1999 Madison Regatta

Still (Regatta) crazy after all these years

Since hanging up his helmet in 1984,
Denny Jackson has played a key role
in planning Madison’s annual event

"It’s just something that gets in your blood,
after having grown up with it all these years."
– Denny Jackson

By Don Ward

(June 1999) – To a kid growing up in this part of the Ohio River Valley, the mighty roar of engines and powerful sprays of water that kicked up behind the unlimited hydroplanes in the annual Madison Regatta was a fascinating sight to behold.
Denny Jackson of Milton, Ky., was one such youth who, at age 8, got hooked on the sport and, 38 years later, still can’t get it out of his blood.

Denny Jackson

Photos by Don Ward

1999 Madison Regatta President Denny
Jackson poses at his Milton, Ky., home
with a Madison Courier 1971 Regatta
Gold Cup souvenir edition, which
featured a story on him as an
18-year-old rabid Regatta race
fan. At 46, Jackson still hasn’t lost
his enthusiasm for the event.

His parents, Aubrey and Julie Jackson, used to take him down to Moffett’s Cemetery on the Milton hilltop so he could watch the race. He’d climb trees to get a better look.
When he got a little older, he talked his parents into taking him down to the riverbank to watch the races. “He’d sit there in the sun and watch the races all day long,” recalled his mother.
In 1971, the year of the historic Gold Cup race in Madison, Denny was featured in the local newspaper as one of the area’s biggest Regatta fans. The photo that appeared in the 1971 Regatta Souvenir Edition shows a long-haired, 18-year-old Denny Jackson posing with his Madison Regatta memorabilia and scrapbook.
As soon as he was old enough, Jackson joined the all-volunteer Madison Regatta committee. That was in 1972.
“My first job was to paint buoy flaps,” said Jackson, now 46. “And in 1989, when I became president of the Regatta for the first time, painting buoy flaps didn’t sound like such a bad job.”
In his 20s, much to the dismay of his mother, Jackson bought a 280-class (today’s 5-litre) boat from driver Ron Snyder and began racing himself. “I always wanted to race boats,” he said. “It was the biggest dream I ever had.”
The decision didn’t please his mother, however. “I told him I wish he would wait until I’m dead and gone to do that. But he said he couldn’t wait that long, so off he went.”
Nevertheless, she always wound up joining other family members down at the riverbank to watch her son race.
Jackson spent the next nine years racing his boat, “Ride On,” and nearly went broke doing it. He and his wife, Fritzi, took out loans and maxed out credit cards to keep Denny racing. He would run between his job at the Madison Kroger store and the riverbank to qualify and race his boat.
“When you race boats, you’ll do anything to keep it going,” Jackson said.
His obsession with racing was incurable. The night the couple brought home from the hospital their first of three children, Denny left for a race in Dayton, Ohio.
“That didn’t go over too well with our families,” Fritzi remembered. “But back then, there was no stopping him. Denny was definitely hooked.

Denny & Fritzi Jackson

Photos by Don Ward

Denny Jackson and his wife, Fritzi, pose
in their garage, which is plastered
with Regatta race posters.

