Bernie Little

Bernie Little Remembered [2003]

By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian

Bernie Little, the most successful owner in the history of Unlimited hydroplane racing, passed away on April 25, 2003, after a battle with pneumonia. A resident of Lakeland, Florida, he was 77.

In 2002, he celebrated his 40th year in racing and won his 22nd World High Points Championship with the Miss Budweiser, sponsored by Anheuser-Busch.

Between 1963 and 2002, Little's boats participated in 354 Unlimited races. His team finished in the top-3 a total of 230 times with a record 134 victories.

It all started when August A. Busch III recognized America's growing interest in water-oriented sports activities. And, with typical Busch shrewdness, he looked around for an attractive, colorful showcase to project the Budweiser image to growing millions of pleasure boaters.

Mr. Busch discussed the opportunity with his friend Bernie Little, and it was decided to enter the glamourous and competitive world of Unlimited hydroplane racing. Thus was born the Miss Budweiser, a fixture on the Thunderboat circuit for the next four decades.

Since before the very first "Beer Wagon" appeared on the Unlimited scene, many boats have vied for success. Some were unbeatable, some were mediocre, and some crashed in splinters. But the quest has always been the same: to have a boat that represents the excellence of its corporate sponsor in a manner that reflects credit and prestige on the sport in which it is involved.

Although the first craft to carry the Anheuser-Busch "eagle" into competition wasn't the fastest boat on the circuit, it became a publicity bonanza. Owner Little thoughtfully equipped the boat with four seats instead of the usual one or two. That turned the craft into a magnet around the Unlimited circuit.

Astronauts, politicians, television stars, and journalists were waiting in line for a chance to "go for a ride" at 150 miles per hour. Newspaper reporters and broadcasters couldn't wait to get back to their typewriters, microphones, and cameras after the thrilling trip.

The four-seater was an instant and continuing media hit, but she lacked fire in the engine room. Providing four seats meant providing extra strength and extra weight to support it. That slowed her down.

Having won the publicity championship, August Busch and Bernie Little went searching for bigger game and made a full commitment to the sport. They won their first race in 1966 and their first Gold Cup and High Points Championship in 1969. Miss Budweiser went on to represent the longest continuous sponsorship in motor sports history.

Bernard Leroy Little was not born to great wealth. A native of McComb, Ohio, Little's upbringing partly reflected the Great Depression, which affected so many of his generation. His father's grocery store was a casualty of the economic instability of the times. Money was scarce.

"I went to work at an early age, " Little remembered. "I peddled newspapers, shoveled snow, carried golf bags over my back, whatever it took to get the job done. I've been working 12, 14, 16 hours a day ever since. That's the only life I know."

Circumstances intervened to prevent Little from going past the eighth grade in school. He nonetheless had a high regard for the value of formal schooling in comtemporary society. "The advice I would give young people today is education, education, education. That's the most important ingredient for a modern-day success story. You can't do today what I did a long time ago."

At the age of 17, he joined the U.S. Navy for service during World War II. On an April night in 1945, Bernie, now a bosun's mate, found himself aboard the USS Marathon, a troop ship moored off Okinawa. Without warning, a Japanese suicide submarine crashed into the vessel's hull, and the Marathon was on fire. Little was one of 36 survivors.

"Man, when you scramble out onto a burning ship's deck, jump into the water, into smoke, oil, and flames in the middle of the night, that's fear," he remembered. "That's the scaredest 'Little' Bernie's ever been."

After returning to civilian life, Little established the foundation for a business dynasty in aircraft and transportation sales when he and his wife, Jane, settled in Florida in the 1950s with their children, Bernie, Jr., Joe, and Becky.

Little's passion for flying led to a career as a stunt pilot with the All-Miami Air Show and later as a pioneer in Florida's helicopter sales industry. Since an Unlimited hydroplane really has more in common with an airplane than a boat, it was only natural that Little would gravitate to the greatest show in water racing.

Bernie's long association with the Miss Budweiser reflected his genius for marketing and sales promotion. This same expertise accounted for the tremendous success of his three Anheuser-Busch distributorships in Florida.

"I like speed and competrition, " Little admitted. "I like a good challenge. And I just want to be better, faster, and safer than anyone else on the race course."

Despite his many victories and record performances with the Miss Budweiser, Little always considered his greatest triumph to be the development of the enclosed cockpit. When Little's driver and close friend Dean Chenoweth was tragically lost in a "blow-over" accident at the Tri-Cities (Washington) Columbia Cup in 1982, Little realized that something had to be done to make the sport "safer and safer, not just faster and faster."

