2006 Madison Regatta

Abbreviated Madison Race Ends in Tragedy

by Craig Fjarlie

Sometimes, there's a hint that things aren't right. Maybe it's a premonition, or an unsettling dream, or just a weird feeling. Whatever it is, when you try to look objectively at a situation and come away feeling uneasy, it's important to keep your guard up. The 2006 Madison Regatta was one of those events where things were out of step from the start.

Dave Villwock's victory at the wheel of Ellstrom was overshadowed first by a dangerous Ohio River, later by damage to several boats including the hometown entry, and finally by a runaway car that injured nearly a dozen spectators. In fact, his win was so completely overshadowed by other events that the trophy presentation was cancelled.

Testing and Qualifying

There were no time trials, and testing was limited to 90 minutes on Sunday morning. The Ohio River was choked with debris from storms. A strong breeze blew against the current. The water level was so high that only half the normal pit area was usable on Friday. Boats were set flat on their trailers on Vaughn Drive downriver from the pit entrance. Crews worked while officials pondered what to do if the river level stayed up. Fortunately, the river crested and began dropping. Late Friday afternoon the first boats were moved into the pit area. The last boat in was Beacon Plumbing, which arrived around 1 pm Saturday, freshly repaired from damage it sustained at Evansville the week before.

Reports circulated that the course would open for testing late Saturday afternoon. Slings were attached to Ellstrom and Oh Boy! Oberto but it was all for show, keeping the large spectator crowd hopeful that something would happen. Drivers held an autograph session, and officials led pit tours, but no boats went in the water. At the drivers' meeting late Saturday afternoon, boats were assigned to heats based on points earned at Evansville. Heat 1A would feature Ellstrom, driven by Dave Villwock, Formulaboats.com, Mike Weber, and Oberto, Steve David. 1B would have Master Tire, Jimmy King, Mariana Travel Inn, Greg Hopp, and Michigan Mortgage, Ken Muscatel. 1C would include Formulaboats.com II, Mike Allen, Miss Beacon Plumbing, Jean Theoret, and EMCOR, Nate Brown. If rookie Kevin Aylesworth could qualify as a driver Sunday morning, Demaree Automotive Group (AKA Miss Simpatico) would be added to 1C as a trailer.

Sunday testing produced the first clue that 2006 Madison regatta would be filled with problems. The course was supposed to open at 8 am; it finally did at 9:15. The fastest lap in testing was turned by Master Tire at just over 147 mph. Aylesworth ran numerous laps but never broke 130 mph. Hedid break the boat's gearbox, however. Hopp was the last driver to take to the course. As Mariana reached turn 2, a prop blade broke. Hopp stopped immediately, but there was enough damage to take the boat out of the race. The next boat out was EMCOR. Brown was making a second run, looking for better handling and more speed compared to his first ran. He came down the front straightaway at full throttle and the boat looked much improved. Just past the apex of turn 1 there was the tell-tale thump of a broken prop. Owner Kim Gregory could not hide his devastation. Damage to the bottom went from the shaft log to the transom. Another boat was out of the race.

With only seven boats, officials came up with new heat assignments. 1A would have Ellstrom, Formula, and Oberto. 1B would include Master Tire, Beacon Plumbing, Formula II, and Michigan Mortgage.

Heat 1

Oberto took the inside at the start of 1 A. Ellstrom was in the middle, with Formula outside. Ellstrom took the lead in turn 1, but Oberto gave chase up the backstretch.in the very rough water Villwock held David tight on the buoys before sliding out at the exit pin. Weber thought Villwock had encroached on his lane, but Villwock had adequate overlap and there was no call. Ellstrom extended its lead while Formula fell behind.

