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Organizers Hope Changes To Madison Regatta Will Help Tradition Survive

Madison sits on the banks of the Ohio River. Thousands of people come to the city for the Regatta every year (Steve Burns, WFIU/WTIU News).

Organizers are hoping changes to the Madison Regatta this year will ensure the decades-old boat race has a future. The annual event draws thousands of people to the small city on the Ohio River’s banks.

But the regatta is several thousand dollars in debt following years of bad weather and declining attendance. That has many worried about whether the race is sustainable.

Its survival is vital to the community.

David Johnson points to one of his favorite pictures in a room full of Madison Regatta memorabilia (Steve Burns, WFIU/WTIU News).

Boat Racing In Madison Dates Back Decades

When you step into the back room at David Johnson’s boat shop, it’s like stepping into a museum.

“Everything means something to me,” he says.

There isn’t an empty space on the wall. The room is covered in pictures, buttons and shirts from the Madison Regatta. It’s a hydroplane race that takes place every year on the Ohio River.

“Boat racing’s always been my coup de gras you might say,” Johnson says.

His room of memorabilia represents decades of Madison history. Boat racing here dates all the way back to 1911, when a group of local motorboat enthusiasts decided to have a spontaneous race on the river. It drew a crowd of several hundred people.

The excitement from that event led to a short series of organized races starting in 1914. But they stopped with the United States entering World War I.

Races resumed in Madison in the 1920s and continued to draw large crowds. In 1930, the Mississippi Valley Power Boat Association decided to have its national regatta in Madison. It brought a lot of attention to the community, and a local committee continued to host races through the 1930s.

A devastating flood along the Ohio River valley in 1937, coupled with the Great Depression, caused boat racing to end for more than a decade.

But the sport returned to the river in 1949, with the current series of the Madison Regatta dating back to the 1951 Governor’s Cup.

“The unlimiteds at that time were powered by WWII aircraft engines,” says local historian Dave Taylor. “The Allison engine, which was built in Speedway, Indiana, powered several of the WWII fighter craft.”

 

The race is such a big deal here, the city even owns a boat that competes. It’s fondly called Miss Madison, but these days it’s decked out in sponsorship logos and referred to as Miss Homestreet.

It’s one of several changes that’s occurred over the years, as the regatta has become less financially stable.

“The attendance usually would be about 30,000 people in the early 60s,” Taylor says. “By 1971 when Madison hosted the gold cup race for the very first time, we drew about 100,000 people. ABC’s Wide World of Sports was here to film the event. ABC was back in ’79 we had the gold cup again in ’79 and ’80. But since then the crowds have somewhat declined.”

That worries many people in Madison because they depend on the regatta to attract tourists.

Organizers say it brings about $1 million into the local economy in just one weekend.

“The regatta brings people into town that normally wouldn’t come obviously,” says Madison Mayor Damon Welch. “They’re going to shop at our stores, eat at our restaurants.”

Thousands of people line the banks of the Ohio River to watch the races every year (Steve Burns, WFIU/WTIU News).

Changes Aim To Attract Younger Crowd To Regatta

Changes are coming to the event in an effort to preserve – and ideally boost – attendance.

This year the regatta is offering tickets online for the first time. And, organizers are adding a full-fledged music festival to try and appeal to younger crowds.

“What we’re hoping to do is crossover,” says Madison Regatta President Matt True. “We’re hoping boat fans become music fans and music fans become boat fans. And, really what we’re trying to do is just make sure we have a lasting event. And, we needed to reinvent ourselves.”

Because what drew people here in the first place may no longer be enough to sustain the regatta. Older generations grew up with the sport, but the regatta needs to attract young people to survive.

“This is the 68th year and you have to always constantly review what you’re doing and change and adjust because the level of interest of a really old sport has gone down, but we’re wanting to bring that back,” says Sarah Prasil, director of marketing and advertising for Visit Madison.

But for many people in Madison, the regatta’s survival is about more than just the money. Just about everyone you talk to has endless stories about the race.

“I saw my first race in 1959,” Taylor says. “I was seven years old. And it got into my blood then, it has been very thick in my blood since then.”

Johnson says boat racing is Madison.

“You know about the movie, you know about the Miss Madison in ’71 that won the gold cup, the Cinderella story.”

He hopes to add new memories to that list. Believe it or not, he still has some room for more buttons and photos on his walls.

Like the city of Madison, the regatta is part of his history.

“It’s like a lifeline. It’s like two pieces together. I think it’s just important that it has to go on.”

The regatta festivities kick off Friday, with open tours of the pit area. Music starts at 5 p.m.

Opening ceremonies start at 10:45 a.m. Saturday, with racing continuing through Sunday.

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