(July 2021) – When the Madison Regatta fans head down to the Ohio River over the July 2-4 Gold Cup race weekend, they will likely be eager to take part in the 50th anniversary celebration of the 1971 Gold Cup race, won by the late Jim McCormick in the yellow-and-brown hometown boat, Miss Madison. The improbably victory by McCormick over the other better financed and more powerful race teams was so significant that they made a movie about it. “Madison” was released into theaters in 2005.
But perhaps no one will be more excited about the 50th celebration than McCormick’s own grandson, Jak McCormick.
The 34-year-old from Owensboro, Ky., actually moved to Madison, Ind., last September. That decision was influenced by a chance meeting in 2019 with then-Regatta Committee President Matt True during the induction ceremony of his famous grandfather in the Kentucky Motorsports Hall of Fame in Central City, Ky. True urged McCormick to move to Madison and join the Regatta Committee – not just as a board member but rather as its vice president. The offer was surprising, considering he had no experience with the event.
Photo by Don Ward
Jak McCormick says he has been warmly welcomed in Madison, Ind. He serves as vice president of this year's Madison Regatta. He is posed here with his famous grandfather's helmet and a photo.
But since his mother, Kim McCormick, and grandmother, Bonnie McCormick, had died a few years ago, that made Jak’s decision to leave Owensboro easier.
Since his move to Madison, McCormick has taken a job at All Phase Electrical Supply in Seymour, Ind., and joined the No. 3 Madison Volunteer Fire Department. He says joining the department is his way of giving back to Madison.
“Madison has given a lot to me, so I want to give back.”
McCormick said he was practically raised by his grandparents. He spent much of his childhood with them because he had an estranged relationship with his mother and uncle, Mike McCormick, while growing up. He joined the U.S Army while still a junior in high school. After basic training, he returned to finish his senior year, then shipped out to begin a four-year term working as a military police officer in the army.
After returning to Owensboro, McCormick held a variety of jobs – working with autistic children at a middle school, delivering beer and working for an electrical parts distribution company. Meantime, he spent his weekends traveling to Kentucky Drag Boat Racing events to work as a diver on the rescue team. He also took lessons to earn a pilot’s license – like his grandfather.
“Bonnie used to say that I’m just like him,” McCormick says proudly. “He taught me everything. He took me canoeing all the time. He taught me to swim. He took me up in his airplane. He took me everywhere – to museums and amusement parks. He used to come home and sit in his chair with his apricot brandy and play chess with me. He was like a father to me.”
He never knew the good-looking looking, soft-spoken sports hero who risked his life piloting open cockpit Unlimited race boats and then posed for photos afterward wearing his Wayfarer-style black sunglasses with a “WD-40 girls” on each arm.
In 1999, a film company came to Madison to make the movie “Madison” about Jim McCormick’s Cinderella victory in the 1971 Gold Cup. Although much of the movie was fictionalized for dramatic effect, the basic tenet of the racing part was true. Jim McCormick died in 1995, so he never saw the movie, but he had previously given his blessing to a movie being made about it. Bonnie McCormick and her son, Mike, and grandson, Jak, stayed in Madison during parts of the filming. “I was just a 12-year-old kid riding my bicycle up and down Vaughn Drive while they made the movie. I didn’t think anything about it at the time,” Jak said.
When the movie finally premiered in 2005, Jak said he and his uncle Mike took Mike’s limited race boat down to display it in front of a theater in Owensboro. “Hardly anybody showed up. It just shows you how unimportant my grandfather was in Owensboro compared to Madison.”
Miss Madison Unlimited hydroplane driver Jim McCormick was a popular figure during his racing days.
But to Jak McCormick, “Gentleman Jim” was simply his loving grandfather – not the famous Unlimited hydroplane driver who had competed in 70 Unlimited races over his career from 1966-1977 and placed in the top three in 19 of them. Jak wasn’t event born in 1971 when his grandfather crossed the finish line in Madison ahead of the Miss Budweiser, Atlas Van Lines and Pay ‘N Pak to win the Gold Cup in front of the hometown crowd.
Jak is now getting some of the same treatment. Ever since arriving in Madison, he has been elevated to star status by many in the community – especially those who remember that historic day on the banks of the Ohio. At the upcoming Madison Regatta Gala dinner, set for July 1 at The Livery Stable, McCormick has been invited to speak, along with such dignitaries as former Miss Madison drivers Buddy Byers and Ron Snyder, to name a few.
“I only knew him as my grandfather. But everywhere I go, when people find out who I am, they want to know all about my grandfather, the boat racer. They knew him in a different way than I did. That all happened before I was even born.”
But that hasn’t stopped the glorifying of a blood relative to one of the most famous sports heroes ever to perform in Madison. “I have been called several nicknames here, and it’s all in good fun. I’ve been called Gentleman Jak, Little Jim. Little Jimmy. But the best one is when a guy down at Shipley’s found out who I was and he said, ‘Sh#t, son, you’re the Prince of Madison!’ I liked that one,” McCormick said laughing.
Over the years, the younger McCormick said he has tried to learn from others and from newspaper clippings and stories all he can about his famous grandfather. He owns and cherishes some memorabilia, such as Jim McCormick’s yellow race helmet, many photos and a 1964 race rule book. “I’m always looking to buy more, but it’s hard to find.”
He has spent a lot of time with members of the Madison-based 5-to-the-5 Vintage Hydro club, and especially co-founder Dave Johnson, who has a large collection of race memorabilia, including vintage race boats and one that he still drives at the annual Madison Vintage Thunder event. McCormick said he is glad to see the Regatta Committee and 5-to-the-5 Vintage Hydro group working together to help each other. Two vintage race boats will be on display at this year’s Regatta to help promote the September Vintage Thunder event.
Johnson said he knew Jak’s mother, Kim, “and I remember when he was born,” Johnson said. “It’s great to see him come back here and he’s doing a great job of getting to know the community and get involved with boat racing. It’s good for the community and good publicity for the Regatta.”
Johnson said McCormick has helped out working on the vintage boats, adding, “He’s learning quickly. And it’s great that he’s wanting to know all he can about his grandfather as a racer.”
Although he has never raced a boat or watched his grandfather compete in what is considered one of the most dangerous sports, Jak McCormick has been forced into the limelight to carry on his family’s legacy in the Unlimited hydroplane community. He seems to relish the challenge, and his decision to move the Madison and get involved in the community and the sport just shows that his dedication is genuine.
n Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at info@RoundAbout.bz.
• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at info@RoundAbout.bz.
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