on the Rebound
Regatta president Davis perseveres
no title sponsor, staging 2005 race
with Unlimiteds has been challenging
Nate Davis has had his hands full the past few months
trying to put out all the fires that goes with the job of president
of Madison Regatta Inc.
Only this year the first in the new era of Unlimited Racing
A.B. (After Budweiser), the fires have been raging.
IN Edition Cover
What with having no title sponsor for the first time anyone
can remember, with a new racing organization that could be considered
fledging at best, and with several Unlimited teams unable or
unwilling to field a team this year, the challenge has been daunting
for the 53-year-old Hanover, Ind. resident.
In years past, whenever the Madison Regatta was in financial trouble,
the late Bernie Little, would kick in the money needed to have the race.
But the Budweiser team is no more. Anheuser-Busch pulled out of the
sport entirely at the conclusion of last season, except for its sole
sponsorship of the Tri-Cities, Wash., race.
But Davis has persevered, and has received high marks from his peers
and community officials in organizing the towns 55th consecutive
Madison Regatta, scheduled for July 1-3.
Nate Davis has done wonderful, considering all that he has had
to deal with, which was probably more than any president in recent years,
said Madison Regatta Race Chairman Joe Johnson.
Nate Davis has been working real hard at it, and hes doing
a good job, said Jack Lemm, 78, a long-time Regatta member and
two-time former president (1980, 1984). They just have to cut
down on unncessary expenses, and theyre doing that, so I think
theyll be all right this year.
Davis, who works fulltime as a mechanic at Indiana-Kentucky Electric
Corp., was recruited into the organization by Lemm, a retired IKEC supervisor.
For most of those years, Davis worked in the Regatta pits and was in
charge of setting up the IKEC cranes, which are used to lift the boats
into the water for each race.
his turn for the presidency
Davis, a 1971 Southwestern High School graduate, has been
associated with the Madison Regatta for 30 years now. As the first black
Regatta president, he had been waiting a long time for this opportunity
to lead the organization, only to have his dreams turned to nightmares.
by Don Ward
President Nate Davis has fared well
under pressure, his peers say.
It was not supposed to be like this, Davis
said of his tenure on the north side of Vaughn Drive, meaning
he would be working the office and press tent for the first time, as
opposed to sweating it out in the pits as race or pit chairman. I
had hopes of having the biggest and best Regatta ever. But I had it
taken away from me.
And it got worse.
Following a tumultuous year on the circuit last year, in which three
of the six races pulled out of American Power Boat Assocation sanctioning
because of differences with the previous tour owner, Hydro-Prop Inc.,
the tour literally fell apart. Over the winter offseason, it was uncertain
if there would even be an Unlimited racing tour in 2005. But race site
owners and boat team owners began meeting and eventually cobbled together
a new organization, the American Boat Racing Association, to try and
rescue the sport. Its board is made up of representatives from race
sites and boat owners, but no one from Madison, which boasts the longest
continuous Unlimited hydroplane race site in the country.
It was not until this past February that the ABRA announced its intentions
to hold the races, althought without APBA sanctioning, except for the
Detroit Gold Cup, where the APBA is headquartered. That meant new race
rules, hiring new officials, buying new insurance to cover the liability
associated with running the hot pits on the riverbank, and
worrying over whether the new league could guarantee at least eight
boats in Madison to make it a race. And with the limited boats running
under the APBA sanctioning, the Regatta committee must also buy separate
insurance to satisfy the Detroit organizations rules. The total
runs in the neighborhood of $26,000.
Thats a lot of money to come up with just for insurance,
Lemm said. In my day, we bought our insurance directly from the
APBA for about $,6,000, and I thought that was high. But everything
costs more these days, and the insurance companies prices are
The ABRA initially promised the Madison organization help with landing
a title sponsor, which normally means a contribution of $30,000 to $50,000
to help fund the $300,000-plus Regatta budget, of which $155,000 is
strictly Unlimited prize money (not counting the cost of race officials,
trophies, race team appearance money, etc.). But by the time the ABRA
was officially formed, it was too late for any help. The all-volunteer
Madison Regatta located in the smallest town on the circuit was
on its own.
the cost of the Unlimiteds
by Don Ward
Mayor Al Huntington and
his wife, Connie, ride in the parade.
