Gold Cup Memories

Steinhardt, Knoebel recall that special Fourth of July in 1971

Of all the Gold Cup races in Madison,
only one became a movie

(July 2019) – If you have seen the 2001 movie “Madison,” then you can just imagine the hysteria that erupted in the small town of Madison, Ind., on that Fourth of July in 1971 when Miss Madison driver Jim McCormick piloted the underfunded, underdog hometown boat to victory over the well-funded Miss Budweiser, Atlas Van Lines II, Pride of Pay ‘n Pak and Towne Club for the Gold Cup victory. It still ranks as one of the most memorable moments in motorsports history.

Photo by Don Ward

Tony Steinhardt served as Miss Madison team manager during the 1971 season in which driver Jim McCormick won the Gold Cup race in Madison. As a result, Steinhardt was portrayed in the movie “Madison,” released in 2001.

The late Fred Farley, Unlimited historian, wrote of the celebration, “Firebells rang, automobile horns sounded, and the spectators went out of their minds with delight. Everybody, it seemed, was a U-6 fan and, whether they lived there or not, a Madisonian. Even members of rival teams were applauding the outcome of this modern day Horatio Alger story… Deliriously happy Miss Madison crew members carried pilot McCormick on their shoulders to the Judges’ Stand.
“After receiving the Gold Cup from 1946 winner Guy Lombardo and the Governor’s Cup from Indiana Gov. Edgar Whitcomb, a tired but happy McCormick explained his race strategy to the assembled legion of awe-struck media representatives. “We planned to take it easy in the early heats and then let it all hang out in the finals.”
With the Gold Cup back in Madison this month for the running of the 69th Madison Regatta on July 6-7, the sight of the historic 43-inch tall trophy has stirred memories in those who witnessed the 1971 race.
Tony Steinhardt of Madison remembers that day well. He was the Miss Madison team manager and later portrayed in the movie by actor Brent Briscoe, who died last year. Steinhardt said he let Briscoe wear his original cowboy hat in the movie, then later gave it to him to keep. Steinhardt had a cameo appearance in the film as a race fan.
“It was a lot of fun being an advisor on the movie and reliving those days,” Steinhardt recalled in a late June interview. Steinhardt says he still keeps in touch with some of the actors and crew, but several of them –– like Briscoe – have since died: actors Frank Knapp Jr., John Watson Sr., Byrne Piven and photographer James Glennon.
Steinhardt is the last living member of that Gold Cup winning team. The others – co-crew chief Dave Stewart, co-crew chief Bobby Humphrey, Keith Hand, Russell Wiley and driver McCormick are all deceased. But Steinhardt can recall the events like it was yesterday.

Photo provided

Miss Madison driver Jim McCormick waves to the crowd after winning the 1971 Gold Cup race in Madison, Ind.

“It definitely put Madison on the map, what happened in 1971,” said Steinhardt, who was only 27 at the time. He is now 76. “The Gold Cup carries a lot of prestige in the sport; it’s the most important race we worked for.”
He recalled that the team began planning for that historic day the season before in San Diego. They decided to go easy on the boat so they could prepare to run hard the next year. When the 1971 season rolled around, Steinhardt recalls that “everybody on the team worked almost every night in the boat shop. We were struggling to get our water-alcohol injection mix right, so that’s when we called Allison engine specialists Harry Volpi and Everett Adams to come from Reno (Nev.) to help. We needed their expertise.”
The two men had experience working on then-defunct Harrah’s Club team, so Steinhardt got the money from the team’s board to pay for the men to travel to Madison. They rigged the boat with a button to blast the fuel mixture at the right time. “We said we were either going to ‘Go or Blow.’ The phrase is repeated several times in the movie, and that part was really true.”
When McCormick came off the first turn in the final heat that day, he hit the button, and the boat immediately leaped ahead of Terry Sterett in the Atlas Van Lines II and the rest of the field.
“I knew that once he pushed that button, nobody was going to catch him,” said Steinhardt, who watched the race while sitting in a crane with Volpi. “Harry turned to me and said, ‘I think we’re going to win one.’ At that point, it was just a matter of Jim finishing the race and doing everything right, and he did.”
Steinhardt said the crowd was jubilant as the team and McCormick made their way up to the Judges’ Stand, which back then was on Walnut Street and not overlooking the pits as it does today.

