Bernie Little - King of Boats
By Fred Farley - APBA Unlimited Historian

In the years before World War II, the great Gar Wood was the undisputed king of big-time power boat racing. Named after two U.S. Presidents, Garfield Arthur Wood personified the growing sport of Unlimited hydroplane racing.

In the post-World War II era, no man compares more favorably to Gar Wood than Bernard Leroy Little. Since entering the sport in 1963, Little has achieved a record among his contemporaries that is second to none.

Wood and Little shared a Midwest cultural origin. Neither was born to great wealth. Both were self-made men. And both operated on the cutting edge of technology, constantly redefining the state-of-the-art in competitive hydroplanes and power sources.

Wood earned his initial fortune by inventing the hydraulic lift dump truck. As the first man to win five consecutive Gold Cup races (between 1917 and 1921), Gar pioneered in the application of aircraft power in race boats. Using a pair of Smith-Liberty engines at the 1920 Gold Cup Race in Detroit, Wood established a Gold Cup record. He ran the 30-mile distance at an average speed of 70.412 with Miss America I. The record stood until 1946.

Little laid the foundation for a business dynasty in aircraft and transportation sales when he and his wife, Jane, settled in Florida after the war. Little began with an automobile dealership. He then went on to exercise his interest in aviation, first as a stunt pilot with the All-Miami Air Show and later as a pioneer in Florida’s helicopter sales industry.

In the words of August Busch III, "Bernie Little started with nothing, zero, and is a very well-known self-made entrepreneur -- not only in the area of sports, but in the area of beer distribution. He’s creative, extremely energetic. He doesn’t know the meaning of the words ‘It can’t be done.’ He makes things happen."

Little, a man worth "several million --never had time to figure it out," calls Busch "the boss."

In Little’s view, "If everybody respected their bosses as much as I respect mine, boy, it’d be a great country."

Bernie, in turn, wants his people to do likewise. He prides himself on his many loyal employees who have been with him for almost 20 years. "I never asked anybody to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself. I’ll stand right beside them and mop the floor, do the dishes, wash the car or the airplane or whatever. We’re all in this together.

"I treat the poorest man on the street just like I’ll treat President Bush. And that’s a fact. I’m a people person. I like people and I like people to like me."

Anyone who succeeds, as Little has, knows the lengthy road one must walk down to enter the winner’s circle. Although in recent years Little and Miss Budweiser have virtually ruled the Unlimited waters, it hasn’t always been that way. The King of powerboat racing remembers many a long night trying to bring a balky motor to life -- work which would merely allow the team to make the field, let alone be competitive. In his life, as well as his hydroplane career. Little has acquired the qualities of hard work, aggressiveness and ingenuity that have led many other Americans to achieve greatness.

According to Busch, Little is "at his best when he’s making deals." As Mrs. Little points out. "He likes to have a lot going. On a Sunday at home, with nothing to do. he’s bored to death."

A native of McComb, Ohio. Little’s upbringing partly reflects the Great Depression. which affected so many of his generation. In the 1930’s. his father’s grocery store was a casualty of the economic instability of the time. Money was scarce, and Bernie operated a morning and evening newspaper route. "I got to the eighth grade in school," Little recalls." and then I went to work. I peddled newspapers, shoveled snow, carried golf bags over my back. whatever it took to get the job done. I’ve been working 12, 14. 16 hours a day ever since. That’s the only life I know."

At the age of 17. he joined the U.S. Navy for service during World War II. On an April night in 1945. Bernie, now a bosun’s mate, found himself aboard the USS. Marathon. a troop ship moored off Okinawa. Without warning. a Japanese suicide submarine crashed into the vessel’s hull, and the Marathon was on fire. Little was one of 36 survivors.

"Man, when you scramble out onto a burning ship’s deck, jump into the water, into smoke, oil, and flames in the middle of the night. that’s fear," he remembers. "That’s the scaredest ‘Little’ Bernie’s ever been."

After V-J Day. he spent a number of nervous days on another ship helping clear Japan’s inland waters of American-laid mines. As possible victims of these deadly devices themselves, everyone aboard hoped that the mines could be located and blown out of the water before the mines blew them out of the water. According to Little. seven of the 11 ships assigned to the duty were lost.

Little’s accomplishments in Unlimited racing are all the more impressive in light of his inauspicious introduction to the sport in 1963. This was the Dixie Cup Regatta in Guntersville, Alabama.

He arrived in Guntersville with his first boat, a four-seat pleasure craft which was named Tempo due to Little’s association with the bandleader Guy Lombardo.

