The Ron Brown Story
By Fred Farley - Unlimited Hydroplane Historian
Ron Brown is the winningest Crew Chief in the turbine era of Unlimited racing. Between 1986 and 1997, Ron scored 55 victories in 112 races, including six Gold Cups (in 1989, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1995, and 1997).
When Brown took charge of Bernie Little’s Miss Budweiser team, the world qualifying lap speed record was 153.061 miles per hour. In 1995, the lap speed record was raised to an “impossible” 172.166.
Ron grew up in a boat racing family. He spent many years running the Long Gone Grand Prix Class hydroplane team for his father, past-APBA President Les Brown.
According to Ron, “Running a Grand Prix team takes nearly as much work as running an Unlimited team. It’s an all-out effort all of the time.”
Over the years, the Long Gone boats achieved great success. The team won the 7-Litre Class Inboard Nationals in 1966 with Bill Heath driving and in 1967 with Davy Thomas. Moreover, they won the 1982 Grand Prix Class National High Point Championship with Kent McPhail in the cockpit. McPhail also set a Grand Prix Class 5-mile heat record on a 1.67-mile course of 105.700 in 1981.
Brown earned his Unlimited spurs in 1976, winning the APBA Gold Cup at Detroit as Crew Chief for George Simon’s Miss U.S. with driver Tom D’Eath.
That 1976 Gold Cup is fondly remembered as a high-water mark in Unlimited hydroplane history. Miss U.S., which used a turbocharged Allison engine, defeated the favored Bill Muncey in Atlas Van Lines, which used the more-powerful Rolls-Royce Merlin.
Miss U.S. had been battling mechanical gremlins throughout the day. In Heat 2-B, the engine sputtered and lost oil pressure and the stabilizer wing came loose. Luckily, D’Eath had time to return to the pits for hurried repairs and come back out to win.
For the Final Heat, Ron used an engine that the Miss U.S. team had not planned to use. They did not know if it had what it took to win, but the power plant that they had intended to use was not working properly that day.
After a Final Heat battle royal with Atlas Van Lines, Miss U.S. emerged the winner at 108.021 miles per hour to Muncey’s 105.386.
Brown and D’Eath would win two more Gold Cups together when both worked for the Miss Budweiser team in 1989 and 1990.
Following the retirement of Miss U.S. after 1976, Ron concentrated on the Limiteds for a few years. In mid-season 1984, at the request of his friend D’Eath, Brown came to the rescue of a struggling Unlimited team, the Lite All-Star, owned by R.B. Taylor. For a time, Ron wore two hats. He was Crew Chief for both the Unlimited and also his father’s Grand Prix boat.
After a less than satisfying experience with the Lite All-Star, Brown was hired by Miss Budweiser owner Bernie Little to head up the team’s new turbine engine program. Ron reworked the former Lite All-Star hull, which had been a fiasco, and made a winner out of it in 1986.
“It was one of the best deals I ever made,” Little recalled. “Not only did I wind up with a load of equipment [from the Taylor team], but I also got one of the most competitive, hard working, and innovative people in all of boat racing, Ron Brown.”
Ron would spend most of the rest of his Unlimited career with the Miss Budweiser organization. In twelve seasons with Miss Bud, Brown won 49% of his races.
The original turbine-powered Miss Budweiser had never won a heat, much less a race. And, frankly, there were those who believed that she never would. But somehow the Ron Brown magic prevailed.
The team had never intended to enter Miss Budweiser/Turbine-1 in competition. It was to be strictly a test bed for the Lycoming turbine engine. But when the new Miss Budweiser/Turbine-2 wasn’t ready in time to start the 1986 season, “Turbine-1” was pressed into service.
With Jim Kropfeld driving, the under-rated craft won three races and the National High Point Championship in 1986. She also established a world 2-mile competition lap record of 138.328 at Syracuse, New York, on Lake Onondaga.
A new turbine Miss Budweiser appeared in 1987, followed by others in 1989, 1994, and 1996.
Under Brown’s leadership, the Miss Budweiser crew took pride in their work and demonstrated poise under pressure. One of their most formidable challenges occurred at the 1988 Tri-Cities Columbia Cup. That was when the Miss Budweiser suffered extensive damage in a Friday test run when the propeller let go. The stricken craft had to be rushed 220 miles back to its Seattle shop for hurried repairs.
Brown and his crew worked literally around the clock, putting 300 hours of work into twenty-four hours, and were back in the Tri-Cities early Sunday morning, ready to go. In the race, Miss Budweiser scored an impressive victory with Tom D’Eath driving, much to the joy of her tired--but happy--crew.
In the words of owner Little, “Slap an order like that on most teams, and you’d have chaos. But when you’ve got a crew like the Miss Budweiser’s, anything’s possible. They’ve got more survival instincts than a commando squad under fire.”
Those survival instincts came into play on many occasions in the years that followed. At San Diego in 1995, the Miss Budweiser crew found their backs up against the wall in another competitive situation.
