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Madison Regatta launches 2009 hydro season this week

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By Dave Taylor

MADISON, Ind. – Major league powerboat racing returns to the Ohio River this weekend with the 59th running of the Indiana Governor’s Cup race. This year for the first time the Madison Regatta serves as the opening event of the international American Boat Racing Association schedule. Later stops in Michigan, Washington, Canada and Indiana will follow, culminating with the Onyx Cup World Championship Race in the Middle East at Doha, Qatar in November.

ABRA is the governing body that administers unlimited hydroplane racing. Unlimited hydroplanes are the fastest competitive craft on water, and capable of attaining straightaway speeds of 200 miles per hour. The boats are powered by government surplus turbine engines used in military helicopters during the Vietnam War, or by World War II-vintage fighter plane engines.

“The first race of the season is always unpredictable,” according to Milton resident Fred Farley. Farley has long been associated with the sport as ABRA Historian and a member of the Madison Regatta, Inc., board of directors. He has written for numerous racing periodicals across the country. A retired teacher, Farley is a walking, talking encyclopedia of all things historical related to powerboat racing.

“You never know what new combinations the (boat) teams have come up with during the off-season,” Farley told The Trimble Banner in a telephone interview last week. “This year there have been some changes in the rules. The fuel flow for the turbine engines has been reduced from 4.3 gallons per minute to 4.1 gallons per minute. What that could mean is that some teams that weren’t as competitive before might now be in the hunt.”

“There is more to running well at 4.1 than just turning down your fuel flow,” Erick Ellstrom told ABRA spokesman Bruce Madej. Ellstrom’s family owns the U-16 Ellstrom Elam Plus, a three-time winner at Madison. “The teams that learn that early on will have an advantage as the season begins,” Ellstrom said.

Some of the racing teams have had an opportunity to test their boats in sessions during the spring, Farley said. Many others, including Madison’s community-owned Oh Boy! Oberto, have not. The Oberto, campaigned by the Miss Madison Racing Team and sponsored by the Oberto Sausage Company, has been prevented from preseason testing by local high water levels and river debris.

“This is going to be a special day, starting the season in Madison, Ind. in front of the owners–the fans–of this hydroplane” Oberto driver Steve David said in an ABRA press release. “It is a privilege to drive for the city and fans of Madison, but to win the first national championship for this team since its inception in 1961 and to start the season in the team’s hometown is going to extra special. To think this city has always rooted for the ‘6’ boat and this year, they will be able to root for the ‘1’ boat.”

In the sport of unlimited hydroplane racing, the number “U-1” is given to the national champion, signifying the team’s standing from the year before.

A week-long festival of events precedes the weekend of racing action. Action on the water begins Friday with testing periods for the hydroplanes from 11 a.m. until noon, and from 1 to 3 p.m. Something new this year is Pole Day qualifying from 3 to 5 p.m., during which a specific time block has been set aside for qualifying.

“All qualifying will take place during that block of time,” Farley said. Spectators on both shores of the riverbank “are guaranteed action during that time period instead of hours and hours of time with nothing happening on the water.”

Qualifying speeds are especially important this year, according to Farley, because of a new starting procedure which will be implemented by ABRA. Instead of pre-heat milling around and battling for lane position on the water, lane assignments will be determined prior to the first set of heats based on qualifying speeds registered on Friday.

The Bill Cantrell Memorial Race Course – named for a former multiple regatta winner, Indy-car driver, movie stunt driver and Madison resident who died in 1996 – will open at 11 a.m. Saturday for another practice session. The first round of heats gets underway after lunch with heat 1-A set for 1:30 p.m., 1-B at 2 p.m. and 1-C at 2:30 p.m. Another testing session will follow from 3 to 3:30 p.m.

Testing will be held for one hour on Sunday morning, beginning at 10:30 a.m. The second round of heats gets underway with heat 2-A at 12:40 p.m. The points accumulated by the hydroplanes during three rounds of preliminary heats will determine the six boats who will vye for the Indiana Governor’s Cup in the championship heat at 4:20 p.m.

Farley says 11 racing teams are expected in Madison for the weekend competition:

The defending national champion from Madison, the U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto (also known as Miss Madison), driven by Steve David;

U-3 Miss Crysler Jeep, of Evansville, Ind., driven by Jimmy King;

Defending Madison race champion, U-5 Formulaboats.com, Decatur, Ind., driven by Jeff Bernard;

U-7 Graham Trucking, also from Decatur, Ind., driven by J. Michael Kelly;

U-16 Ellstrom Elam Plus, Ballard, Wash., driven by Dave Villwock;

U-17 Our Gang Racing, Preston, Wash., driven by Kip Brown;

U-22 ServPro Industries, Reading, Pa., driven by Mike Webster;

U-25 Superior Racing, Seattle, driven by Ken Muscatel;

U-37 Bello’s Pizza, Seattle, driven by Jean Theoret of Canada;

U-48 Miss Lakeridge Paving, Seattle, driven by Brian Perkins;

U-100 Mirageboats.com, Kirkland, Wash., driven by Greg Hopp.

“Last season was very competitive. Any one of four or five boats had a shot at winning,” Farley said. “I see that continuing. There is no one clear favorite and I see that as a positive thing. It should be a very interesting campaign.”

Wristbands for viewing the weekend event from the Madison riverbank are priced at $25. Children under 10 are admitted free. Pit tours are available on Friday and Saturday. Pit tours form at the top of the pit ramp at the foot of West Street.

Anyone presenting a current military ID at the regatta office will be given a wristband good for admission all three days. Family members of military personnel will receive a $5 discount on admission. There will also be a special VIP viewing area for military personnel. Contact the regatta office at 812-265-5000 for more information.