"I thought racing meant nothing more than buying gasoline." Little said. "But when I looked down pit row and saw the Miss Bardahl trucks and the sophistication of the Gale racing entourage. I wondered just what the hell I was getting into."

Bernie’s boat blew its Allison engine. terminating its chances for first-time success. A rival racing team’s crew chief later pointed out that the Tempo would "probably run more efficiently if its crankshaft was not installed backwards."

During the awards banquet, Little’s first race was the subject of much amusement for the veteran Unlimited racing fraternity.

"I hate being the butt of jokes." Little declared. "I could very easily have gone home after Guntersville and sold out. But instead. I flew back to Tampa. got organized, began negotiating for new engines and equipment. and made the commitment to become a winner in Unlimited hydroplane racing."

That commitment has paid off. Since then. Little has been the one doing most of the smiling. A few years later, he returned to Guntersville with his first National Champion Miss Budweiser and decisively won all three heats of the Dixie Cup with Bill Sterett driving.

Little is now a member of the Unlimited Hydroplane Hall of Fame, the Florida Sports Hall of Fame, the Hancock Sports Hall of Fame, and the APBA Honor Squadron.

The Miss Budweiser dynasty actually started as a modest pact. growing out of a handshake between Little and August A. Busch III. It has developed into one of the most successful owner/sponsorships in all of motor sports. Every year, the Miss Budweiser roars off on the Unlimited circuit, making friends for the Anheuser-Busch companies all over the country.

Little’s relationship with the Busch family has remained strong through the years, and in fact, Bernie introduced August Busch III to Ginny. the woman who was to become Busch’s wife. "I was the best man at the wedding," says Little. "Their children are like my grandchildren. We are just a very close family--always together."

The friendship between Busch and Little is built on a very straight line," says Little. "When August asks you a question, you don’t lie and you don’t hedge. You better know the answer, or tell him you don’t. I’ve learned an awful lot from him, and he’s learned from me.

It has been Busch who has seen to it that Little has had the money to do what it takes to keep the Budweiser name out front, and Little’s long career with the Miss Budweiser reflects his own genius for marketing and sales promotion. This same expertise accounts for the tremendous success of his three Anheuser-Busch distributorships in Florida.

"I like speed and competition," Little admits. "I like a good challenge and I just want to be better, faster and safer than anyone else on the race course."

Despite his many victories and record performances with the Miss Budweiser, Little considers his greatest triumph to be the development of the enclosed capsule. In November of 1989, Little was honored for his commitment to safety by a grateful American Power Boat Association.

When Little’s driver and close friend Dean Chenoweth was tragically lost in a "blowover" accident at the Tri-Cities in 1982, Little realized that something had to be done to make the sport "safer and safer, not just faster and faster. When that [the accident] happened, Mr. Busch made it very clear we had to do something to make it safer. Today, many people owe their lives to August Busch III for making the commitment to the sport."

Over the years, Bernie has won every major award there is in racing. But perhaps the two that he cherishes most are a magnificent four-foot high bronze and silver sculptured eagle that Anheuser-Busch bestowed on him for achieving more victories than any other owner in the history of the sport, and the Unlimited Racing Commission’s coveted Gar Wood Award, of which Little was the first recipient.

A rarity in this computer-based society, Little has been a winner in nearly everything he has touched because he understands people. He demands the best of them who work for him, because he demands the best of himself.

Outwardly, you see the "best" around Bernie all of the time, from the cars he drives to the company he keeps. It is only a part of the Bernie Little mystique, but it is a gentle reminder to all who are around him that success comes from being willing to walk the extra mile.

Yet, with all of his racing accomplishments, gregariousness and tireless efforts, Little is also a deeply committed family man. The center of his private world is Jane, his wife of 48 years, whom he courted and married in nine days, their three children and three grandchildren.

"For me to define success, that starts at home," said Little, choosing his words carefully. "It means having a happy marriage and a very happy family. To me, that’s the most successful thing you can have in this life."

His style of personal involvement reaches out from home base into the racing world. When the racing pits open, Little will be working shoulder to shoulder with his boat crew as if they were his second family. No detail escapes his personal attention. His enthusiasm, which is nothing short of infectious, serves to inspire a hundred percent performance from his team.

And like his pre-war counterpart, Gar Wood, Little has total confidence in his nonpareil crew chief, Ron Brown, who is to Miss Budweiser what the legendary Orlin Johnson was to Miss America. According to Brown, "Bernie demands a lot from people. And that’s what it takes to make a machine like the Miss Budweiser run successfully.

Fred Farley. For reprint rights to this article, please contact the author at <fredf@hotmail.com>


This page was last revised Thursday, April 01, 2010.
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Leslie Field, 1999