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Loyal fans

Johnson brothers give new life
to aging hydroplane race boat

Their ‘labor of love’ was supported
by many in community

By Konnie McCollum
Staff Writer

(September 2008) – When Dave and Joe Johnson were young boys growing up along the Madison, Ind., riverfront, one of the highlights of the year was watching the annual Madison Regatta with their father, Frank, and friends.

Miss Jean, Johnson crew

Photo by Konnie McCollum

Pictured with the newly restored
Miss Jean is (from left) Jim Kelley,
Chris Burke, Joe Johnson, Jan
Johnson, Jean Johnson and Dave
Johnson. The Johnson brothers
finished restoring their vintage
limited hydroplane in time for
racing exhibitions this summer.

The Johnsons weren’t rich; Frank was a factory worker who struggled at times. Despite being poorer than some, Frank managed to show the boys the best time he could, and they absolutely loved it. They wouldn’t have traded those times for anything in the world. It was then that both boys became ardent hydroplane racing fans, and that passion for the sport has not diminished.
Dave, 50, took his love for hydroplane racing a step further than most fans. Years ago, he bought a vintage hydroplane, a 1958, 41-Ford Flathead called “Close Shave.” He painstakingly restored it to near mint condition and ran it for a few years. He later sold that boat to its original owner.
Then he bought his next pride and joy – a 266-class vintage limited hydro and named it the ‘Miss Jean,” in honor of his wife. For the past five years, Dave has worked on that old boat, putting thousands of hours of labor and love into its restoration. But he hasn’t exactly done it alone. Friends, family and hydroplane enthusiasts from the area have enthusiastically helped, providing their time, money and expertise to make the “Miss Jean” a true boat lover’s treasure.
Five years ago, Dave was traveling through New York when he heard about an old vintage hydroplane that was simply rotting away. He went to look at it.
“It wasn’t much to look at, but I immediately jumped on the chance to buy it.”
It was in sad shape when he pulled it into his workshop, but his wife, Jean, recalled that she had complete confidence in his ability to restore the old boat to its former glory. “I knew it was going to be hard,” she said. “But, I also knew that he could do it; that’s just the way he is.”
Within a short amount of time, the restoration project became more than just a repair job. It became a social time, and that workshop became a cozy gathering spot for friends and family. “I simply couldn’t have done this without the support of family and friends,” said Dave. “The volunteers that have showed up to work and plan, and the donations and services people have generously given just simply amaze me.”
Mike Hanson, the crew chief for the Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison has even pitched in his advice. “Mike has showed us tricks with hand tools that we would never have figured out,” said Dave. “He’s been a great help.”

Miss Jean during restoration

Photo by Konnie McCollum

Miss Jean hydro during the
restoration process.

Sometimes, people who show up to help have ended up staying overnight in the garage. Dave has decided to expand the workshop to add a new computer area and bathroom. “Through this entire process, I haven’t found anyone I can’t call a friend,” said Dave.
Dave wanted to express his sincere gratitude to all of the friends that worked on ‘Miss Jean,” including Billy Cousins, whom he called “a true genius,” Jon Peddie, of Peddie’s Body Shop, Shawn and Aaron Auxier, of Auxier Bulk Truck and Transport, his son-in-law Chris Burke, and Bill Cantrell.
Joe Johnson was among those who put in “too many hours to count.” Joe is the American Power Boat Association Vintage Representative for Region 7. He was the race chairman for the Madison Regatta for several years. Joe, 53, is a champion crusader for vintage hydroplanes. When he talks about the vintage boats, his enthusiasm is infectious.
“The vintage class is exploding and has become the fastest growing ABPA (American Power Boat Association) category in recent years,” he said. “More and more people are searching for these old boats and putting lots of money into restoring them; for most it’s simply a labor of love.”
Jim Kelley, an engine builder, is another volunteer who played a vital role in restoring ‘Miss Jean.” Kelley has been friends with the Johnsons for decades. He was one of the friends who would go with them and their father to the race when they were boys. “We’d have our own fleet of these boats if we could,” he said.
The restoration process had to be put on a back burner in 2006 when Jean was seriously injured during the Madison Regatta. A car careened into the crowd of spectators, and Jean was one of the most critically injured. She was flown to University Hospital in Louisville with head and chest injuries after the July 2 accident. She had open fractures to her extremities and was in critical condition on a ventilator. She is recovering, but the process has been long and painful. “We kept going despite the nightmare,” said Dave. “We decided we couldn’t let it get us down.”
This summer, after more than 38 years out of the water, “Miss Jean” ran her first vintage exhibition in Detroit. “We had some issues with timing, but it’s nothing we didn’t expect,” said Dave. “We just have to keep tweaking until we get her right.”
At an August race in Celina, Ohio, the vintage hydroplane made three runs and brought home a trophy. “We had a great time, and things went much better,” said Dave. “We still have to do some adjusting to the steering, but we’re getting there.”
As for the next project, the shell of the 1976 Grand Prix “Olympiad” is sitting in the garage, patiently waiting its turn.

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