So instead of Davis putting on the biggest and best race
ever, it was about to go down as the year of racing that almost wasnt.
With time running out and still no title sponsor, the Regatta Board
of Directors met in late spring and debated whether to even have the
expensive Unlimiteds as part of this years program. They could
simply run the limited and vintage boats and save up to try it again
Davis and Johnson were among the minority of members who initially favored
that option for fear of putting the organization too far in the red.
The organization still owes $19,000 in prior years debt,
according to the Regattas treasurers report last fall. And
thats after paying down the debt with $30,000 from last years
profits. The debt stems from 1998, when the race had to be postponed
from July to Labor Day because of high water. The event was a failure
at the gate because of competition from other regional events that weekend.
The Regatta committee had to mortgage its building that houses the Miss
Madison race boat to obtain a bank loan to pay its bills.
Urged on by Miss Madison owner-representative Bob Hughes, Davis and
other executive board members were convinced to go ahead with the Unlimited
program this year, despite the costs. The board voted unanimously for
it, in part in defernce to the city having its own Unlimited and also
because of the towns hopeful response from movie-goers to the
hydroplane racing film Madison, which saw a limited national
release in late April. The movie is currently playing at the Ohio Theatre
and will run through Regatta week.
We hope the movie will help us at the gate; weve had a lot
of calls because of it, Davis said. And its hard to
not have the Unlimited racing in Madison when youve got a boat
sitting in town. Even when weve had tornadoes and floods, weve
always had the Unlimiteds.
To foot the bill for the Unlimiteds, the Regatta committee at an early
April meeting decided to increase the price of its three-day admission
wristbands by $5 for this years race. Advance wristbands rose
to $20 prior to June 26 and $25 at the gate.
But Davis is still concerned about paying the bills in the end. The
Regatta committee each year reports an annual attendance of 50,000 to
60,000 over three days, but without the additional financial cushion
from a title sponsor, they have been telling the public and the media
for a month now that they will need more people buying wristbands if
they are to make budget this year. Davis estimates the committee needs
to sell an additional 6,000 to 10,000 more wristbands over the 25,000
they usually sell.
We need people showing up at the gate, and we need a little help
from Mother Nature with good weather, Davis said. The river
is in great shape, so we dont have to worry about that. But if
something happens at the race in Evansville (with the crash or loss
of an Unlimited boat) and we dont get eight boats here, it will
The ABRA has guaranteed the race site a minimum of eight boats, and
if they run short, it is supposed to refund the Regatta $30,000 per
boat that it is short, officials said.
has had bad luck
Davis road to race day has been plagued with obstacles.
It all began last year, when Davis, then general operations manager,
accidentally rolled a crane into the Ohio River during setup on Thursday.
The crane stalled and the brakes were not set, he said. It rolled
in pretty good. All you could see was the top of the crane booms sticking
out of the water, he recalled. It took two wrecker trucks to pull
Then came the temporary demise of the sport and drawn-out negotiations
by owners to revive under the ABRA. For a while, he was a Regatta president
without a program. Then came troubles with the ABRA itself, which claimed
it had never received the signed contract from the Madison Regatta,
whose members insisted they had mailed it. Then the first batch of wristbands
arrived with a glaring typo: Mason Reatta. They had to be
reprinted, thereby setting the ticket sales back at least two weeks.
The first of two shipments finally arrived in mid-June, but there were
only enough to stock a few locations in town. The rest of the shipment
arrived a week later.
What else could go wrong? During an interview for this article, Davis
cell phone rang. His wife had just totaled their car and was trying
to get it to the nearest auto repair shop.
Some people in town always fuss about the Regatta, but overall,
I think the community has rallied behind us, Davis said. They
want to see this thing work. Anything we can do to keep people involved
will make the community grow. People come from all over the region to
see the Madison Regatta. Its what they grew up with; its
what I grew up with.
Perhaps one bright spot is the fact the boat race itself will be more
interesting this year with the absence of you-know-who. Without the
powerful and well-funded Bud boats in the water, the race is really
anyones to win.
