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Bigger than Life

‘King of Boats’ remembered
for his drive, hard work
and his talent for enjoying life

By Ruth Wright
Staff Writer

(July 2003) – What Elvis was to rock-and-roll, Bernie Little was to boat racing.
For 40 years, Little championed Unlimited hydroplane racing, becoming the winningest owner in the sport’s history with his Anheuser-Busch-sponsored “Miss Budweiser” team. From 1963 to 2002, Little’s team captured 134 victories plus 22 Unlimited hydroplane world and national championships. “The King of Boats,” as Little was known, died on April 25, 2003, but his legacy in the world of Unlimited hydroplane racing lives on.

Bernie Little

Photo courtesy
Anheuser-Busch

Bernie Little,
1925 – 2003

“We’ll never replace his character, his emotion, his exuberance – and his anger,” said veteran “Miss Bud” driver Dave Villwock during a June 17 media teleconference. “But hopefully the future will be an extension and, in fact, a part of his immortality.”
Born in McComb, Ohio, on Oct. 7, 1925, Little’s formative years were no indication of his future success. The son of a grocer whose business suffered through the Great Depression, Little made it through the eighth grade in school before economic necessity cut his education short. Little went to work doing various odd jobs, and in 1943 at age 17 he met and married Jane Cunningham. Shortly after the marriage, Little joined the U.S. Navy and served in World War II. After the war, Little and his wife settled in Florida.

Bernie Little’s Unlimited
Hydroplane Racing Career

1962: Little acquires first hydroplane boat,
the four-seat “Tempo.”
1963: Little’s first season in Unlimited hydroplane racing, running “Tempo.”
1964: Little’s first year with “Miss Budweiser,” sponsored by Anheuser-Busch.
1966: Little captures first victory with
“Miss Budweiser.”
1969: Little wins first Gold Cup and National High Points Championship with “Miss Budweiser.”
1970: Little’s “Miss Bud-weiser,” driven by Dean Chenoweth, wins its first Madison Regatta.
1977: Little’s boats, “Miss Budweiser” and
“Anheuser-Busch Natural Light,” take first and
second place at the Madison Regatta.
1985: Little and crew chief Jeff Neff introduc
e the first enclosed cockpit unlimited
hydroplane, the “Bubble” Bud.
1986: Little converts “Miss Budweiser” to
Lycoming turbine power; first to use F-16
safety canopy.
1994: Little honored with “Horatio Alger
Award” & honorary Doctor of Humane Letters
degree (Missouri Valley College)
2000: Little & friend Gary Garbrecht form
Hydro-Prop, Inc. to administer Unlimited
hydroplane racing in the future; Little’s “Miss Budweiser” wins six of seven races on schedule.
2002: Little’s 134th and final “Miss Budweiser”
race victory at the 2002 General Motors Cup
on Seattle’s Lake Washington.
Miss Budweiser Madison Regatta victories:
1970, 1977, 1980-81, 1983, 1987, 1989,
1992-94, 1997-98, 2000.
American Power Boat Association (APBA)
Gold Cup titles:
1969-70, 1973, 1980-81, 1989-90, 1992-93, 1995, 1997-98, 2002.
Miss Budweiser Driver Victories (1966-2002):
Dave Villwock (30), 1997-02
Dean Chenoweth (23), 1970-82
Jim Kropfeld (22), 1983-1989
Chip Hanauer (22), 1992-95
Tom D‚Eath (12), 1988-1990
Mickey Remund (6), 1975-77
Bill Sterett (5), 1968-1969
Howie Benns (3), 1974
Scott Pierce (3), 1991
Bill Brow (2), 1966
Mark Evans (2), 1996
Mike Thomas (1), 1967
Ron Snyder (1), 1978
Mike Hanson (1), 1994
Mark Weber (1), 1997

