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Madison Vintage Thunder

Inaugural ‘Vintage Thunder’ set to show off fleet of nostalgic race boats

Purchasing a vintage hydro is not cheap,
local boat owners say

(September 2016) – Anyone who happens to travel down the street where the 5-to-the-5 club members hang out would see a typical American back yard garage scene. They would see a group of friends working hard on their mechanical pride and joy machines, sanding, painting, tuning the engines, rewiring. They are doing everything you would expect men to do on vintage machines.
But one thing is different. These are not 57 Chevys or hot rod Fords. The 5-to-the-5 club members are working on vintage hydroplane racing boats. Most of the 30 club members are owners, and many have raced the older hydroplanes.
One young face stands out in the group of boat lovers. Eighteen-year-old Trey Holt works with the club members while nursing his dream to be a hydroplane racer. He drove a boat in his first event when he was just 16, but the vintage hydroplane events are exhibitions, not races.

Photo by John Sheckler

The 5-to-the-5 Vintage Hydros club which is planning the Vintage Thunder weekend includes (from left) Nick Lobdell, driver; Trey Holt, driver; Rob Holt, boat owner; Paige Taff, owner and driver; and Dave Johnson, owner and driver.

Before working with the club, Holt’s experience with hydroplanes has been watching the Madison Regatta. “I don’t know anything about the old way unless I see a video,” he said.
He will soon have another opportunity to run a vintage hydroplane down the Ohio River when the club plays host to an American Power Boat Association-sanctioned weekend event for vintage boats on the Madison riverfront on Sept. 17-18.
“My most exciting time was running in Detroit because it was my first,” said Holt. “I also liked the event in Rising Sun (Ind.) because I got to drive the big one, a six-liter hydro. I want to start racing in a couple of years, but I have to get the OK from mom and dad.”
Trey’s father, Rob Holt, quickly adds, “And we have to find a boat.”
Event organizer Dave Johnson points out another important issue. “It is the money you really have to find. There are all kinds of web pages with boats for sale. If you are going to drive, you better own a boat.”
It isn’t likely that Holt could join a race team as a second driver or step in for a retiring driver because the majority of race teams are family operations.
“An entry level boat can cost between $5,000 to $10,000,” said vintage boat owner and driver Paige Taff of Madison. “They are making carbon fiber hulls now. If you are lucky, you can find one for $30,000.”
There are lots of boats available at a reasonable price, but the motors need work.
“This is not a money making proposition,” said Johnson.
“We do it for the love of the sport,” added Rob Holt.
Sometimes, boat lovers get lucky.

Photo by John Sheckler

The 5-to-the-5 Vintage Hydros club members roll out one of their race boats at Dave Johnson’s shop in Madison.

“My boat was being thrown away on the streets of New York,” said Johnson. “Another boat we have sat in a field for 30 years. We had to replace the entire side.”
Most of the work done after finding a boat is done by club and family members.
“My son-in-law Chris Burke does most of our painting,” said Johnson. “Nick Lobdell is our electrician.”
“I just showed up one day,” said Lobdell. “I moved back to town five years ago and saw Dave running around working on the boats, and I never left.”
The group jokes that Nick showed up and said, “I’m your new driver.”
“Dave and I do the labor. You could call us the wood butchers,” said Taff. “We do whatever we gotta do.”
Johnson has been working on vintage boats since 1999. He is currently restoring a boat from 1974.
Taff raced from 2001 until 2008, and did vintage boats since then.
All the men developed their love for the boats as youngsters.
“I grew up on Main Street, and when we heard the roar of a boat, we raced down to the river on our bikes,” said Rob Holt.
“I was part owner of a boat before I had a driver’s license,” said Taff.
Johnson got started because his brother-in-law Russ Wiley was a crew member for Miss Madison in 1971.
“So I told him I wanted to do something to help, and he got me started cleaning parts,” he said. “It is just like Trey did here, starting with small jobs, and then he became part of the woodwork.”
The vintage boats are some of the boats that raced between the 1960s and the 1990s. Trey pointed out that one named the Barracuda raced in 1956. Club members speak fondly of the boats they know will be coming to their event. They talk about them as if they are talking about old friends.
“They become old friends; they are part of our lives,” said Johnson. “Some of the boats like Smoke Stack Lightning are famous.”
A lot of the vintage guys have restored these boats from almost nothing. They are much different from the boats at the Madison Regatta. The newer boats have a safety cell with a halo around the driver and seatbelts, and are no longer an open cockpit.
“The open cockpit was reasonable when we were racing,” said Taff.
“The boats now run a lot faster than when we were racing because of the technology,” said Johnson. “They have better hulls, engines, propellers, skid fins, carburetors and manifolds. These boats run in excess of 150 mph. Billy Cousins could do that.”
Even the clocks are different.
“The old saying was “Five minutes to the five minute gun” back in the day when they had a clock start,” said Johnson. “It was a mechanical clock as big as a garage door. During the last minute before the start of the race, the clock would black out until the start. Now it is digital.”
In the 5-to-the-5 event, classes will be set up and run down the river every 20 minutes.
“I am thinking we will have over 30 boats,” said Johnson. “Two are coming from New York. One is the Xanadu – that is the one everybody wants to see. Another is coming from Ottawa, Canada.”
Boats will run in groups five or six abreast from 10 a.m. until noon. Then the Ohio River will open for barge traffic until 1 p.m. The hydroplanes will run again from 1-5 p.m.
“The pits are open from noon until 1 so people can bring their kids down to see the boats,” said Johnson. “We want to be fan friendly. That is why we have free admission.”
The U.S. Coast Guard and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources will hold up river traffic for the event and notify organizers if they need to let someone go through.
“During the Regatta, I have seen three to four barges held up,” said Johnson. “I have even seen the Delta Queen holding.”
The 5-to-the-5 Vintage Hydroplane event is being held in honor of former Miss Madison driver Jon Peddie of Madison and vintage hydro owner and driver Billy Cousins of Trimble County, Ky. Both men died last year. The Indiana Bicentennial torch bearers will also be coming through Madison that Friday evening, and the 5-to-the-5 committee is promoting the vintage boats as part of Madison’s history. In fact the torch is scheduled to take a loop on the Ohio River aboard a vintage hydroplane if the details can be worked out.
The 5-to-the-5 organization is a nonprofit, so donations are tax deductible. Admission is free to fans, but donations will be accepted during the weekend event.

• For more information, visit: www.5tothe5.com.

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