John Humes

The John Humes Story Part 1

by Craig Fjarlie

The April issue of the Unlimited NewsJournal, including the following interview with John Humes, was in production when we received word that Humes had passed away. We are pleased to share it with our readers as a fitting tribute to one of the most beloved crew chiefs in unlimited racing.

Humes was on the crew of Miss Madison for more than 20 years. He started washing parts and eventually became crew chief. His organizational skills and vision helped move Miss Madison from an also-ran to a respected entry with a record of consistent, strong finishes. Although he stepped aside as crew chief before the Oberto Company signed on as sponsor, he helped lay the groundwork for the team’s rise to the National Championship. He served on the Board of Directors until his death on April 4, 2012.

John Humes was born in Madison in 1946. He had eight sisters and three brothers. He graduated from Madison Consolidated High School in 1965. It was about the time he graduated from high school that he ventured into the Miss Madison shop one evening while the crew was working on engines. The interview that follows was conducted by Craig Fjarlie at Humes’ home in Madison in July, 2000.

Did you have an interest in mechanical things when you were growing up?

Not really. A mechanical interest like any other kid coming up, you know. You wanted to have your first vehicle and be able to do what you wanted with it, and I was very successful with that. I worked for an auto parts store and got to buy parts 10 percent over cost, so there was an urge for me to buy speed when you can buy parts cheap. Had a good friend that was a decent mechanic so I had a nice ride several times. But other than that, as far as getting involved with the boat, I mean, there was nothing there. I had no expertise or anything. I’m just like any other kid. It’s kind of ironic. The way it happened is we lived two blocks from the ball park where the boat shop was at the time.

The one that was down in the gully?

Yeah, uh huh. So I just happened to venture in there one night after a ball game and they were in there working. I’ve told this story quite a few times. They were in there building motors and it was spring of the year. They were grindin’ banks and at that time, nobody had anything sophisticated it was just hang a drill from the rafters and hone away, you know. So I walked in there. I think it was Dave Stewart who was honin’ banks. I was standing around and he says, “Hey, grab that bottle over there for me, will ya?” And he sprayed a few times and he said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll do the honin’ here and you do the sprayin’.” And that was my initiation to getting started being around the Miss Madison team. Just kind of ventured on. I hit and missed a night here and a night there, nothin’ spectacular, I mean, just a flunky hoppin’ in doing what he could.

And this is about what year, do you think?

That was the year I got out of high school, that would’ve been the spring of ’65. I just kind of hit and missed helping them out. Didn’t do any traveling.

Do you remember some of the first times you went on the road with the boat?

’66 was the first year that I got to do any traveling with them. We did a pretty limited schedule. Guntersville, that was an experience in the early years for me, because segregation was pretty vivid then. We went down and booked into a hotel room and the guy says, “Where’s he staying?” Of course, “He’s with us, he’s on our team.”

Mmmm.

Then we go to breakfast the next morning. “What’s the deal with this guy?” “He’s on our race team.” “Well, he can’t eat here.” “Well, if he can’t eat in here, we don’t eat in here.” This wasn’t only the Madison team, this was all the other race teams. We ate in this one big restaurant down in Guntersville. Guntersville was kind of a small . . . it was ‘bout like Madison, you know, but it was, well . . .

It’s the South.

Yeah. And Phil Cole was instrumental in this deal and I think Phil knew what he was doing. He was a pretty good civic leader ‘round here in Madison, spearheaded a lot of things. He knew what the deal was gonna be and we made a test run and we won. We won. (Humes believes the incident occurred in 1968 – Ed.)

Okay.

I mean, I look back at that. It was the early part of my racing. I had not been anywhere out of Madison, per se. Around your home town you don’t worry, you don’t think about things like that. Really, I didn’t think about it when I went down there.

Until it happened.

Until it happened, and then I said, “Oh, man.” That’s part of being in racing, I guess. But then I look back since then, all the places I’ve been and all the people I’ve met, that’s a thing of the past. I know it still exists, that’s something, it was a milestone. I think back in the early years before I even got involved in racing that Bernie’s chauffeur used to come and stay at houses in our neighborhood and I never thought about it. There was a guy in Detroit named Walker that used to do the clock. I think he was probably starting to get in after the segregation thing started . . .

He’s a black guy?

Yeah, he’s a black guy, real big black guy. He did the clock deal for ‘em. I mean, I never thought about things like that, but that was part of boat racing. I mean, people involved in boat racing that a lot of people probably don’t know about or didn’t think about.

Were you at the ’66 President’s Cup when they had the triple fatality?

No, no . . .

Or Detroit when Chuck Thompson was killed?

Didn’t make any of those. We went to Florida, Tampa, when Bill Brow was killed.

That was ’67.

One of my first years. It’s a long time ago.

Were there some people who were mentors for you when you were getting started?

Well, Dave Stewart taught me a lot. Everybody had an area that they were knowledgeable, that they were good at. He was a person that didn’t want to let go. He wanted to kind of oversee. Well, you can’t do that, you’ve got to trust somebody.

You can’t do it all yourself.

