(Regatta) crazy after all these years
hanging up his helmet in 1984,
Denny Jackson has played a key role
in planning Madisons annual event
"Its just something that gets in your
after having grown up with it all these years."
(June 1999) To a kid growing up in this part
of the Ohio River Valley, the mighty roar of engines and powerful sprays
of water that kicked up behind the unlimited hydroplanes in the annual
Madison Regatta was a fascinating sight to behold.
Denny Jackson of Milton, Ky., was one such youth who, at age 8, got
hooked on the sport and, 38 years later, still cant get it out
of his blood.
by Don Ward
Madison Regatta President Denny
Jackson poses at his Milton, Ky., home
with a Madison Courier 1971 Regatta
Gold Cup souvenir edition, which
featured a story on him as an
18-year-old rabid Regatta race
fan. At 46, Jackson still hasnt lost
his enthusiasm for the event.
His parents, Aubrey and Julie Jackson, used to take him
down to Moffetts Cemetery on the Milton hilltop so he could watch
the race. Hed climb trees to get a better look.
When he got a little older, he talked his parents into taking him down
to the riverbank to watch the races. Hed sit there in the
sun and watch the races all day long, recalled his mother.
In 1971, the year of the historic Gold Cup race in Madison, Denny was
featured in the local newspaper as one of the areas biggest Regatta
fans. The photo that appeared in the 1971 Regatta Souvenir Edition shows
a long-haired, 18-year-old Denny Jackson posing with his Madison Regatta
memorabilia and scrapbook.
As soon as he was old enough, Jackson joined the all-volunteer Madison
Regatta committee. That was in 1972.
My first job was to paint buoy flaps, said Jackson, now
46. And in 1989, when I became president of the Regatta for the
first time, painting buoy flaps didnt sound like such a bad job.
In his 20s, much to the dismay of his mother, Jackson bought a 280-class
(todays 5-litre) boat from driver Ron Snyder and began racing
himself. I always wanted to race boats, he said. It
was the biggest dream I ever had.
The decision didnt please his mother, however. I told him
I wish he would wait until Im dead and gone to do that. But he
said he couldnt wait that long, so off he went.
Nevertheless, she always wound up joining other family members down
at the riverbank to watch her son race.
Jackson spent the next nine years racing his boat, Ride On,
and nearly went broke doing it. He and his wife, Fritzi, took out loans
and maxed out credit cards to keep Denny racing. He would run between
his job at the Madison Kroger store and the riverbank to qualify and
race his boat.
When you race boats, youll do anything to keep it going,
His obsession with racing was incurable. The night the couple brought
home from the hospital their first of three children, Denny left for
a race in Dayton, Ohio.
That didnt go over too well with our families, Fritzi
remembered. But back then, there was no stopping him. Denny was
by Don Ward
Jackson and his wife, Fritzi, pose
in their garage, which is plastered
with Regatta race posters.
But I was always proud of him. He really tried hard,
and he loved it.
During all those years of racing, Jackson only had one close call. In
1976 at a race in Kankakee, Ill., another boat ran over his sponson.
Jacksons boat began taking on water, and he had to struggle to
get it to shore. He got out of the boat and collapsed. He was taken
to a hospital for observation but suffered no serious injuries.
Then in 1984 while at a race in Cincinnati, Jackson let his friend,
Mike Gross, try to qualify in the Ride On. Gross slammed
into some rough water that destroyed the vessel. Jackson brought his
boat home in pieces.
Nearly $15,000 in debt, and with the expense of the sport rising, Jackson
gave up his passion for good.
If I had it to do over again with the same bills to pay, theres
no way I would touch it, Jackson said. Im more responsible
now; back then I was an idiot.
But dont be fooled.
Ask Jackson today if hed be willing to climb back into the seat
of a hydroplane, and hed beat you to the door. In fact, he was
among eight applicants who applied in January to drive Miss Madison.
Former unlimited hydroplane driver Todd Yarling of Hanover was selected.
Jackson, meanwhile, has been talking to hydroplane driver Mike McCormick
son of the late Jim McCormick about driving Mikes
new 5-litre Unlimited Light hydroplane for one race next year in Madison.
Jim McCormick steered the Miss Madison to victory in the 1971 Gold Cup.
Id love to put him in it for a heat as a tribute to my dad,
said Mike McCormick of Owensboro, Ky. Denny and I have been friends
since my dad and I have been racing.
Fritzi just rolls her eyes at the thought. Weve talked about
it, and I said I would go along with it. Its just one race.
Jackson has already dug through his basement and pulled out his old
racing uniform and helmet.
Some might call him crazy. Perhaps a more fitting title would be simply
Its just something that gets in your blood, after having
grown up with it all these years, he said.
Madison Regatta race announcer Dave Taylor, a high school classmate
of Jacksons, recalls cruising Vaughn Drive in Madison as teenagers
and pretending to be Regatta drivers and announcers. Its
interesting that I became a broadcaster and Denny drove a boat in the
Regatta, so in a sense, our dreams came true, said Taylor, also
a past Regatta president.
Jackson never did make it big as a hydroplane racer. He never won a
race but finished second and third a few times.
provided by Julie Jackson
photo, taken Aug. 1, 1976, in
Columbus, Ohio, shows Denny Jackson
doing what he loved best driving
his Ride On 280-class hydroplane.
The boat was destroyed in 1984.
But since hanging up his helmet, Jackson has made a name
for himself with the volunteers who annually stage the Madison Regatta.
Now in his third year as president of the event, Jackson says he enjoys
working with the 150-strong Regatta committee to keep the festival planning
on schedule. He has served as race chairman five times.
I enjoy the sport and the camaraderie of the people involved,
Jackson said. Its almost like a family.
Taylor credits Jackson with helping to keep the tradition of the Regatta
alive and to bring back 5-litre boat racing, which was absent for several
Dennys part of the old guard, Taylor said, and
theres not many of us left.
Jacksons third year as Regatta president nearly made unwanted
history. Last years race was postponed until Labor Day because
of a flood. The forced date change resulted in the lowest turnout in
recent Regatta history. And at the beginning of this year, deep in debt,
the race had no sponsor.
I fully expected to be the first Regatta president without a race,
Jackson said. It was so bleak.
Then in February, Miss Madison Racing Team Manager Charlie Grooms brokered
a deal with Jasper Engines and Transmissions of Jasper, Ind., to back
the $330,000 event. The Madison Regatta board has since worked out a
five-year plan to pay off its debts and hopes for a successful event
The biggest challenge is the money, Jackson said. This
is a small community, unlike other race sites like Seattle, Detroit
and San Diego where there are lots of (sponsorship) resources available.
Weve got to beat feet to find every nickel and dime we can to
put on this event.
The Madison Regatta committee receives no money from those fans watching
from the Kentucky side of the river. Rather, it raises money through
its own tickets and souvenir sales, vender booth rentals and by selling
advertising in the race program.
Its always a mountainous task each year, but somehow we
manage to pull it off, said Madison Regatta chairman Dan Carter.
Perhaps it is the history of the event that keeps them going. Madison
is second only to Detroit in years of hydroplane racing. The first race
was held in 1911, with racing on and off over the years until 1950.
The Madison Regatta has been held every year since.
But for Denny Jackson, the incentive to continue working for the Madison
Regatta each year is clear: Fun, excitement and a chance to mingle with
And the view from the judges stand is a heckuva lot better than
the one at Moffetts Cemetery.
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