Regatta Flashback

Heitz name will long be
remembered on hydro circuit

Wilbur Heitz designed timing system
for races in the early days

(July 2013) – The crowd at this year’s Madison Regatta will notably be missing a familiar face with the passing of Wilbur “Wib” Heitz at the age of 92 this past January. The longest serving board member in Regatta history, Heitz stood as a constant fixture in hydroplane racing, providing a bridge between generations of racers and fans.

Wilbur Heitz

Photos courtesy of Michael Heitz

Above is a quintessential photo of the “blackout clock” that Wilbur Heitz assembled in Madison and set up for 20 years all over the racing circuit. The photo below shows how Wilbur and Mary Heitz worked together.

Mary and Wilbur Heitz

John Knoebel, a former Regatta president and current member of the board of directors, says of his friend, “He still knew them all. A lot of us have been there for years, but there is always that evolution and change. New boat owners, new drivers... Wib made a lot of friends over the years.”
Knoebel notes that even when some people left the sport, they still made a point to come back to the Regatta to visit with Heitz. He sadly explains that the Regatta has lost a powerful, first-hand connection to its past saying, “He could tell you a lot of stories.”
Heitz’s son, Michael, explains his father’s ability to connect with people on a genuine level saying that he “treated the owner of the boat the way he treated the pit crew member” and wasn’t concerned with the amount of money a person had, but whether they had something interesting to say.
Knoebel highlights Heitz’s dedication. “He loved the sport and he liked the people.”
Hydroplane racing was a family affair from Heitz’s early days working with the Regatta. Michael recalls that he must have begun assisting his father with the sound system in about 1967 as a 10-year-old child. He says that he has been helping out at the races “Really, as long as I can ever remember. It was a great opportunity to spend time with Dad.”
Later, when Heitz became active as a hydroplane official, his wife, Mary, would be at his side during cross-country travels. Michael explains that when his father came home one evening and announced that he was taking a trip to Alabama to work with the timekeeping for the races, his mother said, “Really? I’m going too!”

Wilbur Mary Heitz

File Photo by Don Ward

Mary and Wilbur Heitz were well known in the hydroplane racing community for many years. Wilbur died in January at age 92.

“From then on, any Regatta endeavor my father did my mom did, too.”
The couple’s work as timekeepers took them from coast to coast, hauling the Heitzes’ specially designed clock on a trailer behind them. Michael says that while all those miles on the road could easily have been hard on his parents, “It brought them closer together.”
Madison Regatta officials will recognize the role that Wilbur Heitz played in hydroplane racing during the opening ceremonies this year. The judge’s stand will be adored with a banner honoring the couple for their years of service. Plans are in place to erect a permanent brass plaque to the couple, with a formal dedication expected for next year.
Wilbur served as president of the Madison Regatta in 1973 and spent more than 50 years as a member of the board. For 25 years, he was an official for the Unlimited Hydroplane Circuit, and the couple traveled the world as timekeepers for boating races.
“It’s going to be kind of a poignant Regatta for us,” reflects Michael. His siblings, William “Norb” Heitz and Ann Wiseman, are expected to attend. The family is hopeful that their sister, Jackie Hall, will be able to travel in from Iowa for the races.
Heitz would make a powerful impact on hydroplane racing through his development of groundbreaking clocks for the sport. Over the years, Heitz built three different clocks for the races, inspired by drivers’ complaints that the hand cranked clocks were too inaccurate.
“My dad, being an electronic engineer said, ‘I can make it exact!’ ”
In 1967 the first version of Heitz’s clock debuted. Michael recalls fondly that the enormous setup of fluorescent tubing, saying, “Looked phenomenal – in out backyard!”
However, on the river the clock was not quite bright enough for the drivers. The following winter, it just so happened that Wib was repairing a scoreboard at the Shawe Memorial High School gym, and he was inspired to create a countdown clock for the races.
Michael explains that the clock was under construction for two years, “Him to build, me to pass the tools!”
The resulting clock boasted numbers four feet wide and eight feet tall. At its debut in the early 1970s, “Everyone was thrilled with it.” Eventually, famed racer Bill Muncey confided to Heitz that he preferred to see an actual clock face when timing the countdown to the start of a race. This led Heitz to develop a blackout clock with a large disk that would darken as the final minute before start would tick away. “I always thought the blackout clock was the best,” Knoebel said.
Michael says of the famous timepiece, “Interestingly, that clock still exists. Dad and I set it up and made it work” for the movie “Madison.”
Keen-eyed viewers can spot Heitz in his referee uniform as he makes a brief cameo in the film. In February, the Madison Regatta Board voted to donate the clock to the Hydroplane & Raceboat Museum, located in Kent, Wash. “The clocks that they use today are basically the same technology that he created,” explains Michael.
Michael said he is proud to say that his father’s comfort with technology spanned his entire life. Heitz was gifted with an ability to quickly and easily grasp the way things worked, whether it was plumbing, electrical circuits or the motor of a car. “He’s one of those people, he had an aptitude for and an understanding of systems. When the dawn of the computer age came around, he understood that too. I just don’t know that we’re producing people like that anymore. I feel blessed to have had him as a father and to have been a part of his life.”

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