The Madison Regatta, an annual boat race held on the Ohio River in the small river city of Madison, Indiana, had its 67th running in July 2021. It has been run almost every year since 1951, with boat racing in Madison going back decades before that.
The city of Madison has a unique connection with boat racing outside of hosting races; since 1961, the city has owned a race boat. Miss Madison, as the boats are known, has won the Regatta several times over the years. Madison currently has two race boats.
The Regatta is a three-day boat race complete with a music festival. I had a chance to attend both this year. The Roostertail Music Festival is held at a park just outside of downtown Madison at an outdoor concert venue. For the Regatta, the road along the river becomes a spectator area complete with vendors and a concert stage.
People wear shirts that say, “You Gotta Regatta,” and a couple was even married there (it was broadcast over the PA System).
The 2021 Madison Regatta featured two boat racing organizations: Grand Prix America and H1 Unlimited (which Miss Madison competes in). Grand Prix America boats run blown 468-cubic inch Big Block Chevys with around 1,600 horsepower. Most H1 Unlimited boats are powered by Viet Nam War-era turbine helicopter motors with around an astonishing 2,600 horsepower. That’s the kind of horsepower you’d expect to find at a dragstrip.
Both classes of boats have enclosed cockpits. When the Grand Prix America boats are on the water, it sounds like a dragstrip. When the H1 Unlimited Boats are on the water, it sounds like an airport.
Both H1 Unlimited and Grand Prix America boats race in a counter-clockwise oval course on the river. The Grand Prix America Boats run a shorter course, while the course for the H1 Unlimited Boats extends under a nearby bridge that connects Indiana to Kentucky. The course is marked by different color buoys that signify the boundaries of corners and straights.
The event takes place over three days, with qualifying and several races. This year, the drivers and officials had to contend with higher-than-normal water levels. Heavy rain northeast of Madison (where the Ohio River flows from) caused the river to rise.
Before each race, the boats are lowered into the water by crane and placed at the wet pit (set up just for the event.) Then, they’re held to the dock by crew members until it is time to talk off.
When you’re on the water, a standing start isn’t easy. The H1 Unlimited and Grand Prix America boats utilize a unique “rolling” start.
Before the race gets underway, a timer counts down from 5 minutes. Then, the boats do laps around the course until the timer hits zero. After that, the person who crosses the start/finish line first starts the race. Watching the boats go into the first turn together was a rush.
With the “rolling” start, the competitor closest to the start/finish line with the most speed built up has the best start. Timing is everything. In one instance, a competitor misjudged the timer and got too close to the starting line only to have to slow down (and got overtaken.) This kind of start means the competitors can get spread out before the race begins.
Each heat consists of several laps and lasts for a few minutes. In between rounds, a safety boat made passes on the water, looking for logs and other stuff floating down the river that could get in the way of boats.
Between the other competitors, limited visibility from rooster tails, and the wake of other machines, racers have their hands full. Debris proved to be a real threat as one boat had its hull pieced by something floating down the river.
The Final Heat
In the H1 class’s 5-lap final heat, the field of 5 boats saw 3, including Miss HomeStreet “Miss Madison,” neck and neck at the start. At the end of the first turn Miss HomeStreet on the inside and in the lead. The second time into the first turn, only one boat was keeping up with her.
Jimmy Shane held his own, despite a persistent competitor behind him. Lap after lap, he held onto the lead. In the end, it was Jimmy Shane and Miss HomeStreet, a.k.a. Miss Madison, the hometown favorite.
The final H1 Heat
More information and Wrapping Up
The Madison Regatta was a motorsports event unlike any I’ve ever attended. For more information on the Regatta you can visit their official website. You can visit Grand Prix America’s office Facebook page. For more information on the H1 Hydro Series head over to their website. Have you been to the Regatta or know of an event I should go to next? Let me know in the comments!