RIVER RAT: NASCAR's footprint impacts Ohio Valley

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Hydro racing used t be a big deal in region

By Peter W. Zubaty, Sports Editor

I was on the way back Monday, getting gas in Carrollton — it’s always among the cheapest in the commonwealth at the Swifty there, should you happen to be up toward that way anytime soon — and overheard talk of motorsports between the fellow at the pump next to me and the attendant.

Motorsports had come up a lot over the holiday weekend, as all anyone in my hometown, Warsaw, was inclined to address was what life would be like once Woodstock arrived. Oops, I mean the NASCAR race and the 100,000 fans that would descend upon my Gallatin County homeland this weekend.

To hear my mom and others fret about it, you’d think Armageddon was looming.

But the guys at the gas pumps were talking about another kind of motorsports, and it took me back to another place and time in my life.

Hydroplane racing in Madison, Ind. — my father’s hometown — had just wrapped up its swing through the area on its summer tour. There is also a race in Evansville that is the original Thunder On The Ohio that, for a time, was held in Owensboro under a Kentucky-themed name.

The guys at the pump were discussing the previous day’s strange ending to the race. I recall the traveler  saying that Miss Madison had won the Madison Regatta by odd circumstances following a collision on the water that resulted in a spinout for the city-owned boat and another boat, Spirit of Qatar, going airborne, ending the race a lap early.

The race was the second hometown win in a row for Miss Madison, also sponsored by Oh Boy! Oberto beef jerky, a longtime sponsor of the incredibly fast hydroplanes. That thought gave me pause, as I was taken back to my childhood, when we would regularly visit Madison, and especially during Regatta weekend.

Back in those days, Miss Madison was a ragtag outfit that had only once won the hometown race, in 1971, when I was not yet 1 year old but apparently on the premises that July day. There was even a cool decanter commemorating that upset win on a bookshelf in my parents’ house, the whisky long ago turned into a highball for the old man. I found it intriguing the hometown boat had stepped up to the plate and won a few races, but that appeared to have more to do with a struggling racing circuit that doesn’t get the sponsorship dollars from Budweiser and Miller and Coors the way it did in my teen years.

The parents weren’t keen on me rampaging unsupervised in downtown Cincinnati at a young age, but gleefully cut me loose with one of the 1 1/2-inch Regatta buttons to wade in among the tens of thousands of people traipsing up and down the river with their coolers of beer and limited clothing.

It was interesting people-watching, to be sure. I was talking with one of my friends about going and camping on the riverfront and meeting new girls and just being away from parents for a while; we went together once. Frankly, I don’t really remember Dad and Mom going much to the Regatta during those days, essentially turning me over to the care of my grandmother and grandfather, as well as my 20-something uncle and my older cousin from across the street, who were not always the best role models in those days but did help me develop my love of music and contributed some of the first items to the record collection.

At various times, Dad’s parents lived anywhere from two to four blocks from the riverfront in Madison (an historic town of which Bardstown bears a strong resemblance), and they would pay youngsters to sit in lawnchairs in front of the house to hold precious parking spots for residents; a transistor radio for tracking the heat results was even provided. The money would in turn be hustled down to the river for a corn dog or  funnel cake or some other such delectable treat once your good-for-nothing cousin got back with your button. Maybe even a T-shirt from one of those trailers if you managed to scrape together enough change from winnings at the family card game ...

Dad knows all too well what that was like. They’ve been racing on the river for decades, and he’s been there at its most excitable time. He knows it probably won’t be as bad in Warsaw, some 4-5 miles from the track.

But there will be a lot of people going to Gallatin County, the smallest county in the state, land-wise, this weekend than ever before. Races are Thursday, Friday and Saturday, culminating with the Quaker State 400. Fred Berkshire, father of one of my best friends and sometimes contributing photographer on these pages, Forrest Berkshire, said in a story in Tuesday’s Lexington Herald-Leader that he has tripled his Edge of Speedway RV campground. Originally opened 10 years ago when the Kentucky Speedway made a muddy debut, the campground on the backside of the track’s property has sold out all 600 of its spots, and a drive through the area Sunday found numerous farms being converted to temporary RV parking areas.

I quit going to the Regatta before turning 21. Thinking about those hot, sweaty July 4 weekend crowds now gives me the willies, but those same motorsports fan masses figure to make for a pretty good two-week economic impact along what used to be a very sleepy 30-mile stretch of the Ohio River Valley.

I’ll be nowhere near my hometown, either, but will likely hear exaggerated stories for years to come from the parents — unless they get smart this weekend and head to Louisville to visit their new grandbaby — and other folks from my hometown about the year Woodstock came to town.