After a season-long battle with Smokin’ Joe’s for the National High Points crown, the Miss Budweiser team suffered a major setback on San Diego’s Mission Bay. While leading in the Final Heat, the Miss Bud was involved in an accident. And while driver Chip Hanauer escaped injury, the boat sustained major structural damage. With the last race of the season just a month away, all hope of retaining the High Point Championship appeared lost.
But after weeks of around-the-clock work, the Miss Budweiser was ready to race, and win, in Honolulu.
“It just goes to show the depth of the Miss Budweiser team’s personnel,” Ron proudly recalled. “The time frame was about eighteen days. Because of the shipping procedures, we obviously had to do the repairs and then drive the rig from Seattle down to Oakland so that we could make the ship to Honolulu.
“The boat was pretty beat up in San Diego. It was a tremendous ordeal to put the Miss Budweiser back together. A third to almost half of the boat was gone, including the entire right sponson. The spar was broken. We had to replace a big part of the deck, even part of the bottom.
“But we had a lot of good people. We had enough spare equipment in stock and the proper tools. And we had the talent necessary to get the job done in at least one quarter of the time that it would normally have taken. That’s the kind of preparation that won championships for the Miss Budweiser over the years.”
And the Miss Bud team won a championship in 1995 as well. On race day at Honolulu, the Miss Budweiser scored victories in all four heats. Owner Little had his 101st career win and Ron Brown became the first crew chief in Unlimited history to capture five High Point Championships in succession, starting in 1991.
Another feather in the Miss Budweiser team’s cap was raising the world lap speed record to 172 miles per hour at San Diego in 1995.
Ron likewise proved his mettle in 1997, his final year as Miss Budweiser Crew Chief. The season started well. New driver Dave Villwock won the first four races and had the lead in National Points. Then, catastrophe struck. Villwock crashed the boat in the first turn of the Final Heat at the Tri-Cities and was seriously injured. Dave lost two fingers on his right hand in the accident. Bernie Little once again called upon Ron Brown to salvage the season.
With relief driver Mark Weber in the cockpit, the Miss Bud team hung tough, maintained the High Points lead, and won the Las Vegas Silver Cup on Lake Mead.
Being crew chief literally required Brown to be the most flexible member of the team. “I’ve done it all--paint the floor, do the ‘boss work’, everything,” he pointed out. “That was one of the nice things about being in charge of the Miss Budweiser. I had to be able to do every job. I thrive on versatility. In fact, when I was in high school, I would take on a different project every summer. That way, I could learn a new technology.”
Most of the people that Ron recruited to work with him on the Miss Budweiser were likewise multi-talented. He didn’t have to depend on any one person to do any one job. “Those guys were so versatile in different areas that if, for example, the man that works in the engine room was out sick, it really didn’t hurt us.”
Brown’s base of operations was an immaculate two-story structure, located in Tukwila, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. Serving as office mainstay was Cookie Brown, Ron’s wife, who played a major role in the management of the team. According to Ron, “She was much more than a so-called ‘secretary.’ She had to make sure the ship ran smoothly on a day-to-day basis. Cookie did the bookwork, ordered the parts, and organized the logistics of how much, how the money was spent, and which direction it went. She was very important to the corporation.”
Equally important to the Miss Budweiser’s success were crew members like Loren Sawyer, Mark Smith, John Rheinberger, Dewey Norton, Leo Vanden Berg, Richard Arviso, Ed Nelson, Dixon Smith, Mike and Jeff Campbell, Steve Wissman, Tim Ramsey, Dale Van Wieringen, Lance Morris, Rich Timfichuk, Tom Anderson, Mike McIntosh, and others.
In discussing his personal philosophy of boat racing, Ron didn’t mince words. Past glories meant very little to him. It was the future that counted.
“Records are fine, but they’ve already happened. They’re behind you. With the Miss Budweiser, we looked more to what we were going to do in the future to make us more dependable and faster.
“Our philosophy was that if we were smarter on the drawing board and smarter in the machine shop, what it ultimately did was make less work for us in the long run. Underdesigning something and then having to repair it ten times not only costs money but also time.
“Throughout my career, I’ve always tried to build a boat that would be the fastest in the turns and accelerate the fastest off the turns, and not worry about top end.
“Well, sometimes I’ve been beaten on top end. But I look at the overall picture around the race course. Our goal with the turbine program was to develop the fastest running boat. It was a stimulating challenge.”
And it was a challenge that had the full support of owner Little, who made sure that Ron had all of the resources necessary at his disposal for keeping the flagship of Anheuser-Busch at the very top of the hydroplane racing world.
Brown, in turn, has nothing but respect for the memory of his late employer. “Over the years, the Miss Budweiser achieved great success. The credit belongs to Bernie Little, who put together an organization that was simply the best.
“Bernie was certainly a demanding person to work for. But I too require a certain amount of excellence in what I do. With a sponsor like Anheuser-Busch, it wasn’t just how fast we went, it was how we represented the corporation.
“I didn’t create the team that he started. Bernie got results because he hired the best. He recruited people that wanted to work for a winning organization.”