Little’s determination and keen business sense resulted in his success in aircraft and transportation sales in the Sunshine State. His love of adventure and aviation also led to an exciting career as a stunt pilot with the All-Miami Air Show.
In 1962, Little’s interests turned toward Unlimited hydroplanes. That year, he traded his cabin cruiser for his first race boat, the four-seat “Tempo.” With that, Little was hooked, and in 1963 he entered the boat racing sport on a limited basis.
At that time, a chance meeting with Anheuser-Busch magnate August Busch III provided an unexpected opportunity for Little. The two met when Busch chartered a plane from Little for a trip to the Bahamas, said APBA Unlimited hydroplane historian Fred Farley.
“Bernie had just acquired his Unlimited hydroplane, which Busch happened to see,” said Farley, who resides in Milton, Ky. “He ended up taking Busch for a ride,” and the rest, as they say, is history.
The two men quickly became friends, and Busch arranged for his company to back Little’s race boat, beginning the longest and most successful sponsorship in history.
With financial support from Anheuser-Busch, Little’s “Miss Budweiser” quickly moved to the forefront of Unlimited hydroplane racing. The team captured its first victory in 1966 and by 1969 had garnered its first Gold Cup and National High Points Championship.
The following year, the “Miss Budweiser,” driven by Dean Chenoweth, won its first Madison Regatta. Since then, Little’s “Miss Bud” has captured 12 additional Madison Regatta victories.
Past Regatta president (1980, 1984) Jack Lemm remembered Little’s presence in Madison throughout the years. “He and I were pretty good friends, and I always looked forward to seeing him every year,” Lemm said.
Although Little traveled the full race circuit with the team, many locals say that the Madison venue had a special place in his heart. “He always thought that Madison was one of the best of all the race sites,” said last year’s Regatta president Tony Steinhardt. “He loved to bring his family here.”
Denny Jackson, a three-time Regatta president (1989, 1994, 1999), agreed. “I think he genuinely liked (Madison),” said Jackson of Milton, Ky.
“I think this is one of the race sites they could come to and kind of let their hair down a little bit,” Jackson said about Little and his family, who usually traveled with him.

Bernie Little, Dave Villwock

Photo by Don Ward

Bernie Little with
Budweiser driver Dave Villwock.

Steinhardt, who in addition to being a past Regatta president managed the Miss Madison team for several years, also remembered Little for his kindness and generosity. Steinhardt said his race team sometimes borrowed parts from Little when his community-sponsored team was low on funds.
“Whenever I needed a part, I could just ask Bernie and he would give us what he could,” Steinhardt said.
And when the Madison Regatta faced lean years, it was Little who helped make sure that Anheuser-Busch came through with sponsorship. “If it wasn’t for Bernie and Budweiser, a couple of years ago we would have had a difficult time,” said Steinhardt, who asked for Little’s financial assistance to stage the Madison race.
Lemm also recalled Little’s support. “He helped us several times,” said Lemm. “He’d get us another $10,000, $15000 or $20,000, which helped a lot at different times. He always came through for us when we were down and out.”
For some, the Madison Regatta will seem a little different this year without Little’s powerful presence. “I really don’t think, for me, personally, the Regatta will be the same without Bernie being around,” said Jackson.
But despite the loss of a patriarch and icon, the “Miss Budweiser” Unlimited hydroplane team will return to Madison on its full-circuit tour this year. In May, the team announced that Little’s youngest son, Joe Little, would take over ownership responsibilities.
“Dad put the procedures and processes in place so that the team could continue, even when he was no longer able to run things,” said Little during a May teleconference.

Bernie & Jane Little

Photo by Don Ward

Bernie and Jane Little at the
2000 Madison Regatta.

“I can’t be my dad,” Little continued. “I can only be myself. My goal is to provide the best leadership, direction and support to the team so we can continue to win races and show value to our great sponsor, Anheuser-Busch.”
Joe Little, 45, is also the president of Bernie Little Distributors, a Florida Anheuser-Busch distributorship, and the vice president of Hydroplanes Inc.
Dave Villwock, who has been racing Unlimited hydroplanes since 1992, will continue this year as team driver and manager. According to Villwock, the team will be ready for top competition this season.
“This Budweiser team is here to compete. Bernie Little never taught us how to play defense, and Joe Little is working from the same playbook, so we won’t,” Villwock said during the May teleconference.
“Every heat and every race will be run with the goal of victory. We want to win, pure and simple.” Villwock has captured 30 wins for the Miss Budweiser team since he began driving for Little in 1997. He has won three Madison Regatta titles and survived a blowover on the Ohio River a few years ago.
Villwock and the U-1 “Miss Budweiser” team will face defending Madison Regatta champion Nate Brown, driver of the U-16 Miss Elam Plus, on the July 4-6 race weekend. It will be the team’s 40th consecutive appearance in the annual southeastern Indiana Unlimited hydroplane competition.
“We can’t replace Bernie, but he wouldn’t want us walking around looking at our feet and kicking rocks,” Villwock said.
“He would want us to go out and be all we can be, and that’s what we are going to do this season.”

Back to 2003 Madison Regatta Articles.

 

 

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