We're racing through history!
By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian
For some unexplained reason, very few books on Unlimited hydroplane racing have ever found their way into print.
SPEEDBOAT KINGS, published in 1939, is probably the best known book that has been written on the sport. It chronicles the Gar Wood era, from the standpoint of Wood's publicist, J. Lee Barrett.
THIS IS HYDROPLANING, by Paul Lowney and JoAnne Bower, first appeared in bookstores in 1959. A terribly written volume, filled with factual errors, THIS IS HYDROPLANING is redeemed only by Bob Carver's stunning photographic contribution.
A number of biographical books have surfaced over the years that summarized the careers of various individuals--Bill Muncey, Donald Campbell, Harold Wilson, Bob Carver, and Guy Lombardo among them.
And then there is the marvelous ROOSTERTAILS '99, published by the UHRA and edited by David Williams, which does for the past 40 years what THIS IS HYDROPLANING should have done for the previous 40 years.
These and other volumes that celebrate the Thunderboat sport all have one thing in common. They are non-fiction and purport to "tell it as it is."
UP ON PLANE, self-published in 1998 by Joe McCormick of Columbus, Indiana, is in a category by itself. It is a novel, a fictional story that takes place against the backdrop of Unlimited hydroplane racing. The book is an example of that curious regional sub-genre, the Indiana sports novel.
To my knowledge, Mr. McCormick (who is no relation to Jim or Mike) is the first author to use Unlimited racing as a major theme in a feature-length work of fiction.
About ten years ago, someone showed me one of those Harlequin-style romance titles, called THUNDERSTRUCK. It supposedly dealt with Unlimiteds. But the boat racing motif in that forgettable opus was essentially a red herring. In truth, the boats were barely mentioned. The insipid storyline--to be as brief as possible--consisted of five percent hydroplanes and ninety-five percent smooching. And the author (whose name I will charitably omit) obviously didn't know a sponsor from a sponson.
Joe McCormick, on the other hand, is clearly a knowledgeable fan of the sport. This shows in his writing. He has rooted his make-believe story in a more or less believable "reality." This element endows UP ON PLANE with a credibility that is no where to be found in THUNDERSTRUCK.
The setting for UP ON PLANE is Madison, Indiana, and McCormick captures the flavor of that wonderful old Ohio River town rather well. Madison is clearly a place that is close to the author's heart.
The lead character is one Drew Christy, a 21-year-old college Junior, who inherits his family's 150-year-old boat building business, which is also the home of the community-owned Unlimited hydroplane, MISS MADISON. He arrives in town a few weeeks before the Madison Regatta.
Young Drew meets family members that he had not previously known, gets "bitten" by the hydro "bug," and becomes a crewmember for the MISS M, which his uncle drives.
I'll confess that, while reading UP ON PLANE, I kept expecting the author to fall into that familiar trap of thinly disguising a real-life event and passing it off as fiction. But Mr. McCormick happily proved me wrong on that score. The Madison Regatta story that he tells in the last few chapters is clearly his own invention. And that's as it should be.
Novels are essentially stories about character development. And UP ON PLANE is no exception. This is McCormick's first novel. But his characters nevertheless ring true by the end of the book in my opinion. For the most part, they come across as believable flesh and blood human beings. And that's quite an accomplishment. A few of the minor characters are a bit too one-dimensional for my tastes. But this a minor quibble.
When young Drew bids Madison and his new friends goodbye at story's end, he is not the same person that we met in chapter one. On the contrary, he has gained some maturity and "come of age." The lessons that Drew has learned during his visit to southern Indiana will serve him in good stead later in life.
Some hydroplane purists may protest that the boat racing action in UP ON PLANE could not quite have happened that way in real life. But it didn't bother me. The story was close enough to the real thing to hold my attention and keep me guessing.
The book is not without its flaws. The typesetting, although readable, is quite amateurish. And the English teacher in me bristles at the lapses in spelling and punctuation. Hopefully, these and other technical errors can be corrected in future editions.
But as someone who enjoys a well-plotted story--and UP ON PLANE is--I was able to just get caught up in the spirit of the narrative.