Regatta on the Rebound

Despite obstacles,
Regatta president Davis perseveres

With no title sponsor, staging 2005 race
with Unlimiteds has been challenging

By Don Ward

Nate Davis has had his hands full the past few months trying to put out all the fires that goes with the job of president of Madison Regatta Inc.
Only this year – the first in the new era of Unlimited Racing A.B. (After Budweiser), the fires have been raging.

July 2005 IN Cover

July 2005
IN Edition Cover

What with having no title sponsor for the first time anyone can remember, with a new racing organization that could be considered fledging at best, and with several Unlimited teams unable – or unwilling – to field a team this year, the challenge has been daunting for the 53-year-old Hanover, Ind. resident.
In years past, whenever the Madison Regatta was in financial trouble, the late Bernie Little, would kick in the money needed to have the race. But the Budweiser team is no more. Anheuser-Busch pulled out of the sport entirely at the conclusion of last season, except for its sole sponsorship of the Tri-Cities, Wash., race.
But Davis has persevered, and has received high marks from his peers and community officials in organizing the town’s 55th consecutive Madison Regatta, scheduled for July 1-3.
“Nate Davis has done wonderful, considering all that he has had to deal with, which was probably more than any president in recent years,” said Madison Regatta Race Chairman Joe Johnson.
“Nate Davis has been working real hard at it, and he’s doing a good job,” said Jack Lemm, 78, a long-time Regatta member and two-time former president (1980, 1984). “They just have to cut down on unncessary expenses, and they’re doing that, so I think they’ll be all right this year.”
Davis, who works fulltime as a mechanic at Indiana-Kentucky Electric Corp., was recruited into the organization by Lemm, a retired IKEC supervisor. For most of those years, Davis worked in the Regatta pits and was in charge of setting up the IKEC cranes, which are used to lift the boats into the water for each race.

Waiting his turn for the presidency

Davis, a 1971 Southwestern High School graduate, has been associated with the Madison Regatta for 30 years now. As the first black Regatta president, he had been waiting a long time for this opportunity to lead the organization, only to have his dreams turned to nightmares.

Nate Davis

Photo by Don Ward

Madison Regatta
President Nate Davis has fared well
under pressure, his peers say.

“It was not supposed to be like this,” Davis said of his tenure on the “north side” of Vaughn Drive, meaning he would be working the office and press tent for the first time, as opposed to sweating it out in the pits as race or pit chairman. “I had hopes of having the biggest and best Regatta ever. But I had it taken away from me.”
And it got worse.
Following a tumultuous year on the circuit last year, in which three of the six races pulled out of American Power Boat Assocation sanctioning because of differences with the previous tour owner, Hydro-Prop Inc., the tour literally fell apart. Over the winter offseason, it was uncertain if there would even be an Unlimited racing tour in 2005. But race site owners and boat team owners began meeting and eventually cobbled together a new organization, the American Boat Racing Association, to try and rescue the sport. Its board is made up of representatives from race sites and boat owners, but no one from Madison, which boasts the longest continuous Unlimited hydroplane race site in the country.
It was not until this past February that the ABRA announced its intentions to hold the races, althought without APBA sanctioning, except for the Detroit Gold Cup, where the APBA is headquartered. That meant new race rules, hiring new officials, buying new insurance to cover the liability associated with running the “hot pits” on the riverbank, and worrying over whether the new league could guarantee at least eight boats in Madison to make it a race. And with the limited boats running under the APBA sanctioning, the Regatta committee must also buy separate insurance to satisfy the Detroit organization’s rules. The total runs in the neighborhood of $26,000.
“That’s a lot of money to come up with just for insurance,” Lemm said. “In my day, we bought our insurance directly from the APBA for about $,6,000, and I thought that was high. But everything costs more these days, and the insurance companies’ prices are outrageous.”
The ABRA initially promised the Madison organization help with landing a title sponsor, which normally means a contribution of $30,000 to $50,000 to help fund the $300,000-plus Regatta budget, of which $155,000 is strictly Unlimited prize money (not counting the cost of race officials, trophies, race team appearance money, etc.). But by the time the ABRA was officially formed, it was too late for any help. The all-volunteer Madison Regatta – located in the smallest town on the circuit – was on its own.

