A love for Regatta

Even at 85, Regatta’s Heitz
still lends a helping hand

The retired engineer created
blackout clock for Unlimiteds

By Michella Marino
Contributing Writer

(June 2006) – Wilbur Heitz of Madison, Ind., has been hanging around the hydroplane boat racing scene for well over half a century. He’s seen a lot of changes over the years and has even spurred many important changes in the sport himself.

Mary and Wilbur Heitz

Photo by Don Ward

Wilbur Heitz and his wife, Mary,
used to travel the Unlimited
hydroplane circuit to assist in timing.

At 85, Heitz is the oldest continuous member of the Madison Regatta Inc. This year marks his 50th year with the local organization. According to his son, Michael Heitz, also a Regatta committee member, “He’s given so much of himself and of his time to the Regatta.”
Heitz has served in the past as Regatta president and race chairman, and he still belongs to the Board of Directors while heading up the Sound System Committee.
“He’s pretty much done everything,” said Michael, who assists his father with the sound system lining the riverbank each year.
Heitz has always been interested in boats and the Ohio River, but his electrical expertise got him started with the Regatta. He worked as an electrician for the Regatta, and this led him into the scoring and timing aspects of the sport.
When Heitz first became involved in Unlimited hydroplane racing, the starting clock used in Madison was sponsored and paid for by the Martini and Rossi liquor company. It was an expensive mechanical clock that was used around the circuit and that Heitz claims was “a mechanical nightmare to keep going.”
He decided that surely there must be a better way, so he created an electric clock, called the blackout clock. A 1988 article in the Unlimited NewJournal magazine describes the blackout clock as “a black disk behind an orange clock face, with a split slot in the front so the black comes out eventually.”
He also created a digital clock, but the blackout clock stuck around and was adopted by the circuit.

Wilbur Heitz

Photo by Michelle Marino

Wilbur Heitz poses with the
blackout starting clock he created.

After creating the much-improved clock, Heitz and his wife, Mary, traveled the racing circuit together with the blackout clock. Friends of the couple from Cincinnati were in charge of the timing for the races, but when the husband passed away, the Heitzes took over the timing. “At that time we used stopwatches, which were not state of the art anymore,” he said.
Heitz had another friend in Seattle who was a computer programmer for the Boeing aircraft company. Together, they created a timing program on the now-outdated Commodore 64 computer that provided immediate results. Michael Heitz said, “My father was the one who brought hydroplane racing into the electronic era.”
Several years ago, Wilbur and Mary were rewarded for their hard work in the hydroplane racing field by receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award for Unlimited Hydroplane Racing.
Heitz and Mary spent 32 years traveling the racing circuit but he still held a full-time job in Madison. He worked at Indiana-Kentucky Electric Corp. for many years and obtained an engineering degree from the University of Louisville later in life. Heitz retired from Hanover College as the Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds. The Heitzes used racing as an excuse for vacation. They managed to work races in Hawaii 10 times along with traveling via motor home all over the United States and catching such wonderful sights as Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon.
In 1999, the original blackout clock Heitz designed and created was brought out of retirement for the filming of the movie “Madison.” The movie crew heard that the clock was in Regatta storage. “The movie people set it up and made it work,” Heitz said.
The elder Heitz can even be seen in the film standing in front of his own blackout clock. The clock was also used in the 2005 race in what represented a return to that earlier technology.
Although Heitz is enjoying his retirement, it doesn’t mean he’s slowing down. Heitz is still in charge of the sound system for the Madison Regatta. He’s responsible for setting up 32 speakers and seven amps. A few speakers are left up on high poles year round, but Heitz started setting up others in June with the hope of having all the speakers set up by the Monday prior to the race.
Heitz has been a part of much of the Madison Regatta’s past, but for the future he’d really like to see a national title sponsor step in. “It’s hard every year to pay for it, so a nice national sponsor would help,” he said.
Several smaller sponsors help, financially, but the Regatta is still looking for the one big sponsor. “I think the Regatta brings a lot of people to Madison to see the scenic beauty.” He believes it’s good for the city because “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t.”

Back to 2006 Madison Regatta Articles.



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