Im excited about our chances this year, and Im not
holding anything back, said Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison driver
Steve David. No more playing conservative; were going for
the Miss Budweiser boat out of the picture this year, the U-16
Miss Elam Plus is considered a top contender for the season title.
Erick Ellstroms race team of Seattle has one of the newest
boats in the field.
This is what weve always wanted, right? No
more Miss Budweiser standing in our way, said U-100 driver Greg
Hopp the sports 1999 Rookie of the Year from Snohomish, Wash.
In Madison, he will be sponsored locally by Demaree Automotive Group.
Race rules have changed
The racing rules also have been modified this year at Madison to help
bring excitement back into the sport for the fans. The Regatta executive
board approved Hughes proposal to set the heat schedule immediately
after qualifying so race teams can better strategize. Meanwhile, ABRA
rules will allow race drivers to jockey for position as they near the
starting line, just like in the old days. There will be no assigned
lanes, as in recent years, and no tour-imposed fuel restrictions. All
the boats will be limited to 4.3 gallons per minute of fuel and run
at 110 percent N2, which is an engine performance rating.
Wilbur Heitz, who designed the electronic timer and scoring system for
the tour many years ago and served as Madison Regatta president in 1973,
has been asked to dig out his 25-year-old blackout clock the
one with the circle that goes from orange to black during the five-minute
countdown and set it up for race day.
It hasnt been used for racing in about a decade, he said, but
it was used in the movie Madison.
Its in a dozen pieces; it takes a while to set up,
said Heitz, 84, who in his 49th year is considered the oldest continuous
Madison Regatta member. He still works in the judges stand with
his wife, Mary. A retired electrical engineer, he still designs the
38-speaker sound system that lines Vaughn Drive on race day, with the
help of his son, Michael.
Were returning to the basics of the sport its
what weve done for years, said Hughes. I think it
will be great for the fans. Hughes, who contributes money to the
Regatta each year, also is among a handful of boat owners who have contributed
$5,000 each to fund Jim Hendricks radio broadcast of the entire
series this year.
Jim has done the radio network broadcast for 37 years, and I thought
it was important to help him out; otherwise, he wouldnt have been
here this year.
Hughes said he is optimistic this years Regatta will go off fine.
As far as next year goes, Hughes said, I think well get
a title sponsor. Weve got a lot of industry here, and well
have more time to work on it. Hughes also is hoping the series
can also return to APBA sanctioning by next year to provide unity in
The boat teams also have had to deal with rising costs and uncertainty
about their sports future.
In the old days, there used to be 14 boat teams in the pits, but
like everything else, the costs have gone up, Heitz said. Without
Budweiser as a sponsor, its going to be hard to make up that $45,000.
In another indication of how expensive the sport has become, Heitz said
the Unlimited prize money totaled only $35,000 the year he was president.
He worries that a future Regatta without the Unlimiteds will not draw
a crowd. People come to watch the Unlimiteds.
Meantime, the community has responded to pleas for financial help in
a time of crisis, Davis said.
For the first time since the late Justice McCoy was living, the McCoy
family in Milton, Ky., has pitched in to help the Regatta this year.
Justice McCoy died in 1979 and used to contribute money each year to
the Regatta. A few years after he died, the Regatta committee leased
some land from the McCoys to rent camping spots. But they found it to
be unprofitable, said Kenny McCoy, Justice's son.
Kenny, who operates Riverside Produce, this year has contributed $1,000
to the Regatta. Riverside Produce also is selling Regatta wristbands.
The McCoys, Heltons and other families profit from the Regatta by renting
campground spaces on their property along the Ohio River and charging
admission on race day. But none of that money goes to the Regatta committee.
"This is the first time they have approached us in a long time,"
Kenny McCoy said. "We tried to help them out all we can. We'll
see how it goes and what happens from here on out."
Support has also come from local industries and several small businesses.
We have seen people who normally do not contribute to Regatta
step up and buy wristbands, VIP packages or contribute in some way,
Davis said. You find out who your friends are when it comes to
Davis will likely be back next year working as a volunteer for the Regatta
in some capacity. As far as the future of the Madison Regatta, Davis
said: Even if the day comes that we dont have Unlimiteds,
I think there will always be something on the river in Madison on the
Fourth of July weekend.
Back to July 2005 Articles.