THUNDER SHOW: Vintage Unlimiteds Miss U.S. IV (left) and the Miss Budweiser thunder along the frontstretch of the Bill Cantrell Memorial Race Course during the inaugural Vintage Thunder event over the weekend. (Staff photo by David Campbell)
THUNDER SHOW: Vintage Unlimiteds Miss U.S. IV (left) and the Miss Budweiser thunder along the frontstretch of the Bill Cantrell Memorial Race Course during the inaugural Vintage Thunder event over the weekend. (Staff photo by David Campbell)
Over 30 vintage hydroplanes of all sizes descended on the Madison Riverfront last weekend to take part in the first “Vintage Thunder, a two-day event that celebrated the city’s love of boat racing and history.

Several hundred fans showed up each day to watch as boats — some of which dated back to the 1950s — put on a six-hour show daily.

While the weekend didn’t go perfectly, everybody involved from organizers to competitors to fans was pleased with the final result.

“I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks. I grew up on the noise. To me, this is Christmas time,” said Denny Jackson, a former Madison Regatta president and boat racer who attended the event as a fan. “I think they pulled it off. There is a great crowd down here and it was much better than I thought being that it wasn’t the normal Regatta time. But the people really turned out and they are really supporting this thing. I think this is the first year of many years to come.”

The 5-To-The-5 Vintage Club began planning the event a year ago and thanks to connections all over the eastern United States and Canada, they received support from all levels of racing.

Race weekend saw former Unlimited drivers Ron Snyder and Jack Schafer Jr. back on the water as well as Australian Ken Warby, “The Fastest Man on Water”, who set the still unbroken speed record of 317.580 mph aboard the Spirit of Australia in 1978. Current Unlimited team owner Steve Webster brought his Jersey Speed Skiff from Pennsylvania.

But it was the Unlimiteds that stole the show. Three of the boats, representing three different eras of the sport, were on hand to remind fans of what racing looked like in the era not only prior to the whispering turbine engine, but also front-sitting “cabover” designs.

“The Unlimiteds, that was my favorite part,” Jackson said with a smile. “I grew up watching the Unlimiteds and that’s what I dreamed of as a kid. It gave me goose bumps watching them back on the water.”

Each of the three Unlimiteds have a unique history. The “oldest” is actually the youngest boat, a replica of the 1955-era Gale V built just a few years ago. The brown and yellow spoonbilled boat represented the team that dominated the sport in the 1950s.

The other two boats shared a connection with Schafer, who raced Unlimiteds in the 1970s and the 1980s. He was on hand to drive the Miss U.S. IV, a boat built in the 1960s that raced competitively only once but was found in a warehouse in Detroit several years ago and restored.

The other boat, wearing the gold and red colors of the Miss Budweiser, was in fact the Tempus, which was built and owned by Chuck Hickling and later served as current Unlimited owner Ed Cooper Jr.’s first boat in this class. It also served as a replacement Miss Budweiser for one race in 1980.

Schafer drove the Tempus for both Hickling and Cooper and said that, although he didn’t get to drive it this past weekend, just being on the water with it brought back memories.

“Chuck Hickling was one of the most fun guys to go boat racing with. He was so laid back. It took him seven years to build the boat,” Schafer said. “In boat racing, the crew chief or the owner is always banging on you to do something. When I met Chuck, I asked him if he wanted me to break it in and he said, ‘Run the hell out of it, you’re not going to hurt it.’ He was just the coolest guy. I really enjoyed driving that boat.”

Schafer has been in Madison several times over the past few years to run exhibition laps in the Miss U.S. during the Madison Regatta, but said that he was pleased to see the city have its own, stand alone event.

“It’s been a lot of fun and there has been a great turnout. I think everybody has just put their heart in this,” Schafer said. “Everybody just loves the noise. They keep coming up to me and saying ‘Now that’s a real race boat.’ It’s neat to be here. I’m glad to be here. It’s a cool event.”

The 5-To-The-5 Vintage Club was also happy with the turnout. Although admission was free, donations were accepted and board member Rob Holt said the response from the fans was overwhelming.

“It’s been very hectic but it’s been great,” Holt said. “We had some rain early on Saturday that set everything back, but the fans have been here and it’s been awesome to see. The Unlimiteds just went out and the fans just went wild; they put on a great show. I think it’s been successful.

“There are still some bugs to be worked out and some things that we need to do next year, but we’ll have a sit down and work everything out,” Holt said. “The folks in Wheeling (W.V.) really helped us out. Next year things will run even smoother and hopefully it’ll get bigger and bigger every year.”

It wasn’t just hydro geeks and insiders who enjoyed the event. Trimble County High School junior Antonia Rien, an exchange student from Hannover, Germany, got her first taste of boat racing and came away impressed.

“I never seen those boats before so it’s very interesting for me and I like it,” said Rien, who knew exactly what she was going to tell her classmates back in Germany about the event. “They are very loud and fast.”