Happenstance Leads to Long Sponsorship
For Bernie Little, it all started with a newspaper, a movie, and a boat ride. That's how he began one of the most well known racing enterprises in the world, the Miss Budweiser unlimited hydroplane team.
Saturday, between qualifying runs bgy the two boats he has entered in this weekend's Virginia Is For Lovers Cup, he took the time to tell the story. It still makes him smile, laugh.
It happened in 1962 in Little's home state of Florida. He was into airplanes then. He owned them, sold them, rented them, even had his own airport.
And he also had a boat, a 38-foot pleasure yacht his wife, Jane, decorated. Remember that yacht.
One day Little opened his newspaper, and there was a picture of a 4-seat unlimited hydroplane. It was being used in a Guy Lombardo movie, Port of Call, that was being shot in the area.
After finagling a ride on the boat, Little had one thing to say: "I've got to have this boat." Not only was it fast, it was unusual. It was the only 4-seat hydroplane around.
Have it he did -- he traded the family yacht for the hydroplane, truck, trailer, and a spare engine. Then came the tough part. He had to explain to Jane what happened to the yacht.
Not long after that, August Busch III, of the Anheuser-Busch empire's Busches, showed up at Little's. The two had known each other for more than a year. Busch was there to rent an airplane.
Bernie said he had something Busch had to see. "We took the boat out on Tampa Bay," Little said. "I drove, and August was in the other front seat. Orion Burkhardt was in one of the backseats. I got it up to about 130 miles per hour, then I let August drive it."
In those days, hydroplanes were open cockpit affairs. None of the space-age canopy stuff that adorns the modern craft.
Busch, too, pushed it to 130 miles per hour. "Orion was beating him on the head, telling him that's enough," Little recalled, laughing.
Burkhardt moved on to become founding chairman of the Anheuser-Busch Golf Classic, the annual PGA Tour event at Kingsmill Golf Club. He remained chairman until his death in 1992. The tournament has since been renamed the Michelob Championship.
But Burkhardt wasn't thinking about golf that day on Tampa Bay. He was thinking returning to solid ground.
Back at the dock, Busch talked about how much he enjoyed the hydroplane ride and the boat itself. Little suggested a sponsorship. When Busch asked how much, Little said, "Oh, $5,000 to buy a little gas."
That forged what is now the longest running continuous sponsorship in motorsports, one entering its 35th year. The only other relationship even close is NASCAR's Richard Petty and his STP affiliation.
That first year, Little raced the boat under its original name, Tempo. "The boat was No. 13," Little recalled. "I kept that and the team colors, too."
In 1963 it became the Miss Budweiser. The Miss Budweiser teams, boats with the famous bright-red hulls, have won 16 world championships in 33 years, including five in a row.
Miss Budweiser is now one of the most recognized names in racing. Not boat racing. All of racing. For Little, that struck home when former driver Chip Hanauer told him about something that happened.
Hanauer was on an airline flight. An elderly woman next to him struck up a conversation. What do you do, she asked. Hanauer said he recaed boats. She said what kind. He said unlimited hydroplanes. Big boats that go fast. "Oh," she exclaimed. "You mean like the Miss Budweiser?"
(Reprinted from The Daily Press, Hampton, Va., Sunday, May 25, 1997)
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© Leslie Field, 1999