(July 2018) – Cindy Shirley has done a little bit of everything in the 15 years she has spent working on the Miss Madison racing team. But perhaps her biggest challenge lies ahead in the wake of her being named the first female crew chief in the Unlimited hydroplane sport’s history and the 10th for the HomeStreet Bank-Miss Madison squad.
Miss Madison Inc. President Charlie Grooms and himself a former crew chief made the announcement April 3 – several weeks after the crew first discussed it during the February H1 Unlimiteds’ annual conference in Pasco, Wash. The crew and the Unlimited hydroplane community was still reeling from the unexpected loss of crew chief Dan Hoover, who took his own life the previous week. Hoover also was a close friend and longtime teammate of Miss Madison driver Jimmy Shane.
Shirley, 47, an Oldham County, Ky., High School graduate and Louisville native, steps into her role as the team enters the 2018 season opener at Guntersville, Ala., then comes to Madison, Ind., the following week for the Madison Regatta on July 6-8. It is also an important time for the team because its members are anxiously awaiting the construction of a new race boat at their Seattle area shop. It is scheduled to hit the water in mid-season and being built by brothers Larry and Mike Hanson, both former Miss Madison crew chiefs. She also takes charge of a race team that has won the past four consecutive H1 Unlimited National High Points championships.
Pressure? You bet.
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Oldham County, Ky. native Cindy Shirley has been with the team for 15 years.
“I do feel a lot of pressure because now if we don’t win the championship this year, it’ going to fall on me,” Shirley joked in late June during a telephone interview from her home in Everett, Wash. “They’re going to say, ‘Well, everything was fine before she took over.’ ”
Shirley was making a joke. But there was some sincerity in her voice. And who could blame her? Stepping into that role would be a daunting challenge for anyone – male or female.
She will face her first major challenge at the H1 Unlimited season opener June 22-24 on Alabama’s Guntersville Lake.
Indeed, losing Hoover was a blow to the entire team. But Shirley was already dealing with personal loss, after having lost her mother, Betty, age 77, in April 2017 and then her father, Dave, age 75, just 17 weeks later in August 2017. The couple had been married 50 years. She has been making frequent trips back to Louisville to help her sister, Kim Eldridge, 44, deal with the estate, her parents’ home in Prospect, and other family matters.
“It’s been a tough year,” she said.
Shirley grew up boating with her family on the Ohio River. Dave Shirley had retired from Humana in the mid-1990s and then began working with the race team. He logged thousands of miles driving the Miss Madison display boat around the country in 1996-97, then he stayed on to help out doing various jobs at the race sites.
“I used to ride with my dad to the races and we’d share a hotel room,” Cindy said. “I started crewing with the team during the DeWalt (sponsorship) years. Then I decided to give a shot at working on the team. We had no sponsor at the time, and Eric Bell was acting crew chief.”
Shirley, a University of Kentucky graduate, was working in UK’s student grant office at the time and living in Lexington. She would volunteer to help the race team on race weekends. Bell essentially hired Shirley to continue working with the team around 2001, she said.
From there, she did everything from scheduling to updating the website. She helped out with the safety equipment, the boat battery and working the radio with the driver to help guide him in and out of the pits.
“I’m still doing a lot of those things, but a lot more.”
Shirley had been groomed for her new role last year when Hoover had made her “boat chief,” which essentially put her in charge of the crew. “Dan was an amazing mentor and leader,” Shirley said of the late Hoover, who was only 45 when he died of an apparent suicide. “We all learned so much working side by side with him. He taught me a lot, and I liked what we became as a team.”
Photo courtesy of
Cindy Shirley (right) works on the Miss Madison Unlimited hydroplane race boat with teammate Trey Holt.
As for Shirley’s promotion to crew chief, driver Shane said, “In the past couple of years, Cindy has helped build a strong team that really values camaraderie. I know she will do an outstanding job and lead us to another championship.”
“I’m really looking forward to it, and hopefully we’ll be coming to Madison (for the Madison Regatta July 6-8) on a high note with a win under our belt (at Guntersville).”
Shirley holds similar admiration for Shane. “Jimmy is fantastic. I couldn’t be working with a better person. He’s one of the finest people I’ve ever met. He believes in team spirit and working as a family, and he’s been one of my biggest supporters.”
Shane, 32, has notched five national championships in his six-year Unlimited racing career – the first while driving the U-7 Graham Trucking for Ted Porter. Hoover was a key factor and teammate that year when Shane won his first national title with Porter’s team. It’s also why Shane insisted that the Miss Madison team hire Hoover as crew chief at the beginning of the 2014 season after Larry Hanson resigned.
Since taking over as crew chief, Shirley has begun extensive planning and scheduling for the team. She does most of the organizational work, including travel planning and maintaining open lines of communication between team members. “Some of those things were never really done on our team before,” she said.
And with everyone’s excitement about the progress on the new boat, communication has become even more important, she added. “I’m sending out an email every week about it.”
And she does all of this while holding down her full-time job at the University of Washington-Bothell, where she is the Director of the Office of Research. She moved there in December 2008. Her position involves managing the grants program for faculty and students.
“It’s a stressful job because you are dealing with the futures of faculty and students,” she said. “So I am used to managing stress, and that has helped me when working on the race team.”
Shirley’s stress levels were riding on high on June 1 during the first H1 Unlimited test session of the year. The annual “Spring Training” test session was held on the Columbia River in Tri-Cities, Wash. Shirley for the first time was involved in making quick decisions about changing propellers and other strategic moves over the course of the test session. Grooms, Shane and Matt Sontag, the team’s propeller expert, also are involved in such decisions on race weekends. And the team is being aided this year by the addition of two experienced teammates – Dan Walters and Bryan Pyziak. Walters has logged many years working on various Unlimited race teams, and Pyziak is an expert on engines. Pyziak spent 40 years in the sport then worked as an H1 Unlimited inspector.
“Both are great at strategy,” Shirley said.
In addition to the HomeStreet Bank-Miss Madison, three other race teams participated in the test session – Jones Racing’s U-9 Les Schwab Tires, the U-11 J&D’s and the U-440 Bucket List Racing. Shirley said the team was pleased with the performance of the existing boat, a 2007 hull. But they are eager to start racing their new boat, which is being built from materials of the former Miss Budweiser team. The hull was originally going to be the Budweiser T-7. When Budweiser decided to get out of the sport, it sold its race equipment and Seattle area shop to the HomeStreet Bank-Miss Madison team last year.
Noted boat builder Dale VanWeiringen and former Miss Budweiser crew chief Mark Smith are designing the new boat. Team member Trey Holt is helping the Hansons build the boat at the shop in Tukwila, Wash. They are hoping to have it ready to race at Tri-Cities, Wash., in late July.
“It’s an exciting time for our team, with the new boat almost ready to go,” Shirley said. “But losing Dan has also taken a toll. We have to pull together as a team and get through this. We all miss him greatly.”
Win or lose, the HomeStreet Bank-Miss Madison team enters 2018 with mixed emotions, having lost a key member but also excited about launching a brand new state-of-the-art race boat. Shane, meanwhile, will be looking to keep his winning streak alive.
And the job of holding it all together rests with Cindy Shirley.
• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at: info@RoundAbout.bz.
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