You gotta trust the guy that did the accessory housing, you gotta trust the guy that did the crank, you gotta trust the guy that did the rods, you gotta trust the guy that filed the bearings. Everybody did their part and we made an assembly. That was a good teaching part for me, you know, let somebody help, let somebody do it. As the years went on, different people came in the Miss Madison shop to help as volunteers. It’s too bad it’s not that now, because that took away 90 percent of team camaraderie. People being together, not just it’s a pay check to you, something that you can put together by being men, or women, and make it happen. That’s what we did in the early years. I’ll put that to anybody living now, I think we as Miss Madison, I’ll say from the mid-’70s through the Allison era, we were the best Allison builders in the sport. We had limited equipment and we took limited, marginal equipment and made good motors.

Were you working with the crew in ’71 when they won the Gold Cup? What do you remember about that day?

Well, actually, we had a limited program. There was Dave Stewart, Don McKay, Charlie McCluggage, Ray Hulon, and myself. Don and I kind of drifted away in ’70, ’71. Then Bobby Humphrey came on board. They picked up (Harry) Volpi, you know he was with Harrah’s, he and his other buddy, but they were just kind of in and out a little bit. Don and I weren’t really traveling with them all the time in those two years. That’s why you don’t see any footage of me in anything they did. I mean, I was around but wasn’t working on the team at the time. I wasn’t down in the pits. I was like all the other people, I was up on the street. And it was a good year. If we hadn’t won, it would’ve been like any other year we were in hydroplane racing. But we did win, it was special. That’ll always be something we can claim title to.

You could include winning the Atomic Cup a couple weeks later, too.

Here we were again, running on limited equipment.

What kind of inventory did the team have then?

We had trailer loads of parts when they acquired all the stuff from (Sam) DuPont. They brought trailers in and every time the boat shop moved, they just hooked up the trailers and moved them to another spot. They really never unloaded those trailers. In ’72 I came back into the team and we went into all the trailers we had, took out every part we had, catalogued it, boxed it, cleaned it, good parts, bad parts, and that’s when we realized we had a lot of equipment. Everybody says, well, gosh, we don’t have any motors. Yeah we do, they’re out in the trailers! You know, we didn’t have a big enough shop to put ‘em in.

It was pretty small in those days.

It was the only place they had to work. It wasn’t big enough to get the boat in. They didn’t have a whole lot of space to work on motors. You had to give up one for the other. Work on the boat somewhere else, work on the engines here. So, in ’72 we just started through these trailers and getting all these parts in order. We built motors and started running the turbocharged, fuel injection in ’74.

In ’72 they had the new boat. What was the decision process in getting the new boat?

Well, that was . . .

Were you consulted or . . .

No.

. . . was that strictly the Board?

The Board took care of everything else, we took care of the shop. Back then, you know, if somebody had something that worked, you just copied it. Muncey had something that was working and we were in the mix for a new boat, so they said, “Hey, we’ll get one like Muncey’s.” So they go to Staudacher, Staudacher builds a boat, brings it to Madison, we plumb it, balance it all, I mean, it’s supposed to be put your equipment in and go run it.

Now, Staudacher or Gale?

It was a hand-in-hand deal there. You know, back then there wasn’t a lot of technology to fine-tuning a hydroplane.

They didn’t build ‘em on computers, because they didn’t have computers.

No, no.

Did they just get a bare hull from Gale?

They got the bare hull, it was painted. The only thing we didn’t have to put in was the oil cooler and the tank. You had to run the lines to the coolers, lines to the tanks, things like that. Wire the boat. Other than that it came to us basically ready.

As close to turn key as you could get.

Turn key as you could get, yeah. Here again, we were working outside, this was still down at John Paul park. In the old shop we worked outside. So here we were, trying to balance this thing. That was a trick. You know, like I said, you had to work with what you had.

At the Gold Cup in Detroit that year [June 23, 1972], Charlie Dunn was driving and stuffed the boat.

I’m really not sure.

You didn’t see the wreck?

Didn’t see the wreck. That happened Friday and a lot of the crew were getting ready to leave to go to Detroit and heard it on the radio.

So you were still in Madison.

Yeah, we were still here. Two guys would take the truck. The rest of ‘em would get off work. The two guys would get there and set up. Course, you always picked up people on site to help you. They had enough people up there that they went ahead and had the motor in it and fueled it and went out and ran. We were just in the dark on that, we didn’t know what happened, how he stuffed it or what happened.

The boat was pretty well damaged. They missed the rest of the year, then came back and had the little exhibition race in October [October 22, 1972] with Miss Timex and Lincoln Thrift.

After what happened they stripped the boat out and Gale fixed it again. They did it all in Detroit. Dave went and picked up the boat. They had it all painted. We brought it back to the shop and put it back together for that exhibition. Then . . . you can think back on those things and why did we even continue after that?

They lost a brand new boat. Was there any discussion about bringing out the Gold Cup winner to run, or was that boat too tired?

That boat was really tired, yeah. Even our ’72 boat, when we got rid of it and got the Pak boat, it was probably in better shape than the Gold Cup boat was when we ceased running it. But then, when you venture on up, after we had the Pak boat, and then went to get the new boat in ’88, that Pak boat was tired. We put sponsons and things on that. (Ron) Jones worked on it. But that thing was tired, too.

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[This is the end of part one of our interview with the late John Humes. Part two will appear in next month’s issue of the Unlimited NewsJournal]

[Reprinted from Unlimited NewsJournal, April 2012]