Ohio River Thunder : A Hydroplane Heritage
By Fred Farley - APBA Unlimited Historian

The Ohio River Valley has been a hotbed of hydroplane activity for much of this century. In the post-World War II era, more Unlimited races have been run on the Ohio River than on any other venue. Currently, the towns of Evansville and Madison in southern Indiana host the Thunderboats as part of the UHRA's annual tour.

During the first decade after the war, the Unlimiteds also raced at Louisville (Kentucky), Cincinnati (Ohio), New Martinsville (West Virginia), and Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania). Many of the Ohio River races of the 1940s and '50s were one-heat multi-class free-for-alls, a format of competition that has long since vanished from the Unlimited scene.

From 1969 to 1978, the U-boats ran at Owensboro for the Kentucky Governor's Cup, an event that was replaced on the Thunderboat schedule by Evansville's first "Thunder On The Ohio" in 1979.

One of the most famous Ohio River hydroplanes of all time was the Hoosier Boy, a Liberty-powered step hydro, which was obviously patterned after Gar Wood's Miss America boats. Hoosier Boy represented Rising Sun, Indiana, a small town located about 40 miles upriver from Madison. In 1926, Hoosier Boy set a never-to-be-equalled long-distance record from Cincinnati to Louisville and back to Cincinnati. Owner/driver J.W. Whitlock covered the 260 Ohio River miles at just a shade under 60 miles per hour.The show category of inboard racing in the 1930s was the popular 725 Cubic Inch Class of the Mississippi Valley Power Boat Association. Comparable to the American Power Boat Association's Gold Cup Class, the 725s used the venerable Hispano-Suiza ("Hisso") engine from out of the Spad aircraft of World War I. Three of the more popular campaigners in the 725 Class were "Wild Bill" Cantrell's Why Worry, Marion Cooper's Mercury, and George Davis's Hermes IV (the future It's A Wonder). The mile straightaway record for 725s was set at 98 miles per hour by Mercury at Washington, D.C., in 1940. Then, an hour later, Why Worry went out and raised the record to 99.

With the advent of World War II and gasoline rationing, power boat racing was suspended for the duration. Two of the first Ohio River races to be run after the war were the 1946 Viking Trophy at New Martinsville, won by Lou Fageol in So-Long, and the 1947 Marine Derby Regatta at Louisville, won by George Davis in Hermes V. After World War II, the Gold Cup Class and the 725 Class combined and changed over to the Unlimited Class to take advantage of the huge supply of Allison and Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engines, developed for the war effort.

New Martinsville was a popular stop-over for the Unlimiteds for nearly a decade, but was cancelled after 1954 when a determination was made that the river was too narrow for the modern boats to safely compete. Madison had no such problem and has been an Unlimited mainstay since 1950. The first Indiana Governor's Cup was offered in 1951 and was won by Marion Cooper in the 225 Cubic Inch Class Hornet. The first Unlimited race at Madison to count for APBA National High Points was in 1954. Bill Cantrell won that one at the wheel of Joe Schoenith's Gale IV.

The first Ohio River heat at over 100 miles per hour was run by Danny Foster in 1955 at Madison with Guy Lombardo's Tempo VII. And two years later, Bill Muncey set a world heat record of 112.312 with Miss Thriftway, also at Madison. The record stood for six years.

The first turbine-powered hydroplane to win an Ohio River race was Fran Muncey's Atlas Van Lines in 1984 at Madison. With Chip Hanauer driving, the Atlas was the first truly competitive turbine boat in the APBA Unlimited Class.

The all-time high water mark of Ohio River Thunderboat racing had to be the fabulous 1971 Madison Regatta, which was won by the community-owned Miss Madison before the hometown crowd. Driver Jim McCormick won all of the marbles in a combination APBA Gold Cup and Indiana Governor's Cup event and defeated the likes of Terry Sterett in Atlas Van Lines II, Dean Chenoweth in Miss Budweiser, Billy Schumacher in Pride of Pay 'n Pak, and Fred Alter in Towne Club in the Final Heat.

Fred Farley. For reprint rights to this article, please contact the author at <fredf@hotmail.com>


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