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Thunderboating - A Personal Memoir - Chapter 6

By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian

As race day neared, I familiarized myself with the town. I stayed at the famous old Broadway Hotel, which is located within walking distance of the pit area. And I paid my first visit to the Madison-Jefferson County Library, which would become a popular haunt of mine in the years ahead.

While going through the library’s back issues of THE MADISON COURIER, I came across--to my surprise--a detailed account of a Madison race from twenty years earlier in 1951 that was a complete mystery to me. In October of that year, a one-heat free-for-all had been run for the Indiana Governor’s Cup that was won by Marion Cooper in his 225 Cubic Inch Class HORNET.

All of the lists of past-winners of the Indiana Governor’s Cup that I had ever seen started in 1952 when the winner was Burnett Bartley, Jr., in WILDCATTER. Why had history chosen to forget or ignore and not include this particular chapter in the annals of such an important event? This would require some checking. But more about that later.

I finally met Graham Taylor--THE MADISON COURIER’s Sports Editor--after having communicated with him by mail for several years. In the spring of 1971, I had sent him a copy of an article on the history of the Gold Cup that I had originally written for RACE BOAT & INDUSTRY NEWS. Graham published it in THE MADISON COURIER and then passed it on to Paul Steinhardt, who used it in the Madison Regatta official program book.

Paul told me that he had three stories from which to choose on the history of the Gold Cup. Phil Cole and Erv Steiner wrote the other two. He chose mine because it was comprehensive.

The article ran around 2500 words. I had tried to seize upon the more important highlights. I talked about the origin in 1904, the displacement boats, the first hydroplane hulls, the Gar Wood years, the “gentlemen’s runabout” era, the advent of the three-point hulls, the post-World War II revival, the introduction of the Allison and Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, the East-West rivalry, and finally the large-scale revision of the Gold Cup rules, which included changing the heat format and putting the race up for bid. To leave out any of these elements in an overview of the Gold Cup’s history would have meant telling an incomplete story.

Even my good friend David Greene, who is my most conscientious and most demanding critic, thought it was the best history of the Gold Cup that he had ever read up until that time. Steve Garey liked it, too.

Not until after I had arrived in Madison did I learn that the article was going to be used in the program. To have won out over a couple of well-known professional PR men like Cole and Steiner, that really pumped me up.

I may have fallen from favor in Seattle. But now I was in solid with the Madison committee. That 1971 Gold Cup program became an important career milestone for me. In the years ahead, I wrote more history articles for a lot of different race organizations. This was another step closer to my appointment as the sport’s official chronicler.

I had been writing for publication for nine years. This was the best received of any feature article that I had done up until that time. Most of my previous attempts at stories over 1500 words in length had fallen flat. This was the first time that I had truly felt “inspired”--if that is the correct word. My previous work had been factually correct but uninterestingly presented. And a lot of my writing had been cluttered with excessive detail.

Of course, in the beginning, my writing career had primarily been a means to an end. I wasn’t interested in producing the great American essay. I just wanted a pit pass. And, yes, it was an ego trip to see my name in print. If, in the process of obtaining a pit pass and assuaging my ego, I happened to do something good for the sport, that was nice but of secondary importance.

But by 1971, my attitude had changed. After twenty years of following the Unlimiteds, I was truly in love with the sport. I was always happiest when I was at a boat race. Obtaining a pit pass was no longer a problem. After all of the fatalities in the late sixties, I felt downright protective about the hydros. I saw it as my duty to praise the positive things that the sport had to offer and to present the boats in as favorable a light as possible.

This was at a time when a lot of media representatives gloried in taking shots at Unlimited hydroplane racing. Granted, some of their criticisms were justified. But some were merely sour grapes.

I began to see my mission in the sport as one who accents the positive. It’s true that a lot of well-meaning people have over the years accused me of being a rubber stamp for the Unlimited administration. They are entitled to their opinion. But I see it more as calling the glass half-full rather than half-empty.

I’m not opposed to constructive criticism. I don’t deny that the sport needs improvement. But there are still a lot of good things to be said about Unlimited racing. And these things need to be emphasized.

One thing that appealed to me about Madison, Indiana, was the high level of media acceptance.

THE MADISON COURIER and many of the neighboring newspapers that sent representatives to the Madison Regatta were very even-handed in their coverage. The regional TV and radio stations likewise presented the sport positively. This was downright refreshing and in stark contrast to the Seattle media’s treatment of the Seafair race.

During the fifties, the boats were sacrosanct in Seattle. No one dared to criticize them too loudly in those days. But the pendulum swung in the opposite direction during the sixties. The boats became fair game. And leading the attack were two respected Seattle sports writers: Georg N. Meyers and Hy Zimmerman.

Meyers and Zimmerman both worked for THE SEATTLE TIMES. They were a couple of incredibly literate wordsmiths. But they hated the motor sports. Meyers enthused about football; Zimmerman revered baseball. They both loved the stick-and-ball sports. But anything with an engine was suspect.

Rarely did the TIMES publish a photo of the Indianapolis 500 that didn’t involve a crash or an injury. Car races and boat races were contemptuously dismissed as glorified gladiatorial exhibitions where everyone had a death wish.

Even after Georg and Hy retired, their anti-motor sports philosophy lived on after them. The views of these two award-winning writers tended to be picked up and perpetuated by a new generation of Seattle sports scribes. Caustic comments about the Unlimiteds are commonplace in the Pacific Northwest. And I blame Meyers and Zimmerman for fostering this mentality.

This is one reason why, each year, I look forward to the Seattle race the least. In the words of Shakespeare, I must always be on guard against “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” where the Seattle media is concerned. It’s an uncomfortable feeling--especially when Seattle writers try to “pump me” for scandal stories and gory details of accidents.

Thankfully, this is not the case when I visit Madison. And this became evident during that very first stay in 1971. In Madison, I can let my guard down and simply enjoy myself, just as I used to be able to do in Seattle during the fifties.

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