Really Happened That Day in 1971?
By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
No one who attended the fabulous 1971 APBA Gold Cup Regatta in Madison, Indiana, will ever forget it. That was when Miss Madison, the world’s only community-owned and sponsored Unlimited hydroplane, confounded the odds makers and won the race of races before the hometown crowd.
The Miss Madison’s richly sentimental triumph on that memorable Fourth of July was an historic one on several counts. Not since the 1965 Dixie Cup at Guntersville, Ala., had the sun-bleached Miss Madison scored a victory. It was pilot Jim McCormick’s first win ever in the Unlimited Class. The Miss Madison was built in 1959 and first entered competition in 1960, thereby making her the only Unlimited hydroplane ever to win a Gold Cup 11 years after its competitive debut.
The 1971 event also marked the first and only time that a community-owned boat has ever won the Gold Cup. Not since 1966 had the American Power Boat Association’s Crown Jewel been won by a boat with Allison – rather than Rolls-Royce – aircraft power. The Miss Madison of 1971 also represented the end of an era. (She was the last Unlimited hydroplane with the old-style rear cockpit-forward-engine, shovel-nosed bow configuration to ever achieve victory.)
McCormick of Owensboro, Ky., made his Unlimited Class debut as driver of the community-owned entry in 1966. He replaced George “Buddy” Byers, who had signed to drive for casino owner Bill Harrah’s Tahoe Miss racing team. For the first time in 1971, the APBA Gold Cup was the headline event at the Madison Regatta. Due to a technicality and a misunderstanding, the $30,000 bid for the race by Madison Regatta Inc., was the only one submitted to APBA headquarters in time.
Jim McCormick For 10 years, the volunteer Miss Madison crew had tried to win the hometown race without success. They requested and received assistance from two of the finest Allison engine specialists in the sport – Harry Volpi and Everett Adams – who flew in from Reno, Nev., and went to work along side regulars Tony Steinhardt, Bob Humphrey, Dave Stewart, Keith Hand, Russ Willey and pilot McCormick. Volpi and Adams are credited with sorting out the team’s water-alcohol injection system, which resulted in some additional miles per hour for the boat that proved crucial on race day.
Down to their last engine after having blown the other during practice, the Miss Madison team was at a distinct disadvantage at the outset of the race. McCormick ran conservatively in his three elimination heats and finished just high enough to qualify for the final 15-mile moment of truth on the Ohio River. Entering their last heat of the afternoon, McCormick and company had 1,000 points (based upon one first and two second-place finishes). That was 100 points less than the combination of Terry Sterett and Atlas Van Lines II, which had bested Miss Madison twice in the preliminary skirmishing.
In order to win the Gold Cup, Miss Madison would have to win the Final Heat with Atlas II finishing second. That would put McCormick and Sterett in a point tie with 1,400 points apiece. According to Unlimited Class rules, a tie is broken by the order of finish in the Final Heat.
Miss Madison moved to the inside lane prior to the start, thereby forcing the rest of the field to run a wider and longer track. Atlas II, in lane-two, crossed the starting line first and led around the first turn. Miss Madison, in lane-one, entered the first backstretch in second position. Then McCormick made his move. He “let it all hang out” and thundered past Sterett as if his rival was tied to the dock.
The partisan crowd screamed in unison, “Go! Go! Go!” Atlas II was fast but not as fast as Miss Madison. Sterett cornered well but not as well as McCormick.
Miss Madison, an aging under-financed museum piece, streaked to victory with fast pursuit from Atlas II, Dean Chenoweth in Miss Budweiser, Billy Schumacher in Pride of Pay ’n Pak, and Fred Alter in Towne Club. The hometown favorite crossed the finish line 16.3 seconds ahead of Atlas II, adding a new chapter to American sports legend, as pandemonium broke loose on the shore.
Fire bells rang, automobile horns sounded, and the spectators went out of their minds with delight. Everybody, it seemed, was a Miss Madison fan and, whether they lived there or not, a Madisonian. Even members of rival teams applauded the outcome of this modern day Horatio Alger story.
Deliriously happy Miss Madison crew members carried pilot McCormick on their shoulders to the Judges’ Stand. Veteran boat racer George N. Davis, a mentor of McCormick’s during his Limited Class career, wept unashamedly at this, his protégé's moment of triumph.
McCormick was the first to give credit where credit was due. He quickly acknowledged that without the mechanical prowess of his volunteer pit crew, victory would have been impossible.
And to prove that the hometown performance was anything but a fluke, Miss Madison captured first-place honors in the Tri-Cities Atomic Cup three weeks later on the Columbia River at Kennewick, Wash., and finished second in National High Points in the 1971 season.
POSTSCRIPT: An air conditioning contractor by profession, Jim McCormick was 37 years old when he drove the Miss Madison (U-6) to victory in 1971. He competed in the Unlimited Class between 1966 and 1977 and participated in a total of 70 Unlimited races, finishing in the top three at 19.
In midseason 1971, McCormick started an Unlimited team of his own. He purchased the former Parco’s O-Ring Miss (U-8) and ran it as Miss Timex, although he finished the season as driver of the Miss Madison, while Ron Larsen handled the U-8.
In 1972, McCormick campaigned two boats – the Miss Timex (U-44) and the Miss Timex II (U-8) – and drove the U-44 himself. In 1973, he owned and drove two boats – the Red Man (U-8) and the Red Man II (U-81).
While attempting to qualify the U-81 at Miami Marine Stadium in 1974, the boat hooked in a turn and McCormick was thrown out. He suffered a serious leg injury, which left him with a lifelong limp.
McCormick took one last sentimental journey as an Unlimited driver when he piloted the U-81, renamed Santa Rita Homes, at the 1977 Owensboro Regatta, where he finished eighth.
Following his retirement from competition, McCormick suffered health problems and was for a time in 1981 legally blind. Following laser surgery, which partially restored his eyesight, McCormick returned to the sport one more time in 1988 as co-owner with Bob Fendler of the Pocket Savers Plus (U-4), driven by Steve David.
McCormick regularly attended the Madison Regatta and last visited in 1994. To his many fans, he remained “Gentleman Jim,” never too busy to sign an autograph or to pose for a photo.
Jim McCormick died in 1995 following a brief illness. He was 61. His widow Bonnie, son Mike, daughter Kim, and several grandchildren still live in the Owensboro area.