A large piece of driftwood sits idle in the flooded pits during the Madison Regatta on Sunday. (Staff photo by David Campbell)
A large piece of driftwood sits idle in the flooded pits during the Madison Regatta on Sunday. (Staff photo by David Campbell)

Not this time.

For the second time in three years, Madison Regatta officials went to war against the Ohio River for control of the Wild Bill Cantrell Memorial Race Course. Two years ago, rising water forced cancellation of the event for the first time in its 65-year history.

With its collective backs against the wall this year, the Regatta put forth an exhausting effort to fit boats like a jigsaw puzzle into a small pit area and sweep debris from the river well enough to put on a race.

More than half of the teams wanted no part in racing under such adverse conditions and only five boats were willing to brave the debris-laden river. But in the end, three Grand Prix West heats were contested on Saturday and five Unlimited heats were run on Sunday and that was a win as far as Madison Regatta officials were concerned.

“It was a long weekend and we pulled it off but I tell you one thing, we have one hell of a pit crew,” Madison Regatta President Jeff Chandler said after the race. “They worked their butts off to get the pits ready and they’re still working their butts off to get boats out of here. They’re the hardest working people down there and they got everything done that we needed done.”

With water levels on the rise, Regatta officials knew a week ago that they would be in for a long race weekend and  the always persnickety Ohio River gave them very little leeway.

After the river crested on Wednesday afternoon, it was forecast to drop to 29 feet by Saturday morning and 24 feet by Sunday. Twenty-nine feet has long been considered the “drop dead” depth to even have a race and 25 feet is almost ideal.

While the river did indeed drop to 29 feet by Saturday, it didn’t get any lower thanks to heavy rains throughout Kentucky. The result was a narrow band of boat ramp for use as a pit area.

The decision was made by the Regatta and H1 Unlimited to scrap the Unlimited racing program on Saturday and instead, load the seven Grand Prix West boats into the pits and put on three heats of racing. Former Miss Madison pilot Jerry Hopp won an exciting final heat over his son, Greg.

“The Grand Prix boats really saved us,” Chandler said. “They put on a heck of a show and ran when we needed them to. I’m not sure what we would have done without them.”

The plan on Sunday was to load the Unlimiteds into the pits early and run a full schedule but that never materialized. A slow start in moving the Grand Prix boats out of the pits put the crew behind schedule. And to make matters even worse, by mid-morning, debris started flowing down the Kentucky side of the river.

After a second trip to survey water conditions, H1 officials decided to load boats into the cramped pits and begin racing on the cleaner portion of the river by 1 p.m.  Six teams decided not to participate and as a result, H1 Chairman Steve David decided to go with a “dual” format of racing pitting two, or in some cases, three boats in competition against each other.

“We have been discussing for many years a way to race on smaller bodies of water,” David said. “With the amount of debris in the water, this gave us an opportunity to test the three-lap shootout format.

“This format will open up other possibilities for new race sites on the H1 circuit.”

The five boats that chose to participate ended up putting on five heats of action overall with J. Michael Kelly winning his second-straight Indiana Governor’s Cup aboard the U-5 Graham Trucking. Three of the five heats featured deck-to-deck racing.

“Our pit crew went to sleep about two this morning and woke up around five,” Chandler said. “I know they’re tired, but hearing those fans cheer today, that’s what all it’s about. It’s all about bringing satisfaction to the fans and putting something on the water and making it worthwhile to come to the Regatta.”

Putting on a show for the fans was on everybody’s minds, including the drivers, each of whom said they appreciated the fans’ patience on what was a long weekend.

“It was wonderful to get out there and run five heats today,” said Jimmy Shane, driver of the U-1 Oberto/Miss Madison. “I didn’t think it was possible. Everybody was hopeful and they pulled it off. They did it and we put on a great show for the fans. Even though the Oberto/Miss Madison didn’t win the final, we put on a good show.”

Two years ago, Madison Regatta officials were vowing to continue to battle in the aftermath of their first-ever cancellation. Now, Chandler said they can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that they won this battle.

“Old Man River didn’t work with us. He fought us all weekend long,” Chandler said. “But I think we got the best of it today because we got them out there and we gave a show and it was a real good show.

“It was a struggle again but this time we won.”