Defending Indiana Governor’s Cup champion J. Michael Kelly and his crew await their turn in Friday night’s Madison Regatta Parade. (Staff photo by Mark Campbell)
Defending Indiana Governor’s Cup champion J. Michael Kelly and his crew await their turn in Friday night’s Madison Regatta Parade. (Staff photo by Mark Campbell)

A year ago, J. Michael Kelly used a win at Madison to jump-start what proved to be the best season of his 10-year career. Now the U-5 Graham Trucking driver is hoping to go even further.

Kelly enters this year’s Madison Regatta as the defending Indiana Governor’s Cup champion, the first of four wins he scored a year ago. The win at Madison was just the second of his career, but by the time the season finished, he was 28th on the all-time wins list.

“It’s great to be back in Madison and hopefully we’ll be able to go out there and defend our title from last year,” Kelly said. “It was definitely the way you wanted to start out and you couldn’t ask for much more, especially being back with Ted Porter after being gone for three years.”

Kelly followed the win at Madison with three-straight victories to close out the season — at Seattle, San Diego and Doha, Qatar. But he still finished second in the National High Points chase to Jimmy Shane and the Oberto/Miss Madison, thanks in large part to one bad weekend at Tri-Cities when a cracked sponson ended his day.

In a short season, one bad day can have ramifications all year.

“It was almost one heat,” Kelly said of the 421-point difference that separated he and Shane at the end of the 2014 season. “We made up a lot of the points differential at Doha but fell just short. That’s what happens when you miss four heats; it’s tough to make up. We basically missed an entire race. For where we finished, we did really well.”

The points race should be even tighter this year with one less race on the schedule. Madison will mark the start of an abbreviated five-race schedule, the shortest the sport has had since the 1960s. Kelly said that with so little wiggle room, any mistake will be magnified.

“It could be anybody’s national title really. If one boat misses a heat, it could knock them down to fifth,” Kelly said. “You’ve got to make sure you finish all of your heats, but at the same time, try to get as many points as you can.”

Kelly said that because of the shorter schedule, there is a fine line between aggressively trying to win each heat and being conservative and just taking points.

“I think it just comes down to when you’re down there and what you decide to do in the moment,” Kelly said. “I know at the Gold Cup, everybody is going to be laying it all out because it’s the Gold Cup. But I think you just have to see what happens and what our crew chief and owner decide. I know as a driver you want to go out there and win every time out there. We’ll see what they decide to let us do.”

Kelly made his Unlimited racing debut in 2004 for the west coast races and first appeared at Madison in 2005 driving for Jim Harvey’s U-2 Harvey Motorsports team. He finished fourth in the first race and has added two seconds and a third to go along with his win a year ago.

Madison’s Bill Cantrell Race Course will expand back to its traditional 2.5-mile configuration this year after shrinking to 2 miles and smaller the past five years due to construction on the new Madison-Milton Bridge. Kelly and the U-22 Webster Racing’s Mike Webster, are the only drivers on the circuit who have raced both lengths at Madison.

“You definitely get going quite a bit faster and it’s pretty neat going under that bridge,” Kelly said of the push back to 2.5 miles. “It can get interesting at times, especially if you’re next to somebody and they go out wide. You know that those pillars are coming up. That (first turn) is still really rough and you’re going even faster. But it’s fun. You go from doing 180 miles per hour to almost 200 miles per hour because it’s longer. It’ll be fun going back to two and a half miles. I really enjoyed it before.”