My friend, ‘Gentleman’ Jim McCormick

By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian

Gentleman Jim McCormick, the 1971 Gold Cup-winning driver of the community owned Miss Madison, was a close personal friend of mine for 29 years.

Jim McCormick in 1971

I first became acquainted with Jim in 1966, the year that McCormick first joined the Unlimited ranks. At the time, I was a 22-year-old college student, living in Seattle.

During the summer months, I worked for the sponsoring organization of the Seattle Seafair Regatta and wrote the program magazine that was sold at the race site.

My first meeting with Jim McCormick occurred in the pit area, shortly after the Final Heat of the Seafair race. Someone told me that Jim was looking for a copy of the program. (McCormick had been so busy focusing on the race that he had neglected to obtain a program.) I walked up to Jim, introduced myself, and promised that I would hand deliver him a Seafair program at the next week’s race in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

Beginning with that first conversation, we became the best of friends. I would talk with him at the races and kept in touch during the off-seasons. McCormick became a welcome addition to my Christmas card list. Jim was one of those drivers who could be expected to give that extra “something” in a competitive situation. It was fun to watch him drive. I consider McCormick to be one of the better of the best in the water sport of kings, which is Unlimited hydroplane racing.

For much of Jim’s racing career, the boats that he drove left something to be desired. Many were old and under-financed. But McCormick somehow made the difference between a tailender and a contender.

At Detroit in 1967, Jim was stuck with one of the worst-riding hydroplanes in Unlimited history – the Notre Dame – which had an alarming tendency to fall on its nose at high speeds. By some miracle – and a lot of driving ability – McCormick managed to guide the Notre Dame to fourth place in a 15-boat field in the World Championship Race on the Detroit River.

At Seattle in 1969, Jim occupied the cockpit of the Atlas Van Lines, a hull built in 1957 and considered by most insiders of the sport to be “over the hill and down the other side.” McCormick nevertheless demonstrated his prowess as a competitor by finishing a strong second to the front-runner Bill Sterett and Miss Budweiser, a state-of-the-art superboat with 10 times the operating budget of the Atlas. Jim outperformed such well-respected teams as Bill Muncey and Miss U.S., Dean Chenoweth and Myr’s Special, and Fred Alter and Miss Bardahl on that memorable day at Lake Washington.

Precious little can be said of McCormick’s 1971 Gold Cup triumph aboard Miss Madison that hasn’t already been. No one who was there on that sun-blessed Fourth of July will ever forget it. To Jim, personally, the victory before the hometown crowd ranked second in importance only to his wedding day to his wife, Bonnie.

Moments before the one-minute gun, prior to the final heat of the Gold Cup, McCormick moved to the inside lane. His strategy was obvious. He wanted to force the other drivers to run a wider – and longer – track around the 2.5-mile Ohio River course. Entering the backstretch of lap one, Jim put the accelerator to the floor and thundered into the lead. The other boats were fast, but not as fast as Miss Madison; the others cornered well, but not as well as Miss M. At the end of six heart-stopping laps, it was Miss Madison and Jim McCormick the winners, followed by Atlas Van Lines II, Miss Budweiser, Pride of Pay ‘n Pak and Towne Club, in that order.

For me, the 1971 Gold Cup was the single most exciting sports event that I have ever witnessed. It was Unlimited hydroplane racing at its best. The outcome was in doubt right down to the final moment. It was also the first time that a race had been won by a personal friend.

The 1971 Madison Gold Cup Regatta was on the occasion of my first visit to the Ohio River Valley. It would not be my last.

Jim McCormick continued to be an exciting presence in Unlimited racing for years afterward. His first race after the 1971 Gold Cup was the occasion of another Miss Madison victory. On July 25, I watched Jim win the Tri-Cities Atomic Cup at Kennewick, Wash. He followed the same strategy that he did at Madison by running conservatively in the preliminary heats and then “letting it all hang out” in the finale.

McCormick was always concerned with the issue of driver safety in boat racing. In 1975, as pilot for the Pay ‘n Pak team, he was the first to use a cockpit harness system – a concept that did not gain wide acceptance for another decade but which is now mandatory in all Unlimited hydroplanes.

I’m glad that I knew “Gentleman Jim.” I will always treasure his friendship. When he passed away in 1995, it was like losing a family member. Now that there is a movie in production that tells the story of the 1971 Gold Cup, I know that Jim would have been proud.

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