Hydro Hysteria

Hydroplane group close to establishing
a museum in Madison, Ind.

They plan to launch a fundraising campaign
after September's 'Vintage Thunder' event

(September 2021) – A year ago, the 5-to-the-5 Vintage Hydros group in Madison, Ind., was preparing for its fifth annual Madison Vintage Thunder exhibition weekend, featuring 30-40 vintage hydroplanes roaring up and down the Ohio River. But group members also were working to establish a more formidable entity by obtaining their own 501c3 nonprofit status, which would allow them to fundraise and apply for grants. Their goal: to establish a vintage hydroplane race boat museum in Madison.
That may sound like a dream to some people. But to these vintage hydroplane racing enthusiasts, it is more and more becoming an achievable goal. And it makes sense to them that Madison, with its long history of the Madison Regatta and hydroplane racing dating back 60 years, is the perfect place to establish such a museum to exhibit memorabilia, and to explore and preserve the history of the sport.

September 2021 cover

September 2021 Cover

Since that time, the group has indeed obtained its nonprofit status under their new organization’s name, the National Boat Racing Heritage Center. And after this year’s Madison Vintage Thunder event on Sept. 18-19, the group plans to launch a major capital campaign to raise the money necessary to establish a museum. In fact, they are ready to begin negotiating an arrangement to gain access to an existing building in downtown Madison. They do not want to divulge the location before negotiations are complete. But they believe this downtown location would serve as the perfect venue for entertaining tourists and hydroplane enthusiasts from around the country.
Paul Nicholson, 62, president of the newly formed National Boat Racing Heritage Center, said that 25 percent of all money raised will be put into an endowment “so it gets set aside for the long-term health of this project. So eventually, we’ll build up an endowment that is can sustain this museum project.” He said the museum would probably operate on donations and not an admission charge, and that the group hopes to have it open by spring 2022.

Paige Taff

Photo by Don Ward

Paige Taff of Madison, Ind., poses with his hydro "Madame G," named after his wife, Rytha Geyman. He plans to run it at Madison Vintage Thunder.

“Ever since last year when we announced our plans to establish a hydroplane race boat museum, people came out of the woodwork offering boxes of memorabilia their families had collected over the years. This goes back to the ’50s and ’60s,” he said.
“When we had one of the old boats set up down at the Regatta this year, people started bringing up boxes of stuff they had collected and were wanting to give it to us. They said, ‘I didn’t know what to do with this. I didn’t want to throw it away. It’s just been sitting there for years.’ And that happens every week. They track one of us down.”
Nicholson said the group has been very busy in the last year. “We’ve focused more away from just doing the event to really pushing to get the museum. We got approval for our 501c3 on March 9, and ever since then, things have been full steam ahead. We never even had our own bank account before. It all had to go to Historic Hoosier Hills. But now we’ve got our own federal I.D. number, and it’s all good.”
Prior to obtaining its own nonprofit status, the group operated under the auspices of the nonprofit Historic Hoosier Hills in Versailles, Ind.

Small board, big goals

Nicholson, who for the past nine years has operated the Rockin’ Thunder River Tours in Madison with his wife and business partner, Janet Harding, leads the five-member board that essentially comprises the organization. The others are Michael Fine, vice president of fundraising; Jeff Ayler, vice president of operations and curator; LeTiscia Wilson, treasurer; and Donna Denning, secretary.

Paul Nicholson


Fine will head up the fundraising for the museum because of his business background. He recently sold his insulation business in Indianapolis to move to Madison, where he and his wife, Deb, own Cocoa Safari Chocolates and Hertz Shoe Store, both on Main Street.
Fine said the group is operating on a budget of about $84,000 this year, but he hopes to increase that to $140,000 next year. “I think that amount will be enough to get us where we want to be by next year. We are taking small steps, and we want to raise enough money to afford creating professional displays in the museum and open it by next spring,” he said. “Plus, we have had some local businesses express interest in helping us financially for the museum because they realize what could do for Madison.”
Fine said the project will be another way to promote Madison. They also hope to include an educational aspect for youth about the world of hydroplane racing and engineering. “The whole thing is about Madison,” Fine said. “It’s not about any one of us. We want Madison to prosper from this.”
Nicholson said the idea for the Heritage Center is to provide a place to continue to collect artifacts and display them for public viewing. “The sport is aging, and there are lots of people out there with all this stuff that they want to give to us for display in hopes of keeping the memories of the sport alive. We already have a lot of things, and we are running out of space to store it.”

