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HYDROPLANES

The Name Little Means More After Another Title

September 23, 2002|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — After 40 years as the godfather of unlimited hydroplane racing, Bernie Little may be nearing the end of his line.

Even as Little, 76, celebrated winning his 22nd championship Sunday before an estimated 80,000 boating enthusiasts in the Classmates.com Thunderboat Regatta on Mission Bay, the signs were there. A once-robust man who dominated everything and everyone in the pits for years, Little appeared frail and subdued as his son, Joe Sr., and team manager/driver Dave Villwock, unveiled a banner proclaiming Miss Budweiser as the 2002 unlimited hydroplane champion.

That came after Villwock finished second in the second heat of the Bill Muncey Cup, earning Miss Budweiser enough points to clinch the series championship. It was Villwock's sixth driver's crown.

As a final tribute to the sport's patriarch, the San Diego County board of supervisors declared Sunday as Bernie Little Day.

In his first 39 years in the sport, Little missed only two races. This year he has missed three, half the season. Joe, 45, ran the team at the ones his father missed.

When the banner was hung, though, it was Bernie's picture front and center, not Joe.

"Hey, he'll get his turn when he earns it," said the elder Little with a sly grin. "I don't worry, though, because I know Joe is ready to take over, when--and if--I ever give it up. He's been around the boats all his life and he knows what to do. It's just a case of me sticking around. What would I do if I quit? This is my life."

Little was hospitalized by pneumonia in mid-season and more recently has been troubled with pleurisy.

For the three races Bernie missed, Joe ran the team's operations and was on the phone giving his dad a lap-by-lap rundown of every heat and final as Bernie recuperated at his Lakeland, Fla. home.

It was former commissioner Bill Doner who said, "Bernie Little is the worst thing to happen to unlimited racing, and Bernie Little is the best thing to happen to unlimited racing."

Without Little and his Budweiser largess--and his passion for the sport--it would be difficult to run a season. This year his Budweiser budget sponsored the six-race series and three of the individual races. He also often helps financially-distressed teams privately to promote his sport.

Meanwhile, Miss Budweiser's domination, which at times borders on arrogance, almost killed the sport a few years ago when only a few teams wanted to race with Little. His boats have won 22 championships since 1963 and the last six in a row. Since his first race, at Guntersville, Ala., in 1963, Little has entered 354 unlimited races and his boats won 134 of them.

Villwock and Miss Budweiser never came close to No. 135 in the five-lap final heat over the 2.5-mile Muncey Memorial course as the big red boat never challenged the leaders. He finished fifth.

Michael Hanson, who won here in 1993 as the trailer boat, overcame a fast start by Mitch Evans in the piston-powered Vacationville.com to win the coveted Muncey Cup. Hanson was driving the white Sun Harbor Mortgage. Nate Brown, in Miss Elam Plus, also passed Evans to finish second.

It was the first race this season not won by either Villwock or Brown.

"About the second or third lap, my brother Larry came on the radio and said to tighten it up, so I started moving over on Vacationville and I finally got by him coming off the fourth turn," said Hanson, 41, of Auburn, Wash.

Vacationville.com started on the pole after setting an all-time piston-powered record of 160.370 mph on Saturday morning and for the better part of two laps, the piston fans in the huge throng almost drowned out the engines with their cheers.

Greg Hopp gave spectators on East Vacation Isle, in front of the unlimited pits, a nervous moment in a heat when his Miss American Pride flipped on its side and rolled over, face down, as Hopp attempted to negotiate the tight Sea World turn.

"I was going about 200 [mph], trying to catch Mike Hanson when I hit a wave and the boat teetered a bit. I thought I could save it, but it just rolled over,'' said Hopp, 34, who climbed out an escape hatch uninjured.

"I want to say that Fred Leland builds one heck of a safety cockpit. I guess it took me about 30 seconds to get out. It was an unnerving feeling."

It was also the second time that Hopp flipped at almost the same spot. As a rookie unlimited driver, he went upside down in 1999.

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