Madison Regatta Queen Abigail Walburn plants a kiss on Indiana Governor's Cup Champion J. Michael Kelly. (Staff photo by David Campbell)
Madison Regatta Queen Abigail Walburn plants a kiss on Indiana Governor's Cup Champion J. Michael Kelly. (Staff photo by David Campbell)

Like most people, J. Michael Kelly wasn’t sure if the water conditions would allow racing on Sunday. But in the end, he sure was glad it did.

Kelly pulled away from chief rival Jimmy Shane on the first lap of the final heat and never looked back, steering the U-5 Graham Trucking to a dominating win in an abbreviated Indiana Governor’s Cup Sunday at the Madison Regatta.

Of the 11 teams that showed up in Madison this weekend, only five opted to run on a day when heavy debris littered the Kentucky side of the Ohio River. Kelly and his teammate Jesse Robertson made up two-fifths of the field.

“We didn’t even think we were going to get to race,” said Kelly, who won the Governor’s Cup for the second year in a row. “To get on the water and go back up our victory from last year is pretty cool. We almost didn’t make the final. We were thrashing pretty good up until the last minute ... they thrashed and I owe my a crew a big thank you. It’s a pretty special victory.”

After high water wiped out Unlimited racing Friday and Saturday, H1 Unlimited officials didn’t make a decision to race until noon on Sunday and the shortened scheduled allowed for no more than three boats on the water at the same time in two sets of preliminary heats. Because only five boats were going to compete, the race did not count for National High Points although it was an official race.

Shane, driving the hometown U-1 Oberto/Miss Madison, and Kelly each won their first preliminary heats with ease and Shane scored an exciting win in a head-to-head matchup in Heat 2A when he trailed Kelly for two and three-fourths laps before scoring a last-second come from behind win at the line.

Kelly’s Graham Trucking boat nearly blew over in that heat when he hit a large roller in turn one and went airborne. He was able to recover control of the craft and bring it home, but the front canard wing broke in the near-accident and Kelly thought his day might be over.

“The way the wing was it was unsafe to drive, so my guys thrashed to give me a boat that would be safe,” Kelly said. “Normally we have a lot of time between heats and there just wasn’t time for that.”

A second expected close dual between Kelly and Shane in the final never materialized. Kelly, who had lane one, got through turn one first and Shane stayed right on his hip. But going through the second turn, Shane hit a hole of his own and the loss in momentum allowed Kelly to pull away.

“We crossed the start/finish line at about the same time but he (Kelly) had a little bit more speed on me,” Shane said. “Unfortunately he had the inside lane and we couldn’t make up the disadvantage. I think if we could have beaten him going down to the first turn, we would have had a better shot but it just didn’t go that way.”

Robertson, driving the U-7 Graham Trucking II, stayed out of trouble and picked up an easy third place after both Tom Thompson and rookie Patrick Sankuer Jr. were unable to start the final. It was Robertson’s first podium finish in his first appearance at Madison.

“I’ll take it for sure. First time here, third place, I couldn’t ask for much more,” Robertson said. “Friday and Saturday we were crossing our fingers and luckily today we were able to get out there. It was a little late, but better late than never.”

Although neither Thompson nor Sankuer started the final, both were happy with their weekends.

A broken throttle cable aboard the U-11 Peters & May ended Thompson’s first heat after one lap, but he made up for it with a close win over Robertson in Heat 2B by just over a second.

The victory was not only Thompson’s first heat win after 60 tries in the Unlimited ranks, but also the team’s first heat win since Detroit in 2011 and just the second ever.

“This team works really hard,” Thompson said. “We had some issues to start the first heat and that didn’t go well, so to come back and win the second heat, it worked out great.”

But with the good comes the bad. Thompson hit a large piece of driftwood at the start of the final and rather than risk more damage, he pulled back into the pits. It was the only significant damage caused by debris on the day.

“It is what it is. We hit something out there and I knew when I hit it and I knew I didn’t want to do more damage,” Thompson said. “So I called in and (crew chief Scott Raney) said just bring it in.”

Sankuer faced an uphill battle all afternoon. A 25-year veteran in the Limited ranks, Sankuer was making his first ever appearance in an Unlimited. With no testing time, he was able to squeeze out a second and a third place in preliminary heats but opted to stay out of the veteran’s way in the final.

“It was a great learning experience. I just wish we could have done it in testing instead of in an actual race,” said Sankuer, who completed his rookie qualifications and is now a qualified driver. “The debris was definitely a concern but I’ve got to tell you, the water was actually really nice. You get beat up a little in the turns, but I didn’t think it was all that bad. I did see a few things out there but all in all, it was fine.”

Because of the lack of testing time, no official qualification session was held. Instead, the top qualifying award was given to the fastest competition lap, which was Kelly in the final at 144.701 mph. His winning average speed was 141.818.

The victory was the sixth of Kelly’s career and his fifth in the past five races dating back to Madison last season. It was also the 17th for owner Ted Porter, who tied Fred Leland for 10th on the all-time list.

“It’s pretty special. I’m just thankful that we were able to get on the water today,” said Kelly. “It was a few long days not even knowing if you were putting on a race. Luckily we were able to get out there and put on a show which the fans deserved for sticking around with us. Thank you to the fans and I hope they had a good show. I’m excited to watch the races on TV and see it from a different perspective.”

Shane said even though the race carried no points ramifications, he still wanted to win the Cup for the boat’s home fans. He’s looking forward to having another shot next year.

“We still pushed it pretty hard, but we didn’t have our best propellor, we didn’t have our best rudder and we didn’t have our best stuff on the boat knowing that we didn’t want to mess it up for what’s ahead,” Shane said. “We wanted to win this race for the fans and hopefully next year the river cooperates and we can get it done.”