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Thunderboating - A Personal Memoir - Chapter 9

By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian

When I wrote my account of the 1971 Gold Cup for RACE BOAT & INDUSTRY NEWS, I admit to being caught up in the emotion of the moment. The article was hardly an objective account of the race and I wrote it badly. After nine years in the business, I still had a few things to learn about journalism.

In the years that followed, I would frequently mention the MISS MADISON Gold Cup victory in the various articles that I wrote. But in the back of my mind was the desire to do an in-depth objective treatment of the race that had never been done. But for the longest time, I questioned whether or not I had it in me as a writer to do justice to the topic.

I’m the first to admit that yours truly is no great shakes as an author. I like to think that my work is readable and informative and reasonably entertaining. But it’s hardly profound. I’ll certainly never hold a candle to Mel Crook, the late great YACHTING MAGAZINE columnist, or Weldon Johnson, who has contributed brilliant profiles of such notables as Bill Muncey, Bill Cantrell, and Ted Jones.

The two contemporary writers of Unlimited history that I most admire are David Greene and Philip Haldeman. Dave has a knack for analysis and reading between the lines that is uncanny. A lot of his expert opinions have become my expert opinions over the years. Phil is the finest literary craftsman that I have ever known. This guy could write me under the table.

Both Dave and Phil are brilliant men. But unlike a lot of people who are extremely intelligent, Greene and Haldeman are not arrogant. They are genuinely nice and have a lot of tolerance. And they would certainly need plenty of that to put up with an oddball such as Fred Farley for 30 years.

It’s no wonder then that when I finally resolved to write my definitive account of the 1971 Madison Gold Cup in the fall of 1983, I asked Dave and Phil for their help. And their input proved invaluable.

I spent the winter of 1983-84 working on the story. My good friend David Taylor of Madison had just been appointed editor of the 1984 Madison Regatta Official Program and wanted a 1971 Gold Cup article for the lead story. Taylor said to make it as long as I wanted.

The finished manuscript comprised 19 typewritten pages. My fondness for the topic didn’t waver and was transferred intact to the printed page. But unlike my previous attempt for RACE BOAT & INDUSTRY NEWS, I managed to keep my enthusiasm in check this time.

I had six months until the deadline. So, I had the luxury of writing a little at a time. Sometimes, I would set the manuscript aside for a couple of weeks. This enabled me to be more objective. I did a lot of rewriting and polishing.

Then I submitted the rough draft to Greene and Haldeman, both of whom are members of my Unlimited Historical Committee. And both responded positively and made a number of valuable suggestions. I incorporated these suggestions into the final draft, which I entitled MISS MADISON, THE GOLD CUP CHAMPION.

It all came together nicely. I tried to strike a balance between the factual reporting and the hometown sentiment. Toward that end, I believe that I succeeded.

I had two primary reasons for writing MISS MADISON, THE GOLD CUP CHAMPION, which I consider to be my single best work in 40 years of hydroplane reporting.

First of all, I did it for the driver and crew, the hardworking guys that made it all happen. I just wrote it down. They’re the ones that went out there and did it. I wanted to write the story in such a way that whenever they wanted to mentally re-live the experience of July 4, 1971, they had but to re-read my article. I know that I succeeded in this regard. That’s because McCormick and all of the surviving crewmembers told me so. That really meant a lot to me.

And secondly, I did it for the fans. For those that were there, the article helped make it possible for them to re-experience the race. And for those who did not attend, my story hopefully enabled them to feel as if they had. From what people have told me, I believe that I succeeded here, too. I certainly hope so.

If I were to put into a time capsule a representative sampling of the more than 700 hydro columns that I’ve written for publication since 1962, MISS MADISON, THE GOLD CUP CHAMPION would be at the top of the list. Next would be the treatment that I wrote in 1988 on HAWAII KAI III’s triumph in the 1958 Gold Cup. I would also include BLACK SUNDAY, my account of the 1966 President’s Cup tragedy, written in 1999. These are Fred Farley's "Big Three.”

Thirty years after the 1971 Gold Cup, I had the opportunity to observe Hollywood’s retelling of that storied event. The occasion was a preview screening of the movie MADISON at a film festival in Indianapolis. I had been consulted when the screenplay was being written. And my wife Carol and I had worked as extras in a couple of scenes.