Debating the cost of the Unlimiteds

Mayor Al Huntington and wife Connie

Photos by Don Ward

Madison Mayor Al Huntington and
his wife, Connie, ride in the parade.

So instead of Davis putting on the biggest and best race ever, it was about to go down as the year of racing that almost wasn’t. With time running out and still no title sponsor, the Regatta Board of Directors met in late spring and debated whether to even have the expensive Unlimiteds as part of this year’s program. They could simply run the limited and vintage boats and save up to try it again next year.
Davis and Johnson were among the minority of members who initially favored that option for fear of putting the organization too far in the red. The organization still owe’s $19,000 in prior years’ debt, according to the Regatta’s treasurer’s report last fall. And that’s after paying down the debt with $30,000 from last year’s profits. The debt stems from 1998, when the race had to be postponed from July to Labor Day because of high water. The event was a failure at the gate because of competition from other regional events that weekend. The Regatta committee had to mortgage its building that houses the Miss Madison race boat to obtain a bank loan to pay its bills.
Urged on by Miss Madison owner-representative Bob Hughes, Davis and other executive board members were convinced to go ahead with the Unlimited program this year, despite the costs. The board voted unanimously for it, in part in defernce to the city having its own Unlimited and also because of the town’s hopeful response from movie-goers to the hydroplane racing film “Madison,” which saw a limited national release in late April. The movie is currently playing at the Ohio Theatre and will run through Regatta week.
“We hope the movie will help us at the gate; we’ve had a lot of calls because of it,” Davis said. “And it’s hard to not have the Unlimited racing in Madison when you’ve got a boat sitting in town. Even when we’ve had tornadoes and floods, we’ve always had the Unlimiteds.”
To foot the bill for the Unlimiteds, the Regatta committee at an early April meeting decided to increase the price of its three-day admission wristbands by $5 for this year’s race. Advance wristbands rose to $20 prior to June 26 and $25 at the gate.
But Davis is still concerned about paying the bills in the end. The Regatta committee each year reports an annual attendance of 50,000 to 60,000 over three days, but without the additional financial cushion from a title sponsor, they have been telling the public and the media for a month now that they will need more people buying wristbands if they are to make budget this year. Davis estimates the committee needs to sell an additional 6,000 to 10,000 more wristbands over the 25,000 they usually sell.
“We need people showing up at the gate, and we need a little help from Mother Nature with good weather,” Davis said. “The river is in great shape, so we don’t have to worry about that. But if something happens at the race in Evansville (with the crash or loss of an Unlimited boat) and we don’t get eight boats here, it will be bad.”
The ABRA has guaranteed the race site a minimum of eight boats, and if they run short, it is supposed to refund the Regatta $30,000 per boat that it is short, officials said.

Davis has had bad luck

Davis’ road to race day has been plagued with obstacles. It all began last year, when Davis, then general operations manager, accidentally rolled a crane into the Ohio River during setup on Thursday. The crane stalled and the brakes were not set, he said. “It rolled in pretty good. All you could see was the top of the crane booms sticking out of the water,” he recalled. It took two wrecker trucks to pull it out.
Then came the temporary demise of the sport and drawn-out negotiations by owners to revive under the ABRA. For a while, he was a Regatta president without a program. Then came troubles with the ABRA itself, which claimed it had never received the signed contract from the Madison Regatta, whose members insisted they had mailed it. Then the first batch of wristbands arrived with a glaring typo: “Mason Reatta.” They had to be reprinted, thereby setting the ticket sales back at least two weeks. The first of two shipments finally arrived in mid-June, but there were only enough to stock a few locations in town. The rest of the shipment arrived a week later.
What else could go wrong? During an interview for this article, Davis’ cell phone rang. His wife had just totaled their car and was trying to get it to the nearest auto repair shop.
“Some people in town always fuss about the Regatta, but overall, I think the community has rallied behind us,” Davis said. “They want to see this thing work. Anything we can do to keep people involved will make the community grow. People come from all over the region to see the Madison Regatta. It’s what they grew up with; it’s what I grew up with.”
Perhaps one bright spot is the fact the boat race itself will be more interesting this year with the absence of you-know-who. Without the powerful and well-funded Bud boats in the water, the race is really anyone’s to win.”
“I’m excited about our chances this year, and I’m not holding anything back,” said Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison driver Steve David. “No more playing conservative; we’re going for the championship.”

