- Associated Press - Thursday, July 3, 2014

MADISON, Ind. (AP) - The odds are so stacked against the Madison Regatta - high water, low water, extreme heat, diminished crowds - yet somehow Indiana’s most extreme sporting event carries on.

Its troubles are numerous. In 1991, a spectator dove into the race course, disappearing beneath the waves, bringing the entire event to an eerie halt while divers searched.

In 2006, a man fell asleep behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Monte Carlo and plowed into fans assembled on the river bank, nearly killing one of them.

In 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers unleashed millions of gallons of water and accompanying debris from the Markland Dam the morning of the regatta’s main event, the Indiana Governor’s Cup race (rarely attended these days by an actual Indiana governor). The debris fouled the boats’ props and took out half the fleet in what surely was one of the great sports anti-climaxes of 2008.


In 2012, the 115-degree heat index kept ticket buyers away in droves.

Last year, the entire competition was canceled due to high water. This year, the regatta’s title sponsor, Lucas Oil Products, did not renew.

But the Madison Regatta’s organizers are experts in the art of resilience.

“Things are looking good for us,” said Bob Hughes, a Madison businessman who for years has underwritten race expenses and also a large part of the expenses of Madison’s community-owned race boat, Miss Madison. (Miss Madison is like the Green Bay Packers of boat racing, though in recent years it has accepted sponsorship money from Seattle-based Oberto Sausage Co., a major player in the beef jerky industry.)

“Long-range weather report is favorable,” Joe Hertz, the regatta’s volunteer marketing manager, told The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/1mL8UJc ). He oversees a total advertising budget of $10,000; all the race organizers are volunteers, as are the ticket takers and everyone but the police.

If you count paddle-wheelers, Madison has hosted boat races since the 1800s. The first hydroplane regatta was in 1929. A hydroplane is a turbine-engine speedboat that, as it accelerates, lifts almost entirely out of the water, reducing drag and leading to speeds up to 200 mph, as well as instability.

Hydroplanes frequently crash spectacularly, but these days, following safety advances, drivers generally avoid serious injury. In the 1960s and ‘70s, many were killed (between 1961 and 1982, 12 drivers died while racing, though none in Madison).

Then as now, Madison is one stop, by far the smallest, on the international H1 Unlimited hydroplane circuit that today includes stops in Detroit, San Diego, Seattle and oil-rich Doha, Qatar.

It sounds rather high-toned, but there is not a lot of money in hydroplane racing. The drivers get paid but have day jobs, too. Miss Madison’s driver, Jimmy Shane, is an engineer at a Kent, Washington-based aerospace company founded by Jeff Bezos. When Shane is in Madison, he boards with a local family, which gets reimbursed by a combination of Bob Hughes and the beef jerky company.

Madison, in southeastern Indiana, is an unusual place, even at a glance. Thanks to a combination of historic preservation and geographic isolation, driving into town feels like driving into 1954, or even 1854. Madison is Indiana’s second-oldest town, built along Indiana’s once main stream, the Ohio River. Two centuries ago, it was a bustling river town. But in the 1960s, the town found itself cut out of the new mainstream, bypassed by the interstate system - the nearest four-laner, I-71, is a 40-minute drive.

But in the mid-1990s, while many Indiana towns saw riverboat casinos as economic salvation and begged for one, Madison voted against even trying for one.

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