Michael Fine


Madison, Ind., resident Dave Johnson, who co-founded and served on the board of the 5-to-the-5 Vintage Hydroplane group that preceded the current one, owns a shop full of artifacts and boat hulls. He is currently repairing his vintage hydro “Miss Jean,” named after his late wife, to run it at the September event. He recently stepped off the board but has been an integral part of the group’s beginnings.
Nicholson said the group could have up to four Unlimited race boats to display when they are ready to open. But he cautioned, “This project is not just about Unlimiteds. It’s about all kinds of boats – steamboats, inboards, outboards, you name it.”

Keeping the story alive

In fact, over the past year, the group has been the recipient of two large vintage boats to display at their future museum. The group last winter came into possession of the vintage U-00 Pay ’n Pak’s Lil Buzzard.” This was the second of four Pride of Pay ‘n Pak hulls during team owner Dave Heerensperger’s hydroplane racing career.

Photo provided

Tommy Fults is pictured above in 1972 in the cockpit of the "Lol Buzzard" hydroplane at a race in Detroit. He was killed in the boat at the end of that race season.

It was a conventional Staudacher hull that competed in the 1969 San Diego Gold Cup, replacing the first outrigger “Pride.” While the team was constructing a new hull for 1970, the Staudacher hull underwent a significant overhaul. David Smith applied his unique design talent to the cowling and tail of the boat, including a truncated headrest.
The boat was renamed “Pay ‘N Pak’s Lil Buzzard” and was intended to be a backup to the new automotive cabover boat. As it turned out, the automotive boat was not as competitive as hoped, so during the season, primary driver Tommy Fults switched to the U-00 Lil Buzzard, winning the 1970 Atomic Cup at Tri-Cities, Wash., to earn his second career victory. Unfortunately, Fults was killed during qualifying for the Gold Cup in San Diego later that season when he was thrown from the boat during qualifying. The Lil Buzzard was scrapped following the accident.
In 1999, the boat, then owned by Jon Freeman of upstate New York, was painted to portray the Atlas Van Lines in the movie “Madison.” After filming, the boat sat for years and fell in disrepair. In December 2019, Freeman donated the boat to the Madison group. Freeman also donated a V-12 Allison engine, gearbox and trailer.
The Heritage Center group plans to fully restore the boat, but it is not certain whether it will ever be back in the water. “We were debating if we are going to take it back to race condition or display condition,” Nicholson said.
The boat was displayed on the riverfront at the recent Madison Regatta and attracted many spectators. “First of all, they got excited because the boat was in the movie ‘Madison.’ And then to hear the story of Tommy Fults and how he was killed in that boat made some people break down into tears. It was a real emotional story for them. People gave us donations to restore that boat. And it was much more of an emotional draw than I would have guessed.
“He won the Atomic Cup, and we’re trying to locate that trophy somewhere out west. We’d like to bring it back here and display it. And if we can’t do it, then we’re going to have a replica made of that trophy. We want to restore the boat as a way of preserving the memory of Tommy Fults.”
As part of its fundraising effort next year, the group plans to hold a dinner and auction every July 19 – the date of Fults’ death – to raise money for the museum.

Atlas Van Lines replica

Photo by Don Ward

The Pay 'n Pak "Lil Buzzard" hydroplane was painted to look like the Atlas Van Lines during the 1999 filming of the movie "Madison." It has been donated to the National Boat Racing Heritage Center in Madison.

