SAN DIEGO — Winning in boat racing, as in almost any motorized sport, comes down to cubic dollars. More than cubic inches. The guy with the most money can buy the best equipment, the best crew, the best of everything.
Florida beer distributor Bernie Little, with seemingly unlimited access to the Anheuser-Busch brewery vault, has the cubic dollars in unlimited hydroplane racing, the big Thunderboats whose tiny propellers fling seven tons of water behind them in gigantic roostertails.
Little can buy the best, so it is no surprise that he has Jim Kropfeld, 47, to drive his turbine-powered national championship boat, Miss Budweiser.
Kropfeld was 42 before he ever drove one of the unlimiteds, an age when most drivers are thinking of retiring. But the Cincinnati native--who still runs a muffler shop in his hometown--had established a legacy as one of the world's finest limited boat drivers before Little called on him to replace Dean Chenoweth in 1982.
Chenoweth, the national champion at the time, was killed July 31, 1982, during a qualifying run for the Columbia Cup race near Pasco, Wash.
"I was having the time of my life running limiteds, traveling all over the place and winning just about every race we ran, so getting an unlimited ride wasn't my top priority," Kropfeld said. "I'd met Bernie (Little) a couple of times and Dave Culley told me that Dean (Chenoweth) had said I should get the ride when he retired at the end of the '82 season. Culley was crew chief on Dean's boat and a good friend of mine."
Kropfeld, driving in the 225-cubic inch class, won his sixth national championship in 1981 and won the world championship in a Grand Prix boat.
"Then when Dean was killed, it changed things around," he said. "I got a call the next day from Bernie, asking me if I could drive the Bud boat in the last three races of the season. Seattle was the following week and I didn't have an unlimited license. There was no time to get one so he got Ron Armstrong to drive in that one, but he said he still wanted me for San Diego and Houston.
"I guess I hesitated a little because Bernie said he didn't think I sounded enthusiastic about it. He said he had to know because he had a bunch of young guys bugging him about getting in his boat.
"I told him I wasn't dying to jump into an unlimited, but I'd make a deal with him. I'd drive in the two races and if I wasn't happy, or he wasn't happy, we'd shake hands and that would be the end of it."
After not placing in San Diego, Kropfeld went to Houston for the world championship race. He and Chip Hanauer, in the Atlas Van Lines boat, won the first two heats. In the championship heat, Kropfeld set a world 2 1/2-mile lap record of 135.338 m.p.h., but 500 feet from the finish line he ran out of fuel. Hanauer went on to win.
"It took about a half hour before I got towed in," Kropfeld said, "and when I got to the dock, Bernie had taken off. I thought, 'Oh, boy, he's so burned up he didn't even wait around to chew me out.' I figured it was back to the limiteds for me.
"But the next day he called, all excited, and said that he'd been down in the dumps after Dean was killed, but that he had all his old enthusiasm back after seeing his boat run so well. I've been with him ever since."
Kropfeld was named Rookie of the Year for his two-race performance in 1982 and quickly began to build a new legacy in the unlimiteds. He won four races in 1983, one more than national champion Hanauer, and then dominated the 1984 season by winning six races and the championship.
Last year, in one of the American Power Boat Assn.'s most dramatic finishes, Kropfeld and Miss Budweiser won the championship in the final heat of the final race, overcoming a 69-point lead by Hanauer and the Miller American, at the Las Vegas Silver Cup on Lake Mead.
Six wins in seven races this season have lifted Kropfeld to fourth place in the all-time driver standings with 20 career wins in only five seasons. He trails only Bill Muncey (62), Chenoweth (25) and Hanauer (23).
This weekend, on a 2 1/2-mile salt water oval laid out in calm and picturesque Mission Bay, Kropfeld is a prohibitive favorite to win his seventh race and clinch his third championship in the APBA's most prestigious race, the Gold Cup. Qualifying today and Saturday will set the field for Sunday's championship.
Chip Hanauer has won five straight Gold Cups, equaling the 65-year-old record established by Gar Wood when he drove Miss Detroit and Miss America to five straight between 1917 and 1921.
The confident Kropfeld, no shrinking violet, sees no reason why he shouldn't win.
"We're running so much better (than any other team) with our new boat that most of the time the races haven't even been close," he said. In 17 heats this year, Kropfeld has won 14 and the only final heat he lost was at Detroit where he jumped the gun and was penalized a lap. Despite that he passed three boats and finished third.