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Tony Steinhardt

For Miss Madison’s Steinhardt,
the story is personal

The boat’s team manager was only 27
when it made history

 

 

(April 2005)

Read previous Don Ward columns!
Don Ward

For thousands of movie-goers, watching Miss Madison ride to its victory in the 1971 Gold Cup race in “Madison” will be their first introduction to the sport of the Unlimited hydroplane racing. Likewise, it will perhaps be the first time they’ve ever heard of “Gentleman” Jim McCormick, who piloted the underfinanced, community owned boat to its Cinderella victory that Fourth of July on the Ohio River.
But for Tony Steinhardt, visions of that historic day continue to play through his mind and soul. The memories have lingered for 34 years.
Now they are about to be displayed in theaters around the country for all the world to see. MGM plans an April 22 limited national release of the movie “Madison.”

1971 Miss Madison Team

Photo courtesy of Tony Steinhardt

Tony Steinhardt (second from left) is pictured in this 1971 photo with Miss Madison teammates (from left) Russell Wiley, Dave Stewart (in back), Jim McCormick and Bobby Humphrey. Teammate Keith Hand is not pictured.

Steinhardt was not only there, he was the team manager for the 1971 crew and served as board chairman of Miss Madison Inc. that season. You’ll see a thin, 27-year-old Steinhardt and team member Dave Stewart hopping onto the nose of the Miss Madison hull to hug and congratulate McCormick during the “ABC Wide World of Sports” actual black-and-white footage that is shown during the credits at the end of the movie.
“That’s a famous shot, you know,” Steinhardt says, pausing as he thumbs through his enormous scrapbook of newspaper articles, photos and memorabilia from 1971. He taps the photo a few times: “See, there’s Jim’s helmet right there on the dashboard. He always took it off and set it there before coming off the boat.”
Some photos show Steinhardt donning his trademark cowboy hat, which he also points out. Another shows the boat’s piston valve cover painted gold, which the team did for inspiration prior to the Gold Cup race. “In the movie, they’re yellow, but they were really painted gold.”
It’s those small details Steinhardt recalls in his story that really illustrates his love for the sport and the team that pulled off a miracle that day in beating the more heavily financed race boats of the day – namely Miss Budweiser and Atlas Van Lines II. Steinhardt loves telling it. And over the past six years, he has had several opportunities to do so with the impending – and hopeful – release of the independent film made about the true-life story of McCormick’s against-all-odds victory.
In April 2002, Steinhardt, in dramatic fashion, told his story to a packed crowd of Madison Area Chamber of Commerce members at its Business Expo luncheon. The event also featured appearances by “Madison” co-scriptwriter Scott Bindley of Indianapolis and actor Frank Knapp of Nashville, Tenn. Bindley’s brother, Bill, co-wrote and directed the film.

Tony Steinhardt, Brent Briscoe

Photo curtesy of Tony Steinhardt

Tony Steinhardt, left, is played by Brent
Briscoe in the movie "Madison."

The movie version bases its account on a strong father-and-son relationship between McCormick and his then 9-year-old son, Mike. But in his presentation, Steinhardt tells another side – that of the determination and hard work he and fellow team members Stewart (a truck dispatcher), Bobby Humphrey (an auto electric serviceman), Keith Hand (a clothing store owner) and Russell Willey (a retired Army sergeant) exerted to get the boat in a position to win. (Steinhardt and Stewart are the only surviving members of the Miss Madison team.)
“Dave Stewart and Bobby Humphrey worked all night on that Allison engine. The whole team put in thousands of hours. It was also a real sacrifice by our wives and families,” said Steinhardt, 60, who served as the movie’s technical adviser.
The 1971 team was aided by fuel injection specialist Harry Volpi of Las Vegas and his top mechanic Everett Adams with what amounted to the secret weapon – a powerful water-alcohol injection system that, upon firing, propelled the Miss Madison ahead of its opponents, giving it the edge it needed.
In the movie, McCormick, in dramatic Hollywood fashion, waits until the final stretch to push the button that launches the boat forward to win the race. In reality, McCormick hit the thruster coming out of the first turn, giving him a commanding lead. When he crossed the finish line six laps later, he had nearly a half a lap on Terry Sterett in Atlas II.
Steinhardt says he doesn’t like discussing comparisons between the real story and the movie version. “Let’s not spoil it for everyone else,” he says, smiling. “It’s a great movie, and we’ll just leave it at that.”
Volpi is played in the movie by veteran actor Bruce Dern. Steinhardt and Humphrey also are portrayed by name, by actors Brent Briscoe and Knapp, respectively. Briscoe is a 43-year-old actor and screenwriter from Moberly, Mo. He was hired through his college relationship with actor Mark Fauser, a St. Louis native. The two met and became friends while attending the University of Missouri. Both graduated in 1984. Fauser, who now lives in Marion, Ind., knew Bindley and was able to land a role in the movie as “Travis,” a somewhat mentally challenged fictional character on the race team. Fauser suggested Briscoe for the part of Steinhardt.
Contacted in Los Angeles by telephone, Briscoe said that because of the obvious physical differences, he did not try to portray Steinhardt realistically. In 1971, Steinhardt was a thin 27-year-old food vending salesman. Today, he owns Steinhardt Heating and Air Conditioning in Hanover, Ind, and has a heftier stature that is more like Briscoe’s. He served in the U.S. Army beginning at age 19 and has compiled 341/2 years of total service in some capacity. Today, he is a retired colonel in the Army National Guard, for which he still volunteers his time to counsel young servicemen.
“Because of the obvious physical differences, we didn’t go down that road. But I spent a lot of time talking to Tony and learning about the team and the sport and what they went through.
“We watched the old ABC Wide World of Sports footage a few times, and I caught that old Army sergeant getting misty-eyed,” Briscoe said of his alter ego. “I really got a sense of how important it was, even to this day. To me, it showed just how much that race meant to people around there, and especially to him.”
“I’m proud of the film and I hope it does well because it’s a great story, and they did a nice job with it,” said Briscoe, who has only seen the rough cut.
With the impending release of the movie, Steinhardt has been busy organizing pre-release activities in town, some of which could generate money for this year’s Madison Regatta. He has also attended several pre-release screenings in various cities.
Briscoe, meanwhile, said he is anxiously looking forward to attending the premiere and celebrating a reunion of the cast and crew, especially his alter ego whom he played on the silver screen. As a memento of their experience together, Steinhardt gave Briscoe his legendary cowboy hat – the same one that Steinhardt is seen wearing in old newspaper clippings and that Briscoe wore while playing him in the movie.
“It’s still got the tag in it and everything,” Briscoe says. “Pretty cool.”

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at: Don@RoundAboutMadison.com.

 

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