2004 Budweiser Madison Regatta

Johnson brothers the heart of Madison's
vintage hydroplane race event

"Bob Snelling Memorial
Vintage Event" in third year

By Don Ward

MADISON, Ind. (April 2004) – You've heard of "Motorheads" – auto racing fans who can't get enough. But have you ever heard of "Hydroheads" – men who never quite shook their boyhood fascination with hydroplane racing?
In Madison, Ind., the disease is contagious, what with so many people having grown up with the sport during its 53-year history here on the Ohio River. These days, if these race fans aren't out on some lake piloting homemade remote-controlled miniature hydroplane boats, then they're down in their garage at night building or refurbishing full-size vintage hydroplanes to drive in exhibition races around the country.

Dave Johnson in den

Photo by Don Ward

Dave Johnson in his den of
hydroplane racing memorabilia.

And if the Madison chapter of Hydroheads had a board of directors, then brothers Joe and Dave Johnson would be their officers. These guys just can't get enough of the sport or its vintage toys. One look around Dave Johnson's den, and you'd think you had stumbled into a hydroplane racing museum or sorts. The basement room in his Second Street house is "floating" in hydroplane memorabilia, framed posters and photos, souvenir Regatta buttons, a piece of Miss Thriftway from 1957, former Miss Madison driver Jon Peddie's old race suit, even the late Bill Cantrell's racing shirt. He has much more stashed away in storage.
"My wife won't let me drag it all out because it would take up the whole house," Dave said.
But that's not all. Stroll out to the garage and you'll find Johnson's latest toy, a lifesize vintage hydroplane in the early stages of renovation. Last year, Johnson sold his last vintage hydro, the Close Shave II, to its original owner. So he went out and bought this one, a vintage boat he calls Miss Jean, named after his wife. He plans to have it race ready by next year in the 266 Class.
Back in the hydro den, it's not uncommon to find a gathering of Hydroheads on Saturday morning sipping coffee, nibbling on donuts and swapping hydro racing stories, while surrounded by images of 50 years of hydro history. Fred Farley, the official historian for the American Power Boat Association, is there, as is Jeff Ayler, the public address announcer of the Madison Regatta. There's also Bob Cline, a.k.a. Roger Bean, a retired police officer who maintains a pictorial website on Madison and, of course, everything hydro. The website, www.madisoncamerunning.com, is a hobby for him, and it has dozens of photos on hydroplane racing in Madison, among other things.
"We're just a group of guys who have one major thing in common, and that's hydroplanes," said Dave Johnson, 46.

Joe Johnson

Joe Johnson

Obviously, their enthusiam is contagious. The first year of the "Bob Snelling Memorial Vintage Event" at the 2002 Madison Regatta featured 20 boats. Last year's event attracted 30 boats. For this year's event, set for July 2-4, more than 50 people applied, the most ever. But because of limited funding, Johnson said he could only pay "tow money" to bring in 30 boats. "I could handle as many as 75 boats, but we are limited by money and the size of our pit area. Each team receives $300 to help offset the cost of towing their boats to Madison, regardless of how far away they come. The teams pay a $100 entry fee, which is refunded when they arrive.
"The vintage category is the fastest growing division of the APBA, which started racing vintage boats in 1995," Farley said. The number of events nationwide is up from seven to 15 since 2002.
Brother Joe, 49, not only chairs the vintage event at the Madison Regatta, he chairs the "Roar on the River" vintage hydro event, held last October in Louisville. Last year, Johnson helped organize the Louisville race, the first there since 1976, and Ayler worked as announcer. This year's event is Sept. 24-26.
"I found a few chances to promote the Madison Regatta while doing that race," said Ayler, a Madison native who has spent 11 years either broadcasting or announcing hydro races.
The Johnson brothers have worked hard to build a vintage event here in Madison that would attract a different but related Regatta crowd. Because of them, today's Madison Regatta stands for more than just the Unlimiteds and their fans. Hobbyists, vintage racers and collectors now flock to Madison to see the old boats run and to hear the engines roar, harkening them back to their pre-turbine engine days.
"You wouldn't believe how many old-timers who come out of the woodwork to see these old boats run," said Farley. "It brings back memories for them."
The only difference is, today's vintage events are technically for show. They are not racing but running in "exhibition" heats. Nevertheless, awards are still presented for first, second and third place during an awards ceremony held at the end of the weekend.
"Some of these vintage boats are running at speeds faster than when they were racing competitively," said Joe Johnson, who serves as the six-state Region 7 vintage boat racing representative to APBA.
The 2004 event in Madison will feature 7-liter/Grand Prix Class boats, Jersey Speed Skiffs and boats in the following classes: 280, 266, 225, 2.5-liter, 1-liter, 135 and 850cc.

Dave Johnson with boat

Photo by Don Ward

Dave Johnson in his garage
with his new "Miss Jean" vintage
hydroplane race boat.

Madison will be the second vintage event of 2004, since Evansville, Ind., in March decided to add one to its "Thunder On The Ohio" Unlimited race weekend. Joe Johnson will chair the vintage program when the Unlimiteds open the season July 25-27 in Evansville. Johnson said he is also working with a group in Metropolis, Ill., to possibly start a vintage event in 2005. Rising Sun dropped its hydroplane racing event last year, but some interest has been expressed for an event in Carrollton, Ky.
As far as all that hydro "junk" in Dave's basement, the Johnson brothers envision some day opening a hydroplane racing museum to store and display it all. Joe would like to see it include a working shop, where high school shop classmates could build vintage hydros and learn about the sport he loves. Such a shop exists in Tennessee, where classmates helped renovate The Tennessean limited class race boat for owner Joe Marshall.
For the Johnson brothers, their love affair with hydro racing isn't likely to die anytime soon. In fact, it already has been handed down to the next generation. Joe and his youngest son, Travis, 20, co-own a 280-class Norberg hydro that they are restoring and hope to debut in Louisville this year. Joe drove his brother's Miss Close Shave II last year in Louisville. Dave will pilot his new "Miss Jean" next year.
"Once it gets in your blood, you're hooked for life," Dave said.
Spoken like a true Hydrohead.

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