Photo provided

Pictured above in the celebratory photo of the 1971 Gold Cup team are (front row from left kneeling) Orley Chamberlain, Everett Adams, Keith Hand, Tony Steinhardt; (second row kneeling) Dave Stewart, Bobby Humphrey left of trophy, Russell Wiley right of trophy; (third row from left standing) Harry Volpe, Regatta Queen Carol Eggeman, Guy Lombardo, Jim McCormick, Indiana Gov. Edgar Whitcomb; (standing in back) Madison Mayor Donald Vaughn.

“It was a real honor to receive the trophy from Guy Lombardo because he was a legend in the sport at the time,” Steinhardt said. “It was an important victory and celebration for the town. And without it, I don’t know where the Miss Madison team would be today.”
Steinhardt said the race boat served as a “floating chamber of commerce” for both the city of Madison and the state of Indiana. “There was a symbol of the state of Indiana and the city of Madison’s seal on the boat. Wherever we went after that race, we had a huge fan base. And everyone on the team did everything we could to support the sport and the city. None of us were in it for individual recognition. It was a team effort.”
John Knoebel is among the few living Regatta Committee members from that time. He has fond memories of the 1971 Gold Cup, saying, “For anyone who was involved, it was something they will never forget.”
Knoebel, 82, who joined the organization in 1967 as race chairman, said, “I think it was one of the best race years we’ve ever had, and the crowd was one of the biggest we ever had. The way it went down, with how the Miss Madison crew got Jim McCormick ready for that final race was just amazing. And of course we had Harry Volpe with his nitrous oxide mixture that really gave the boat that boost. It was a storybook ending.”
Knoebel was 34 that year and recalled the big party that ensued on the riverbank when the McCormick brought in the winning Miss Madison hometown boat. “The party was really something because we weren’t expected to win. I was on the Judges’ Stand and got a call from a friend in Detroit who asked who won the Gold Cup. I told him Miss Madison. He said, ‘That’s impossible! Bill Muncey was supposed to win.’ But Muncey’s boat had sunk during its third heat that day after hitting something in the water.”
Back then, it was a tradition to have an awards banquet that night at Clifty Inn. Knoebel attended that big party as well as remembered, “I remember that Guy Lombardo was in rare form.”
Lombardo, a Canadian-American band leader and violinist from Freeport, N.Y., was one of the Unlimited hydroplane community’s greatest supporters. A former hydroplane owner and driver, himself, Lombardo won the Gold Cup in 1946 aboard his Tempo VI. He is credited with as many as fifteen Unlimited or Gold Cup Class victories as a driver between 1946 and 1953. He remained active in boating affairs long after his retirement from boat racing.

John Knoebel

The 1971 Gold Cup race also was broadcast live on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, whose now famous video of McCormick’s victory laps still circulates on the Internet and YouTube.
“We were blessed back then because Don Wallis was the Regatta president that year and had some connections to get ABC Wide World of Sports to come to broadcast the race that year, and boy did they have a good show,” Knoebel said. “The governor of Indiana was here to present the trophy, and it was just a great year.”
Knoebel still is with the organization and served as its president in 1974, the year after the tornado hit Madison and surrounding areas. As a result, the Regatta was postponed until September that year. Knoebel served as president again in 1975, 1982 and 1993.
Each year, the Regatta Committee gathers all the past presidents together for a photo, and each year, the group’s older members fade away to history. But the memories of those earlier years of the Madison Regatta – and especially the 1971 Gold Cup year – continue to be retold.
Steinhardt said he has recently been asked to present a program at the Jefferson County Historical Society on the making of the movie “Madison” with some of the unused film footage and behind-the-scenes photos that he has collected. “I have the 45-minute program finished, it’s just a matter of when we can schedule it. Probably in the fall.”

You can be sure there will be lots of lively discussion and fond reminiscing of a bygone event that seems will never die – at least not in Madison, Ind.

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