Master Tire was soaked by Beacon Plumbing as the fleet started up the backstretch before the start of 1B. As King moved out of the way, he was drenched again by Michigan Mortgage. Formula II took the lead at the start and got to turn 1 first. Beacon came close to hooking at the exit buoy. The two were side-by-side up the backstretch and into turn 2. Michigan Mortgage was third, a roostertail back. Master Tire was another roostertail behind, running with a sick engine. In turn one of lap 2, Beacon entered in lane 1 and exited in lane 4, pushing Formula IIout. Officials assessed a monetary fine on Theoret. The two continued their side-by-side battle up the backstretch. Master Tire went dead in the water near the exit buoy of turn 1.

As the leaders entered turn 1 on lap 3, Theoret was again in lane 2. At the exit buoy he was in lane 4, pushing Formula wide. The result was a one-lap penalty on Beacon Plumbing. Formula II was the winner, Michigan Mortgage was second, and Theoret third as a result of the infraction. Following the heat, both Cooper and Schumacher's team called for the drivers' rep.

Heat 2

The river was opened for barge traffic. Officials announced the line-ups for heats 2A and 2B. In 2A, both Formula boats would run with Beacon Plumbing. 2B would have Ellstrom, Master Tire, Oberto, and Michigan Mortgage.

At the start of 2 A, Beacon Plumbing took lane 1, with Formula II in 2, and Formula in 3. Weber ran full throttle through the first turn and led Theoret up the backstretch. Formula II slowed and was off the pace. Formula extended its lead as the field came down to complete lap 1. In turn 1 of lap 2, Theoret slid wide and hit an outside course marker, earning a one lap penalty. The infraction dropped him to third place.

Oberto grabbed the inside atthe start of 2B. Jimmy King, in lane 2, was alitde too eager andjumpedthegun. Suddenly, Oberto spun violently to the left, narrowly missing the official boat anchored inside the course at the starting line. Oberto's right sponson brushed the anchor line. Oberto's rudder was gone and the boat was taking on water. Officials stopped the race. Steve David was unhurt.

Michigan Mortgage took the inside on the restart. Master Tire was in lane 2, Ellstrom outside. Master Tire was first to the turn, but was quickly overhauled by Ellstrom. The two were close up the first backstretch, but in the next turn Ellstrom began to pull away. Michigan Mortgage went dead in the water just past the exit buoy of turn 2, lap 3,1 a victim of gearbox failure.

Final

Following heat 2B, officials announced and heat 3 would be cancelled, and the program would go directly to the final heat. At first, the final was set for 4:50 then it was moved to 5:10. Master Tire and Beacon Plumbing both withdrew from the final, citing hull damage. Muscatel asked for more time, hoping his crew could replace the gearbox. Without Michigan Mortgage, the final would consist of three boats: Ellstrom and the two Formula boats.

Almost exactly an hour before the final was scheduled to start, tragedy struck. A car, driven by an 18-year-old Madison resident, came down Jefferson Street at a high rate of speed, crossed Vaughn Drive, and ran through the crowd, coming to a stop in the river. Spectators jumped into action, helping rescue people from the river and attending to victims. Eleven people, including the driver, were injured; four were airlifted to hospitals in Louisville. By order of the mayor, the final heat was cancelled.

Officials reverted to total points to determine the outcome of the race. Dave Villwock, with 800 points, was declared the winner. Allen was second, with 700, and Weber third, with 625.

Villwock had a low-key celebration of his 50th career win. "There were lots of problems, most unrelated to the race," he said. "I felt a little like a fighter pilot flying through flak, hoping it doesn't hit you. Madison's a great town and a fun place to be, but you know the river's going to be treacherous."

Spectators left the river in stunned silence. Trucks were packed and boats went on tilt. Only the low-pitched hum of cranes broke the stillness. At 7 pm, city officials held apress conference as media from across the region swarmed on the scene. Sam Cole offered condolences on behalf of ABRA.

The premonitions and uneasy feelings were recalled. Events during the 2006 Madison Regatta seemed bizarre, too strange for words. Thoughts and prayers were with the accident victims. The last stragglers left the river bank. It was a sad day in Madison, but the setting sun offered a lingering ray of hope. There would be a new morning, a new day, and eventually a new year with another regatta.

(Unlimited NewsJournal July 2006)