The Ohio River Races : A Look Back in Time [1991]

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By Fred Farley - APBA Unlimited Historian

In a few weeks, the Unlimited hydroplane contingent will once again set upshop on the banks of the Ohio River in southern Indiana. The boats will do battle on June 30 at Evansville for "Pontiac Thunder On The Ohio" and at Madison on July 7 for the Budweiser Indiana Governor's Cup. The Ohio River is the only venue where the Unlimiteds race at two different locations.

The current series began at Madison in 1950 and at Evansville in 1979. But the two cities were involved in big-time boat racing long before that. The earliest recorded race at Madison occurred in 1911; Evansville staged its first race as early as 1938. During the 1930s, both Madison and Evansville were a part of the old Mississippi Valley Power Boat Association circuit for 725 Cubic Inch Class hydroplanes. The 725s were the MVPBA counterpart of the American Power Boat Association's Gold Cup Class.

After World War II, the 725 Class and the Gold Cup Class combined and changed over to the Unlimited Class. Many of the 725 Class boats were powered by Hispano-Suiza ("Hisso") engines from out of the Spad aircraft. The 725s were a popular regional class in the Mid-West during the 1920s and '30s. There was a considerable fleet of them around the Cincinnati and Louisville area.

Bill Cantrell won three 725 Class races in a row at Madison, starting in 1934, with Big Shot and Why Worry. Marion Cooper and co-driver George Davis took first-place at the inaugural Evansville race in 1938 with Hermes III. Other famous 725 Class Ohio River campaigners included the Warnie, the Mercury, the Miss Cincinnati Jr., the Who Cares, the Miss Fern Creek, the Pin Brain, and the My Buddy.

World War II and gasoline rationing brought the curtain down on racing in the Ohio River Valley and in most other locations. Madison's first race after the war was in 1949, an unsanctioned affair, conducted by the Madison Boat Club (now Madison Regatta, Inc.) and the Ohio Valley Motor Boat Racing Association of Cincinnati. The largest class in attendance was the 225 Cubic Inch Class, where the winner was Marion Cooper's Hornet.

Twelve years later, Cooper would achieve fame as the original driver of the community-owned Miss Madison Unlimited hydroplane. The first APBA-sanctioned event at Madison was in 1950. This was also the first Madison race to be attended by a modern Thunderboat, the My Darling. Owned and driven by Andy Marcy of Springfield, Illinois, My Darling was a home- made step hydroplane, powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin. Marcy won a 15-mile free-for-all race at the 1950 Madison Regatta by defeating a fleet of challengers from the smaller inboard classes.

The Madison Regatta hosted its first National High Points race for Unlimiteds in 1954 and has been a mainstay on the Thunderboat calender ever since.

Evansville, Indiana, climbed on the Unlimited hydroplane bandwagon in 1979. One of the primary movers of the first Evansville race was the late great Bill Muncey. The location was ideal inasmuch as Evansville was the corporate headquarters of Atlas Van Lines, Inc., which sponsored the Muncey racing team in those days. Fittingly enough, the first winner of Evansville's "Thunder On The Ohio" was the Muncey-chauffeured Atlas Van Lines "Blue Blaster." Second-place that year went to Steve Reynolds, driving Miss Circus Circus.

More Unlimited hydroplane regattas have been run on the Ohio River than on any other body of water in North America. The races at Evansville and Madison, usually conducted on consecutive weekends, are always a highlight of the Unlimited hydro season.