A second boat was offered to the group this past June when George Compton of Kent, Wash., donated his U-62 Miss Thriftway Too vintage hydro to the future museum. The 1958-era hull is currently in Kent, Wash., and a trailer is being constructed to transport it to Madison. It needs restoration work and is now about 95 percent complete, with no deck, Nicholson said.
“This boat was way ahead of its time,” he said. “It was one of the first boats with cab forward (of the engine). The only thing it doesn’t have on it right now is the deck. It’s such an unusual boat that I don’t think we’ll ever put it in the water. I think what we will probably do is restore half of the deck and leave the other half exposed (for display purposes) so people can see how it is constructed.”
In 2019, the group was offered the chance to purchase the original Miss Madison race boat that won the famed 1971 Gold Cup. But the price of $150,000 was too steep for the organization. Boat owner Randy Mueller is currently restoring the previously dilapidated boat at the Hydroplane & Race Boat Museum in Kent, Wash.
Asked if there is a chance the famed Miss Madison hull would ever return to its hometown, Nicholson replied, “It’s always in the back of our minds. And I think it’s always going to be about money. That would be the quintessential thing to have back here in Madison. But it’s a matter of coming up with the money to do it.”
Reached in Washington state, Mueller said of his project, “I suspect we can complete the restoration in four to five more years, at which point she needs to re-appear back on the water. If there was a viable group in Madison that could afford to purchase her, that would be the best home. Barring that, she will be based out of our museum here in Kent. Another possibility would be to rotate her between here and Madison, provided a suitable museum facility was available.”

‘Madame G’ to be on display in the museum

Madison resident Paige Taff owns another boat destined for the future museum. He owns two small Y-Class vintage hydroplanes, one that he runs and another that he is restoring to offer to the museum. Both are named “Madame G,” after his wife, Rytha Geyman, who taught high school French and was called “Madame G” by her students. The two boats are powered by 1974-era, 4-cyclinder, 2,000-cubic-inch engines that can reach 80-100 mph.
“I bought my first race boat 21 years ago after I found out they were affordable,” said Taff, 73, who is retired from managing homes for people with special needs. Taff said he used to race remote-controlled race boats before buying his first vintage hydro. “Wayne Dunlap was the first in the area to buy a boat, and after that, several of us decided to buy one.”
Taff said all the response he has heard about the museum has been positive. “I believe it is an attainable goal. I think we’ll see it happen.”
Nicholson said the need for a museum is imperative to preserving the sport’s history. “Everyone involved in the boat racing industry is getting so old that if we don’t start bringing younger people into the sport, it’s just going to disappear. And these stories are all just going to disappear. And that’s what we’re worried about and what we want to try to save. We’re just two generations from this stuff just disappearing.”
He said some boat owners out there “have already contacted us and told us that as soon as you have a facility to store stuff, let us know because we can open the faucets, and stuff will flow to you.”
Nicholson grew up in Salem, Ore., not far from the hydroplane racing mecca of Seattle. He said he used to attend the hydroplane races there. “Seattle Seafair was a big deal back in the ’70s and ’80s. I rooted for Miss Madison, and I didn’t even know there was a town of Madison, Ind. And for me to make this big circle in my life and wind up here in the town that boat was named after, I’m coming at it from a fan standpoint.”
Meantime, the group is preparing for its sixth annual Madison Vintage Thunder on Sept. 18-19 on the Ohio River in Madison. The two-day event features up to 30 vintage hydroplanes making exhibition runs on the river and again will offer free admission. Donations will be accepted. There will also be a large display of antique fire trucks at the event, organized by Katrina Falk.
The 5-to-the-5 organization was initially established in 2015 as a nonprofit under the auspices of Historic Hoosier Hills. The term “5-to-the-5” is a hydroplane racing term that means there is five minutes before the five-minute starting gun is fired as the boats scramble for position prior to a race. The group’s name was changed to the National Boat Racing Heritage Center when it obtained its nonprofit status.

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