We're racing through history!
By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian
The 1971 Madison Regatta will never be forgotten for as long as men race boats. That, of course, was the year when Jim McCormick guided the community-owned MISS MADISON to victory in the race of races--the APBA Gold Cup--before the hometown crowd.
But as memorable as the 1971 regatta was, no one seems to want to remember the race that followed it in 1972.
In lieu of the Gold Cup, the city of Madison hosted a World's Championship Race, which was sanctioned by the Union of International Motorboating. But while the '71 Gold Cup had gone off like clockwork, the '72 World's Championship had more problems than an arithmetic book.
The Ohio River had experienced some major flooding. The pit area was under water. And there was enough drift floating down the river that one could almost have walked across the Ohio. The race was set for Sunday, July 2. It ended up being run on Tuesday, July 4. And even then, it was nearly canceled.
The flooding was a major concern. Plus, a third of the Unlimited fleet--which included the MISS MADISON--had suffered major equipment damage the previous week at Detroit and weren't available to race at Madison.
The Unlimited Racing Commission's Executive Secretary Phil Cole probably did more than anyone else to insure that the 1972 Madison race happened. He convinced Madison Regatta President Jack Ice that congressional help was needed to bring the river under control so the race could be run.
Cole, a former MADISON COURIER reporter, utilized his contacts in government to close the locks upriver at Markland, Kentucky, and open the locks down river at Louisville. When that was accomplished, the level of the river dropped rather quickly.
Even so, Cole gave the race "about a 30 percent chance" of happening.
That's because only part of the problem was solved. The Kentucky River, which is located between Markland and Madison, was still dumping fresh debris into the Ohio River. The race committee alleviated that difficulty somewhat by sweeping over the course before each heat and picking up the floating garbage.
A faction of the Madison committee wanted to cancel the race and re-schedule for September (shades of 1998!). The late Paul Steinhardt led the pro-September group. But the ruling faction--headed by Jack Ice and Wilbur Heitz--eventually won out.
That was the strangest week that I ever spent at a boat race in my life. My official excuse for being there was as a reporter for RACE BOAT & INDUSTRY NEWS. (I hadn't yet been appointed as Unlimited Historian.) There was the burning question of whether or not there would be a race. And on top of that, I had friends on both sides of the issue of whether or not to go ahead with the July 4 date or postpone until Labor Day. I had a difficult time being objective.
The race fan in me wanted to see the race run on the Fourth. But that river bothered me. I asked Bill Cantrell, who was team manager for the ATLAS VAN LINES that year, "Mr. Cantrell, have you ever driven in water like this?" He answered, "Well, yes I have. But whenever I did, somebody always went over."
Eight boats were in town for the 1972 race. And frankly no one wanted to run because of the hazardous conditions. But Fred Alter, owner and driver of the TOWNE CLUB, argued forcefully, "If we don't run this race this year, there might not ever be another race in Madison." Reluctantly, the teams agreed to give it a try.
But Billy Schumacher, driver of the PRIDE OF PAY 'n PAK and a two-time winner of the Madison race, would have no part of it. "No way am I going to play leapfrog over logs," he declared. PAY 'n PAK owner Dave Heerensperger then prevailed upon retired MISS BUDWEISER pilot Bill Sterett, Sr., to step in as relief driver--even though Sterett hadn't driven in competition since 1969.
Unlimited qualifying and the entire Limited program were scrubbed at the 1972 Madison Regatta. In fact, the boats weren't able to move into the pit area until race day morning.
Madison's characteristically sunny summer weather was no where in evidence. The skies were overcast and the air was chilly on July 4.
Terry Sterett took the MISS BUDWEISER out for a shakedown cruise over the debris-laden course. He didn't like what he saw and described the conditions as marginal at best.
Referee Ken Wright told the drivers in Heat 1-A to go out and give him a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. "If even one of you gives me a thumbs-down, I'll flag all of you all back in and cancel the whole thing. It's up to you." Everyone gave a thumbs-up. So Wright allowed the race to be run.
Nevertheless, nobody wanted to be the first to commit to running in 1-A. The seconds ticked away, and no one made a move to go in the water. The 5-minute gun fired and all of the boats were still sitting on their trailers! Finally, the PRIDE OF PAY 'n PAK crew gave the signal to the crane operator to lower away. Then everyone else followed suit. And the race was on.