“But I was always proud of him. He really tried hard, and he loved it.”
During all those years of racing, Jackson only had one close call. In 1976 at a race in Kankakee, Ill., another boat ran over his sponson. Jackson’s boat began taking on water, and he had to struggle to get it to shore. He got out of the boat and collapsed. He was taken to a hospital for observation but suffered no serious injuries.
Then in 1984 while at a race in Cincinnati, Jackson let his friend, Mike Gross, try to qualify in the “Ride On.” Gross slammed into some rough water that destroyed the vessel. Jackson brought his boat home in pieces.
Nearly $15,000 in debt, and with the expense of the sport rising, Jackson gave up his passion for good.
“If I had it to do over again with the same bills to pay, there’s no way I would touch it,” Jackson said. “I’m more responsible now; back then I was an idiot.”
But don’t be fooled.
Ask Jackson today if he’d be willing to climb back into the seat of a hydroplane, and he’d beat you to the door. In fact, he was among eight applicants who applied in January to drive Miss Madison. Former unlimited hydroplane driver Todd Yarling of Hanover was selected.
Jackson, meanwhile, has been talking to hydroplane driver Mike McCormick – son of the late Jim McCormick – about driving Mike’s new 5-litre Unlimited Light hydroplane for one race next year in Madison. Jim McCormick steered the Miss Madison to victory in the 1971 Gold Cup.
“I’d love to put him in it for a heat as a tribute to my dad,” said Mike McCormick of Owensboro, Ky. “Denny and I have been friends since my dad and I have been racing.”
Fritzi just rolls her eyes at the thought. “We’ve talked about it, and I said I would go along with it. It’s just one race.”
Jackson has already dug through his basement and pulled out his old racing uniform and helmet.
Some might call him crazy. Perhaps a more fitting title would be simply “Mr. Regatta.”
“It’s just something that gets in your blood, after having grown up with it all these years,” he said.
Madison Regatta race announcer Dave Taylor, a high school classmate of Jackson’s, recalls cruising Vaughn Drive in Madison as teenagers and pretending to be Regatta drivers and announcers. “It’s interesting that I became a broadcaster and Denny drove a boat in the Regatta, so in a sense, our dreams came true,” said Taylor, also a past Regatta president.
Jackson never did make it big as a hydroplane racer. He never won a race but finished second and third a few times.

Denny Jackson

Photo provided by Julie Jackson

This photo, taken Aug. 1, 1976, in
Columbus, Ohio, shows Denny Jackson
doing what he loved best – driving
his “Ride On” 280-class hydroplane.
The boat was destroyed in 1984.

But since hanging up his helmet, Jackson has made a name for himself with the volunteers who annually stage the Madison Regatta. Now in his third year as president of the event, Jackson says he enjoys working with the 150-strong Regatta committee to keep the festival planning on schedule. He has served as race chairman five times.
“I enjoy the sport and the camaraderie of the people involved,” Jackson said. “It’s almost like a family.”
Taylor credits Jackson with helping to keep the tradition of the Regatta alive and to bring back 5-litre boat racing, which was absent for several years.
“Denny’s part of the old guard,” Taylor said, “and there’s not many of us left.”
Jackson’s third year as Regatta president nearly made unwanted history. Last year’s race was postponed until Labor Day because of a flood. The forced date change resulted in the lowest turnout in recent Regatta history. And at the beginning of this year, deep in debt, the race had no sponsor.
“I fully expected to be the first Regatta president without a race,” Jackson said. “It was so bleak.”
Then in February, Miss Madison Racing Team Manager Charlie Grooms brokered a deal with Jasper Engines and Transmissions of Jasper, Ind., to back the $330,000 event. The Madison Regatta board has since worked out a five-year plan to pay off its debts and hopes for a successful event this month.
“The biggest challenge is the money,” Jackson said. “This is a small community, unlike other race sites like Seattle, Detroit and San Diego where there are lots of (sponsorship) resources available. We’ve got to beat feet to find every nickel and dime we can to put on this event.”
The Madison Regatta committee receives no money from those fans watching from the Kentucky side of the river. Rather, it raises money through its own tickets and souvenir sales, vender booth rentals and by selling advertising in the race program.
“It’s always a mountainous task each year, but somehow we manage to pull it off,” said Madison Regatta chairman Dan Carter.
Perhaps it is the history of the event that keeps them going. Madison is second only to Detroit in years of hydroplane racing. The first race was held in 1911, with racing on and off over the years until 1950. The Madison Regatta has been held every year since.
But for Denny Jackson, the incentive to continue working for the Madison Regatta each year is clear: Fun, excitement and a chance to mingle with hydroplane drivers.
And the view from the judge’s stand is a heckuva lot better than the one at Moffett’s Cemetery.

Back to July 1999 Articles.



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