, and in a race for the fabulous Gold Cup...that truly was a miracle. The Hydroplane God certainly smiled on MISS MADISON and the city of Madison that day.
MISS M’s victory three weeks later in the Atomic Cup at the Tri-Cities, Washington, was equally as impressive from a boat racing standpoint. But it’s the Gold Cup win that is the stuff of legend, if for no other reason than the profound effect that it had on so many people--in addition to being the inspiration for a Hollywood movie. This is why I would nominate the 1971 Gold Cup for inclusion among the handful of truly epic Gold Cups of all time.
That list would include the victory by MISS U.S. in 1976, HAWAII KAI III in 1958, SLO-MO-SHUN IV in 1950, TEMPO VI in 1946, NOTRE DAME in 1937, EL LAGARTO in 1933, MISS DETROIT in 1915, and maybe one or two others. (But remember that this is a personal list, based upon one man’s opinion.)
In the years since the 1971 Gold Cup, the race has achieved mythic stature. Jim McCormick became the hero to a generation of schoolboys in Madison. The Gold Cup-winning hull, long retired from competition, is considered a shrine in that town. The various successor hulls, as popular as they have been in their own right, have been regarded by many as mere “stand-ins” for the one and only “real” MISS MADISON.
Even those Madisonians not otherwise inclined toward Unlimited hydroplane racing point to the hometown boat’s 1971 triumph as a matter of civic pride.
If MISS MADISON had won the Gold Cup anywhere other than Madison, or if the hometown race had been just another Indiana Governor’s Cup event, the impact would not have been nearly as great. This would have been the case if the 1971 Gold Cup had been awarded to Detroit instead. But as things turned out, the story of what happened on July 4 reads like fiction.
A movie was made a few years back called HOOSIERS, starring Gene Hackman and Barbara Hershey, which is a personal favorite of mine. It’s the true story about a small-town high school basketball team from southern Indiana. Despite overwhelming odds, the team vanquished the highly touted big-city teams and won the state championship.
I see a parallel between HOOSIERS and the MISS MADISON Gold Cup win. Both stories generated intense emotion among the fans. The “stand-up-and-cheer” endings of both stories were the result of hard work and dedication. It’s small wonder that the Gold Cup story served as the basis for a movie of its own, starring Jim Caviezel, Jake Lloyd, Mary McCormack, and Bruce Dern.