U-16 Miss Elam Plus

Photo Don Ward

With the Miss Budweiser boat out of the picture this year, the U-16 Miss Elam Plus is considered a top contender for the season title. Erick Ellstrom’s race team of Seattle has one of the newest boats in the field.

“This is what we’ve always wanted, right? No more Miss Budweiser standing in our way,” said U-100 driver Greg Hopp the sport’s 1999 Rookie of the Year from Snohomish, Wash. In Madison, he will be sponsored locally by Demaree Automotive Group.
Race rules have changed
The racing rules also have been modified this year at Madison to help bring excitement back into the sport for the fans. The Regatta executive board approved Hughes’ proposal to set the heat schedule immediately after qualifying so race teams can better strategize. Meanwhile, ABRA rules will allow race drivers to jockey for position as they near the starting line, just like in the old days. There will be no assigned lanes, as in recent years, and no tour-imposed fuel restrictions. All the boats will be limited to 4.3 gallons per minute of fuel and run at 110 percent N2, which is an engine performance rating.
Wilbur Heitz, who designed the electronic timer and scoring system for the tour many years ago and served as Madison Regatta president in 1973, has been asked to dig out his 25-year-old blackout clock – the one with the circle that goes from orange to black during the five-minute countdown – and set it up for race day.
It hasn’t been used for racing in about a decade, he said, but it was used in the movie “Madison.”
“It’s in a dozen pieces; it takes a while to set up,” said Heitz, 84, who in his 49th year is considered the oldest continuous Madison Regatta member. He still works in the judge’s stand with his wife, Mary. A retired electrical engineer, he still designs the 38-speaker sound system that lines Vaughn Drive on race day, with the help of his son, Michael.
“We’re returning to the basics of the sport – it’s what we’ve done for years,” said Hughes. “I think it will be great for the fans.” Hughes, who contributes money to the Regatta each year, also is among a handful of boat owners who have contributed $5,000 each to fund Jim Hendrick’s radio broadcast of the entire series this year.
“Jim has done the radio network broadcast for 37 years, and I thought it was important to help him out; otherwise, he wouldn’t have been here this year.”
Hughes said he is optimistic this year’s Regatta will go off fine. As far as next year goes, Hughes said, “I think we’ll get a title sponsor. We’ve got a lot of industry here, and we’ll have more time to work on it.” Hughes also is hoping the series can also return to APBA sanctioning by next year to provide unity in the sport.
The boat teams also have had to deal with rising costs and uncertainty about their sport’s future.
“In the old days, there used to be 14 boat teams in the pits, but like everything else, the costs have gone up,” Heitz said. “Without Budweiser as a sponsor, it’s going to be hard to make up that $45,000.”
In another indication of how expensive the sport has become, Heitz said the Unlimited prize money totaled only $35,000 the year he was president. He worries that a future Regatta without the Unlimiteds will not draw a crowd. “People come to watch the Unlimiteds.”
Meantime, the community has responded to pleas for financial help in a time of crisis, Davis said.
For the first time since the late Justice McCoy was living, the McCoy family in Milton, Ky., has pitched in to help the Regatta this year. Justice McCoy died in 1979 and used to contribute money each year to the Regatta. A few years after he died, the Regatta committee leased some land from the McCoys to rent camping spots. But they found it to be unprofitable, said Kenny McCoy, Justice's son.
Kenny, who operates Riverside Produce, this year has contributed $1,000 to the Regatta. Riverside Produce also is selling Regatta wristbands. The McCoys, Heltons and other families profit from the Regatta by renting campground spaces on their property along the Ohio River and charging admission on race day. But none of that money goes to the Regatta committee.
"This is the first time they have approached us in a long time," Kenny McCoy said. "We tried to help them out all we can. We'll see how it goes and what happens from here on out."
Support has also come from local industries and several small businesses. “We have seen people who normally do not contribute to Regatta step up and buy wristbands, VIP packages or contribute in some way,” Davis said. “You find out who your friends are when it comes to crunch time.”
Davis will likely be back next year working as a volunteer for the Regatta in some capacity. As far as the future of the Madison Regatta, Davis said: “Even if the day comes that we don’t have Unlimiteds, I think there will always be something on the river in Madison on the Fourth of July weekend.

Back to July 2005 Articles.



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