In 1985, Little and crew chief Jeff Neff introduced the famed "Bubble" Bud, the first Unlimited hydroplane to seat the driver (Jim Kropfeld) "indoors." The following year, designer Ron Jones, Sr., installed the first F-16 fighter plane canopy on another Miss Budweiser.

The Unlimited Racing Commission was quick to recognize the viability of the F-16 canopy. Starting in 1987, all new boats in the Unlimited Class were required to have them; the older ones were given until 1989 to make the change-over.

Thanks to the F-16 canopy, many drivers have literally walked away from accidents that previously would have been fatal.

If not for the canopy, Miss Budweiser pilot Dave Villwock would likely not have survived his horrific crash on the Columbia River at the 1997 Tri-Cities race.

"Safety has always been first in my mind," Little said. "I'm not a very good loser, but I don't believe in winning at any cost, especially when it is a matter of a driver's life.

"I wouldn't want my driver out there on the race course without giving him every bit of protection that is available."

All of his accomplishments in racing and business not withstanding, Little was a deeply committed family man. The center of his private world was Jane--whom he courted and married in nine days in 1944 — along with their three children and four grandchildren.

According to Bernie, his Unlimited hydroplane career was very much a family endeavor. "Without Jane, I never would have stayed with it for as long as I have, because it took so much dedication on her part to make it all come true."

Little also prized his relationship to the Busch family, which remained strong over the years. In fact, Bernie introduced August Busch III to Ginny, the woman who would become Busch's wife.

"I was one of the best men at the wedding," said Little. "Their children are like my grandchildren. We are just a very close family, always together."

After 40 years in the sport, Bernie had a long list of special Miss Budweiser "moments." These included his first-ever victory as an Unlimited owner at the Tri-Cities in 1966 with driver Bill Brow and his first APBA Gold Cup victory at San Diego in 1969 with pilot Bill Sterett.

Then there was that memorable day at Seattle in 1973 when Miss Budweiser — in a driving rain — became the first to average over 120 miles per hour in a heat of competition with Dean Chenoweth at the wheel.

And who could ever forget that incredible string of 20 consecutive heat victories by Chenoweth at the first five races of the 1980 season.

Little also noted with pride the many heroic repair jobs performed over the years by the Miss Budweiser mechanical crew. That includes the time at the 1988 Columbia Cup when the boat sustained major damage during a test run on Friday of race week. A lot of work needed to be done--and in a hurry--back at the team's Seattle shop, 220 miles away.

By Sunday morning, crew chief Ron Brown had Miss Budweiser repaired and ready. The "Beer Wagon" and driver Tom D'Eath went on to score another victory for Anheuser-Busch.

"Slap an order like that on most teams and you'd have chaos," Little pointed out. "But when you've got a crew like the Miss Budweiser, anything's possible. They have more survival instincts than a commando squad under fire."

Like every other American, Bernie Little was shaken to the core by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Solemn but undaunted, the Miss Budweiser team went ahead with business as usual at the race in San Diego a few days later. It was on San Diego's Mission Bay where Budweiser driver Villwock clinched the team's 21st World Championship.

"My reaction to the terrorist attacks was that we had to go ahead and race to prove that no one can stop what's going on in the United States. We just couldn't let that disaster stop the whole world. So, in our own way, we proved that life could go on. We're too big, too strong, and there are too many of us to let tragedies bring us to a standstill. It was the right decision to keep moving forward."

Bernie approached his 40th--and last--season of Unlimited hydroplane competition with the same dedication as the first 39. At the outset of 2002, Little set three goals for his team: a victory in the opening-day race at Evansville, Indiana; a 14th Gold Cup at Detroit; and a 22nd World High Points Championship. Miss Budweiser succeeded on all three counts with driver Villwock and crew chief Mark Smith.

Bernie's 134th--and final--race victory occurred at the 2002 General Motors Cup on Seattle's Lake Washington, where Miss Budweiser finished first in all four heats. "I'll have a smile all the way home," proclaimed a jubilant Little.

Widely known as "The King of Boats," Bernard Leroy Little was a virtual personification of the corporate slogan, "Making Friends Is Our Business." His broad smile, handshake, and resonant greeting were almost as familiar as the trademarked "A & Eagle" logo.

In his life and hydroplane career, Bernie represented the qualities of aggressiveness, hard work, and ingenuity that have led many Americans to achieve greatness.

Salute and farewell, Bernie Little.