love for Regatta
at 85, Regattas Heitz
still lends a helping hand
retired engineer created
blackout clock for Unlimiteds
(June 2006) Wilbur Heitz of Madison, Ind.,
has been hanging around the hydroplane boat racing scene for well over
half a century. Hes seen a lot of changes over the years and has
even spurred many important changes in the sport himself.
by Don Ward
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,
Hes 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.
Hes 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.
by Michelle Marino
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 doesnt mean hes
slowing down. Heitz is still in charge of the sound system for the Madison
Regatta. Hes 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 Regattas past, but
for the future hed really like to see a national title sponsor
step in. Its 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
its good for the city because I wouldnt do it if I
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