I wrote the following review of MADISON, which initially appeared in ROUNDABOUT MADISON, a monthly newspaper, published by Don Ward.

By Fred Farley – APBA Unlimited Historian

The movie MADISON, directed by William Bindley, should do for boat racing what John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film GRAND PRIX did for car racing. MADISON is a magnificent calling card for the sport in general and the city of Madison, Indiana, in particular.

MADISON had its Mid-West premiere on Thursday, October 18, 2001, at the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis. The capacity crowd, which included a large delegation from the tiny Ohio River town, gave the film a standing ovation at the end of the screening.

The racing sequences were stunningly photographed. On the big screen, they were simply breathtaking. MADISON is a movie that demands to be seen in a theatre--not on television. And the camera pays loving attention to the picturesque southern Indiana locations.

The script is based upon the true story of the underdog MISS MADISON Unlimited hydroplane, which won the 1971 APBA Gold Cup before the hometown crowd with Jim McCormick driving.

And yet, strictly speaking, MADISON is not a racing film. It is the story of a man and his son--Jim and Mike McCormick--and the effect that the race has on an economically challenged community. Actors Jim Caviezel as Jim and Jake Lloyd as Mike bring their characters to life. And Hollywood legend Bruce Dern does a memorable star turn as Harry Volpi, whose prowess with the Allison engine proves invaluable to the MISS MADISON team.

Broadcaster Jim Hendrick, who announced the 1971 Gold Cup thirty-one years ago, appears in the film as himself.

Some matters of historical fact are glossed over for dramatic effect. But this is a movie not a documentary. And as a movie, it succeeds on its own terms. Granted, there is a lot of fictionalizing. But the characters ring true. I knew all of the real people portrayed in the script. And I can visualize the real people saying and doing many of the things that they say and do in the movie.

The sub-plot involving Jim McCormick’s relationship with a young driver, played by actor Richard Lee Jackson, is an obvious reference to McCormick’s real life friendship with George “Skipp” Walther. Skipp was fatally injured at Miami Marine Stadium in 1974 while testing the RED MAN hydroplane, which McCormick owned.

The film footage that represents the crash involving Jackson’s character (fictionalized as “Buddy Johnson”) is actually taken from KING-TV film of the 1962 MISS SEATTLE TOO disintegration on Seattle’s Lake Washington.

Power boat racing has definitely been given short shrift as a topic for Hollywood films. I’ve only seen two others. And neither of these had to do with the Unlimited Class of hydroplane. One was CLAMBAKE, a mediocre Elvis vehicle, which did the sport no great service. The other was RACING FEVER, an absolutely wretched drive-in opus from the early ‘60s that makes PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE look like GONE WITH THE WIND.

The MADISON movie is in a class by itself. Never has this much talent been lavished on a boat racing subject.

For almost as long as I’ve been a hydroplane fan, I’ve also been a film buff. With MADISON, I’m able to enjoy both of my passions. When I read the script three years ago, I concluded that if the filmmakers adhered to the screenplay as written, they would have a pretty darned good movie. They did not disappoint me.

The first race that I ever saw on the Ohio River was the 1971 Gold Cup. In my whole life, I’ve never been happier than when MISS MADISON flashed over the finish line as the winner. It was also the first race that I had ever attended that was won by a personal friend, Jim McCormick.

It was Jim’s dream that this movie be made. Prior to his death in 1995, he had planned to portray his own father in an earlier version of the script.

When the end credits rolled during the screening in Indianapolis, I was pleased to see a montage of outtakes from the ABC WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS telecast incorporated into the film. Through the magic of motion pictures, my friend Jim was able to appear in “his” movie after all.

Let me include one very special thought about the 1971 Gold Cup and its aftermath…

Many years later, at the Madison Regatta, I ran into Bobby Humphrey. Now retired from the MISS MADISON team, the renowned Allison engine builder was seated on the Judges’ Stand watching the race. I noticed that Bobby didn’t look well.

We talked for a while. And then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a photo button. It was one of a limited series that commemorated the MISS MADISON’s Gold Cup win. The button is very rare.

He handed it to me and said, “I’m not giving this to you. I just want you to hang onto it for me.”

Deep down, I knew that something was seriously wrong. And I was correct. A few months later, Bobby died of cancer.