Four heats of racing were run that day and no one "went over" as Bill Cantrell had feared. And two of the four heats were barn burners.
Bill Muncey easily won both of his heats (1-B and 2-B) with ATLAS VAN LINES and was declared the overall winner for the Joe Schoenith team.
Terry Sterett in MISS BUDWEISER out distanced Tom Sheehy in GO GALE by one tenth of a second in Heat 1-A.
Bill Sterett in PRIDE OF PAY 'n PAK brought the crowd to its feet with a bravura come-from-behind performance in Heat 2-A. After a late start, Bill worked his way up through the field. He passed first one boat and then another to take the win at a solid 107 miles per hour--the fastest heat of the day.
Heat 2-A also represented a rare Unlimited Class instance where a father and a son raced against each other. When Bill ducked inside of Terry's roostertail and pulled even with his son on the backstretch, the crowd went wild. The PAK and the BUD dueled through the bridge turn together and were side-by-side at the exit buoy. Bill outaccelerated his son and went on for the win, while Terry faded to third behind his Dad and Tom Sheehy.
With all of the bother about rescheduling the race from Sunday to Tuesday, no one remembered that the DELTA QUEEN river boat was to make a scheduled pass by Madison on its way from Louisville to Cincinnati on July 4. As the boats for Heat 2-B were being lowered into the water, around the bend came the DELTA QUEEN, crowded with passengers and with the calliope blasting away.
The unexpected appearance on the race course of the massive sternwheeler lent an air of unreality to the already mixed-up proceedings. The common reaction: "What else can go wrong?"
The DELTA QUEEN tore up one or two course buoys and stirred up the river even more than it already was. But Heat 2-B was still run to its conclusion without incident.
Then a thick fog cover set in over the race area. Visibility was so impaired that spectators on the Madison side of the river couldn't even see the Kentucky shore. At this point, referee Wright announced cancellation of the Final Heat and declared the race a contest on the basis of points scored in the preliminary heats.
ATLAS VAN LINES was first, MISS BUDWEISER second, GO GALE third, MISS TIMEX (with Jim McCormick) fourth, PIZZA PETE (with Bob Gilliam) fifth, PRIDE OF PAY 'n PAK sixth, and TOWNE CLUB seventh, while COUNTRY BOY (with Salt Walther) failed to finish.
Billy Schumacher, together with his wife Cyndee, watched the 1972 Madison race from the shore. Many persons supported Billy's decision not to race that day, including veteran racer George N. Davis of IT'S A WONDER fame. But Schumacher was persona non grata with the PAY 'n PAK team and found himself replaced by Billy Sterett, Jr., at the remaining three races of the season.
As Unlimited Historian, I've been asked many times if I thought Schumacher was justified in walking away from his team at such a crucial moment. That's a tough one. In my view, it's inappropriate for someone such as myself who has never driven in an Unlimited race to point the finger of blame at someone who is one of the sport's most respected champions.
It does bother me that Billy was alone in his refusal to race. A lot of people wrestled with the problem of how to proceed on July 4, 1972, and came to a different conclusion. These included the other drivers, all the owners, the crews, the local committee, the APBA officials, and the Army Corps of Engineers. All decided to make the best of a bad situation and to give it a try. But Schumacher had a difference of opinion, which he had a right to express.
It is well known that Billy and PRIDE OF PAY 'n PAK crew chief Jim Lucero were at odds on how to set up the boat in 1972. PRIDE OF PAY 'n PAK had scored impressive victories at the last three races of 1971. But the '72 season had been an exercise in frustration with Schumacher being trounced in every race by Bill Muncey and ATLAS VAN LINES.
When Bill Sterett took over Schumacher's seat at Madison, he failed to start in Heat 1-A but then really "flew" the boat in Heat 2-A--much to the delight of Lucero.
Where Schumacher and Lucero were concerned, it was a case of an irresistible force against an unmovable object.
On a race team, there can be only one leader. Everyone must pull in the same direction. A team must be unified or there is chaos.
Detroit race official Jack Love lamented the outcome of the 1972 Madison Regatta. He told THE MADISON COURIER's Graham Taylor, "I've never seen so many things go wrong at a single boat race in my life."
When regatta president Jack Ice spoke at the awards banquet the night of the race, he told the assembled owners, drivers, crew members, and race officials, "I said all along that we'd have a boat race come hell or high water. And I've been catching hell ever since we got the high water."