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Thunderboating - A Personal Memoir - Chapter 5

By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian

I shall deal at some length on my first visit to Madison, Indiana, for reasons that will become obvious.

In the popular song ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH, John Denver relates an experience that affected him deeply, which occurred in the summer of his 27th year, “…going home to a place I’d never been before.”

The 1971 Madison Regatta occurred in the summer of Fred Farley’s 27th year.

When I first caught sight of Madison, from the window of a Greyhound bus, my heart skipped a beat. It was love at first sight. Even though I had never visited there before, it felt like home. If I could have, I would have moved there in an instant.

The bus had stopped for a moment on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, just before crossing the Milton-Madison Bridge, which intersects the race course. I was able to get a good look at the town and the surrounding area.

Who would have thought that, 28 years later, I would buy a house, located less than a mile from that bridge.

The beauty of the river valley on that bright summer day in 1971 really took my breath away. In comparison to the blocks of urban blight that I had observed in Detroit, there simply was no comparison.

All of the favorable comments that I had been hearing for years about Madison were true. In order to appreciate the town, one has to have experienced it.

Madison is located approximately equidistant between Cincinnati and Louisville. Madison was the subject of a military propaganda film during World War II as “a typical American town.” The film, which I’ve seen, was supposed to remind the U.S. servicemen of the way of life that they were defending. Madison has changed little in the subsequent half century and still prides itself on its homespun values.

Over the years, I had met quite a number of Madisonians who had visited the western races with the MISS MADISON.

Since 1961, the community-owned MISS M had served as the town’s “Floating Chamber of Commerce.” The crew members of the MISS MADISON that I had met were “regular guys” that were thankfully devoid of big-city hang-ups.

At a time when most Unlimited teams had professional crews and commercial sponsorships, the MISS MADISON crew was all-volunteer.

When I arrived in Madison that first time, I felt like I was stepping back in time to the Seattle of my youth. That’s because Madisonians looked upon the MISS MADISON as Seattleites had twenty years earlier looked upon the SLO-MO-SHUN boats.

The spirit of community involvement that had been such a vital element in Seattle’s hydromania was alive and well in Madison in 1971. All of this had added significance because tiny Madison was hosting the Gold Cup that year.

Never before had the APBA’s crown jewel been conducted in a town that size. Because of a misunderstanding, Madison’s bid for the race was the only one submitted in time. The Detroit committee had also sent in a Gold Cup bid but after the deadline had expired.

Under ordinary circumstances, Madison with its limited financial resources would have had virtually no chance of being awarded the big race. But even though the Madisonians had the only legal bid, they almost lost the race to Detroit anyway, as I later discovered.

A faction within the APBA believed that a race as significant as the Gold Cup should only be awarded to large cities such as Detroit or Seattle or San Diego.

The above-mentioned faction lobbied strenuously to accept Detroit’s tardy bid and to award the 1971 Gold Cup to the Motor City. This gross injustice thankfully did not occur. The Madison committee received support from an unexpected source. Arden Aegerter, representing Greater Seattle, Inc., was outraged. He threatened to withdraw his city’s request for a race sanction if Madison was denied the Gold Cup.

Aegerter was a very interesting--and at times irritating--character. He and I butted heads on more than one occasion. But I never questioned his integrity, which he demonstrated in this situation. The man stood up for what he believed was right. And I’ll always be grateful to him for that.

Over the years, a lot of people have asked me which race stands out in my mind above all others as the most memorable. My answer is two-fold.

Of all the races that I saw with a child’s perspective, I would say that the Gold Cup contests from 1955 to 1959 had equal significance to me. That’s because all five races--in a sense--were one and the same struggle to retain (or regain) the Gold Cup for Seattle.

Of all the races that I saw with an adult’s perspective, the 1971 Madison Gold Cup stands head and shoulders above all the rest. Certainly there have been other races that may have had more boat-to-boat action--although the 1971 Gold Cup had plenty of that--and other races that likewise had their share of drama. But all of the elements of a classic once-in-a-lifetime experience came neatly together on July 4, 1971. For me, it was probably my all-time happiest moment.

I had been a MISS MADISON fan for ten years. The original MISS M had won a secondary race at Seattle in 1961 with that grand old gentleman Marion Cooper driving. The current MISS MADISON had scored a victory at Guntersville, Alabama, in 1965 with future URC Commissioner Buddy Byers at the wheel. The team had been winless since then.

I introduced myself to MISS M pilot Jim McCormick in 1966. We quickly became good friends. It was a friendship that was to last for 29 years. McCormick was the first driver that I ever got to know on a first-name basis. The time that I had dinner with Jim and his wife Bonnie at their home in Philpot, Kentucky, in 1986 was one of the most enjoyable evenings of my life. When Jim passed away in 1995, it was like losing a family member.

McCormick had made his Unlimited debut with MISS MADISON in 1966. He returned to the MISS M cockpit in 1969 after having seen competitive action with NOTRE DAME, WAYFARERS CLUB LADY, ATLAS VAN LINES, and HARRAH’S CLUB. Jim was at the top of his form in 1970 and 1971. He had a lot of Thunderboat finishes in the top-three and had claimed the first-place trophy in the 266 Cubic Inch Class at the 1964 Madison Regatta with MISS KATHLEEN. But he had never won an Unlimited race.

I tried to be optimistic about the chances of McCormick and MISS MADISON in the 1971 Gold Cup. The team had really come on in late-season 1970. The crew had the boat running the best of its long career. But the hull was eleven years old. MISS MADISON had maybe one tenth of the operating budget of MISS BUDWEISER, ATLAS VAN LINES, and PRIDE OF PAY ‘n PAK. And economics dictated that MISS MADISON had to use an Allison engine instead of the more-powerful Rolls-Royce Merlin.

McCormick and MISS M could mix it up with the “hot dogs.” But it was still difficult for most people to take MISS MADISON seriously. For her to win the Gold Cup at home seemed like an impossible dream.

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