I felt his loss deeply. And still do. I had known and respected Bobby Humphrey for 20 years. He belonged to one of the greatest groups of guys that I’ve ever encountered--not only in boat racing but life in general.

The combination of Humphrey, Steinhardt, Stewart, Hand, Willey, McCormick, and MISS MADISON had a unique chemistry. I revere them in the same way that I do the all-conquering basketball team in the movie HOOSIERS.

The photo button that Bobby entrusted to my care is now my single most treasured possession. It was something that obviously meant a great deal to him personally. I feel very honored and very humble that he chose me.

To this day, I don’t consider myself to be the owner of the button. I’m merely the custodian of it.

On Monday morning, July 5, 1971, I climbed aboard the Greyhound bus and reluctantly took my leave of Madison.

I was still on the proverbial Cloud Nine. The previous 24 hours had been among the most exhilarating and emotionally draining of my entire life. The locals had celebrated in the streets until ten o’clock at night. While that was going on, I went back to the Broadway Hotel and wrote a letter to my brother, who was attending Graduate School in far away Morocco that summer.

Even after all these years, I can still quote that letter verbatim. I wrote, “Dear Tom, something utterly incredible has happened. MISS MADISON won the Gold Cup today. And this whole town is going crazy, believe me. MISS M moved to the inside lane before the start, took the lead coming out of the first turn, and streaked to victory with fast pursuit from ATLAS VAN LINES II, MISS BUDWEISER, PRIDE OF PAY ‘n PAK, and TOWNE CLUB. I wish you could have been here.”

My last glimpse of the race course that Monday morning was of a dejected Bob Murphy, the forgotten man at the 1971 Gold Cup. His boat, THE SMOOTHER MOVER, had sunk prior to Heat 1-A and never made a start. Poor Bob was supervising salvage operations in an effort to retrieve his craft, which still rested on the bottom of the Ohio River, together with HALLMARK HOMES and ATLAS VAN LINES (U-71).

As the bus motored down the highway toward Louisville and an appointment with George Davis, I firmly resolved that someday I would return to Madison. Despite the uncertainty of my economic situation, Madison had not seen the last of Fred Farley.

And return I did. For the next 28 years, I returned every summer to the Ohio River Valley, prior to moving there in September of 1999.

George picked me up at the depot. And I spent a pleasant three days and two nights with him and his wife Dorris in Vine Grove. Our first stop was the tobacco barn where he had the IT’S A WONDER in storage. He also had the DUKIE and the WHO CARES on the property. It was indeed a thrill to sit in the cockpit of the old WONDER. I felt the same as a Civil War buff who had found the MONITOR and the MERRIMAC.

It was at the wheel of IT'S A WONDER (under its original name of HERMES IV) that Davis had posted his best-ever finish in a high-profile race--a third-place in the 725 Class event at the Detroit Gold Cup Regatta in 1939.

Many years later, following the death of George Davis in 1979, a man named Jeff Magnuson restored IT'S A WONDER to running condition. In 1996, Jeff accorded me the privilege of going for a ride in the WONDER on the Detroit River. The experience was as memorable as my ride in the restored SLO-MO-SHUN V with Ken Muscatel on Lake Chelan in 1994.

The night before I headed home to Seattle in 1971, I conducted an extensive tape-recorded interview with George, perhaps the most in-depth that anyone had ever done on his career. The quotes that he gave me, I’ve used dozens of times in articles that I’ve written over the years, including one entitled GEORGE “IT’S A WONDER” DAVIS that I did for the December 1971 issue of RACE BOAT & INDUSTRY NEWS.

The journey home was a test of endurance. I had accumulated so many souvenirs in the course of my trip that my suitcase was filled to overflowing and had literally burst. I was obsessed that someone would try to rip me off. So I kept the suitcase on the seat next to me the whole time and forced myself to stay awake for three days. (My previous record on a bus had been a 19-hour journey down to the Sacramento Cup in 1967.)

I reached home totally “zonked.” My Mother and Dad met me at the bus depot. I had never known such exhaustion.

And I was quite broke, but also quite rich--rich from the incredible experiences that I had enjoyed while attending the races in Detroit and Madison and in interviewing George Davis.

In all, it had been the greatest adventure of my life.

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