The Mark Smith Story
A boat racer for most of his life, Mark Smith started in the sport in the late 1970s. At age 15, he helped with Dave Heerensperger's turbine-powered Pay ‘n Pak team.
A native of Kent, Washington, Smith joined the Atlas Van Lines organization, led by Fran Muncey, widow of the late great Bill Muncey, in 1982. The Atlas team won the National High Point Championship in 1982, 1983, and 1985.
Mark's next career move was with Bill Bennett's Miss Circus Circus, led by Dave Villwock, for the 1989 and 1990 racing seasons. The team won 9 out of 21 races and was National Champion in 1990 with Chip Hanauer as driver.
Smith joined the Miss Budweiser camp in late 1990 after the Circus Circus team had disbanded. It was with the Miss Bud that Mark would achieve his greatest fame.
"Everywhere else that I had worked, the goal of those team members was to some day work for the Miss Budweiser team. In order to win, we had to beat the Bud. Once I got there, the goal was to stay on top. We couldn't rest on our laurels. It was a real challenge."
Smith started in the glass shop and ended up in the motor room. He was an expert in the gearbox and turbine engine program, hull maintenance, and computer telemetry research and development.
Team Manager Villwock recommended to owner Bernie Little that Mark be appointed crew chief, following the departure of Ron Brown who served between 1986 and 1997. Brown had won 55 races for the Miss Budweiser and was the winningest crew chief in the turbine era of Unlimited hydroplane racing.
"Mark came into a tough situation," Villwock pointed out. "He had to deal with a driver who was coming back after a major injury, a broken boat, safety systems that had to be rebuilt, and the whole balance of the program that had to be re-structured. Mark took all of those variables and turned them into a winning combination. That's pretty remarkable."
Owner Little agreed with Villwock's assessment of Smith. "To promote Mark was Dave's call, because he was running the show. And it proved to be one of the best decisions we could have made. Mark is a bright, talented, hardworking team player who likes to win.
"Mark is the same kind of fellow that Dave is. Whatever it takes to get the job done--whether it takes one hour or 20 hours--they'll make sure it happens. They'll go over it and over it until the job is done right."
Smith's first test as a crew chief in a competitive situation occurred in Evansville, Indiana, in 1998. The Ohio River had recently flooded, and the race was nearly canceled. When the assembled teams were finally given the "Go," very little testing time remained.
As Mark recalled, "Fortunately, we had tested extensively prior to Evansville, and we had a pretty good idea from the year before how to set up for that particular course. The toughest race sites are those where we've never competed before. We had been racing at Evansville for 20 years, so there wasn't much guesswork involved."
Miss Budweiser went on to win the Evansville race and seven more in 1998--including the Gold Cup at Detroit--to claim a record 18th National Championship since 1969 for Anheuser-Busch.
In his seven years as Miss Budweiser crew chief, Mark Smith racked up a number of remarkable achievements.
He is the only crew chief ever to win eight races in a single season (twice -- in 1998 and 1999).
He is the only crew chief ever to win ten consecutive races (the last six of 1999 and the first four of 2000).
He raised the world lap speed record to 173.384 miles per hour at San Diego in 1999.
He is the only crew chief to win at least one race with three different boats in the same calendar year (in 2000 with the Miss Budweiser "Turbine-3," "Turbine-5," and "Turbine-6" hulls).
And he is the only crew chief ever to win seven consecutive National High Point Championships, starting in 1998.
Not even the death of team founder Bernie Little on April 25, 2003, could derail Miss Budweiser’s competitive momentum. Joe Little, Bernie's son, picked up where his late father left off and kept the team intact for its final two seasons with Villwock as driver/team manager and Smith as crew chief.
In summarizing the Budweiser years, Mark was quick to point out, "I would have been dead in the water if it weren't for guys like Loren Sawyer, John Rheinberger, Carl Joshlin, Mike and Jeff Campbell, John Rice, Dale Van Wieringen, and Dixon Smith.
"My teammates and I brought out the best in each other. It's not enough to have a lot of talented people on the payroll. You need people who can function together--not as a group of individuals but as a unit. That's what wins championships."