The U-5 Formulaboats.com I and U-7 Formulaboats.com II race deck-to-deck through one of the big, wide sweeping turns during the 2008 season opener at Evansville. The much tighter turns at Madison — where driver Jeff Bernard and the U-5 are the defending Indiana Governor’s Cup champion — should make for even closer racing at next weekend’s 2009 opener. (Courier file photo by David Campbell)
The U-5 Formulaboats.com I and U-7 Formulaboats.com II race deck-to-deck through one of the big, wide sweeping turns during the 2008 season opener at Evansville. The much tighter turns at Madison — where driver Jeff Bernard and the U-5 are the defending Indiana Governor’s Cup champion — should make for even closer racing at next weekend’s 2009 opener. (Courier file photo by David Campbell)
Evansville's and Madison's race weekends have run back-to-back for so long, it was almost like the two Ohio River courses were meant for each other. Like peanut butter and jelly, death and taxes, or Laurel and Hardy.

But Evansville's decision not to stage an Unlimited race this past weekend disrupted the harmony that has marked the beginning of the season since 2000 and left fans and competitors alike searching high and low for something to do.

"It was a strange weekend," said Steve David, driver of the U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto/Miss Madison. "It's like I have chocolate withdrawal. I have to have that Hershey bar every day, or I'm just not that same."

The Unlimiteds will race in the River City this year, but not until late August, leaving Madison as the 2009 season opener. It will be the first time since 1998 - and just the third time ever - that the two Indiana races will not run on back-to-back weekends.

The lack of racing last weekend in Evansville did more than delay the start of the season one week. It also could impact the way teams prepare for the rest of the season.

Very few teams can afford to test their boats before the season starts, preferring instead to shake down their rides at the season opener. Evansville's wide tri-oval race course was perfect for such runs, giving drivers a chance to run wide open with few repercussions.

That's not the case at Madison where the longest straightaways in the sport lead to two of the tightest turns.

"Evansville has lots of testing room with those big wide turns. You can just let it all out," said David. "Madison is a completely different setup. You need that top-end speed, but you also need to corner well. You bleed 70 to 80 mph going through those turns."

Why is the different courses an issue? Because the sport's biggest race, the APBA Gold Cup in Detroit, immediately follows Madison on the race schedule. The Detroit River's Roostertail Turn is even tighter than Madison's, but the rest of the course more resembles Evansville.

Madison is also a much tougher course in terms of wear on the equipment than Evansville and David can see how some teams may alter their strategy this weekend in an attempt to run for the Gold Cup next weekend.

"The top teams still want the No. 1 (national championship) and they will run full-out at Madison because they need the points," said David. "But some teams may take it easy."

Just as the lack of a race this past weekend may affect the way teams approach Madison, Evansville's new date at the end of August makes it arguably the most important race of the season.

Scheduled for Aug. 21-23, Evansville will be the last domestic race of the year before the boats head to Doha, Qatar, in November for the season finale. Only the top 10 boats in terms of points will be taken to the Mideast, meaning that teams will be jockeying for that last spot.

"Unless the boat is in six pieces in a crate underneath the work bench, everybody will be at Evansville," said Ken Muscatel, driver and owner of the U-25 Superior Racing. "There is also a possibility that the national championship could be decided that weekend. This will be the most important race in Evansville's history."

Just the fact that there will be a race in Evansville this year is worth mentioning. The Freedom Festival, which has put on the race since 1979, decided last year that it could no longer financially support Unlimited racing. The Growth Alliance of Greater Evansville put on its own race two weeks ago, featuring the Formula 1 class of boats rather than the Unlimiteds, and attendance was down from past years.

The American Boat Racing Association, led by Muscatel, has taken over the race and has put together a weekend full of activity, from a classic car show and a barbecue rib contest to country-music concerts.

"I think for the longevity of the sport, it was important that we have Evansville on the schedule," said David. "And Evansville is putting on a first-class presentation that will be a real good model for other sites. If it works as well we think it will, it could really set the stage."

Just not on the water like in year's past.

"We can't afford to lose another site," said Jeff Bernard, driver of the U-5 Formulaboats.com. "We have to have more sites and hopefully, we can get back to at least 10."

Evansville Thunder inks musical acts Travis Tritt, Marshal Tucker

Country music stars Travis Tritt and The Marshal Tucker Band will perform in concert at this year's Thunder on the Ohio Aug. 21-22.

The Marshal Tucker Band will perform Friday, Aug. 21 while Tritt will be on stage Saturday, Aug. 22. Admission to both concerts is included as part of the Thunder on the Ohio general admission.

The two concerts are just the latest piece in what is becoming a full weekend of events on the Ohio River-front in Evansville. Rib America, a live event that features rib-cooking contests and live music, will be on hand and the Road Knights Car Club will stage a cruise-in.