LAKELAND, Fla, April 26, 2003 - One of the most recognizable faces in motorsports history, Bernie Little, owner of the Miss Budweiser unlimited hydroplane team passed away April 25 in Lakeland, Florida as a result of complications related to pneumonia. He was 77.
Little is survived by his wife, Jane; two sons, Bernie Little Jr. and Joe Little; a daughter, Becky Ham; a sister, Catherine Moore; and four grandchildren.
Memorial Services will be held Tuesday, April 29 at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland, Fla. In lieu of flowers the family has requested that memorial contributions be made to the Lakeland Regional Medical foundation and Watson Clinic Foundation in Lakeland, Fla.
Little was a colorful, passionate and dedicated racer of boats. His record is unsurpassed with 134 race victories, 22 World Championships and 14 APBA Gold Cups. Little had been the most successful team owner in the history of unlimited hydroplane racing.
Little's teams were sponsored by Anheuser-Busch for more than 40 years, representing one of the most successful owner/sponsor relationships in the high-powered world of motorsports.
A force in hydroplane racing since 1963, Little completed 40 consecutive seasons of competition after entering 354 Unlimited hydroplane races. Little's Miss Budweiser finished in the top three a total of 230 times. At the conclusion of the 2002 season, the Miss Budweiser team was presented with the first Bernie Little World High Points Championship Trophy, which was renamed in 2001 in Little's honor.
A native of McComb, Ohio, Little was a resident of Lakeland, Fla. As a youth growing up in the Depression era of the 1930's, he operated a morning and evening newspaper route and found time to polish cars, shovel snow and caddie at the golf course on the weekends.
After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Little and his wife settled in Florida and began building a dynasty in aircraft and automobile sales. He opened an automobile dealership, and he performed as a stunt pilot with the "All-Miami Air Show."
Later, Little started leasing airports and eventually selling and leasing airplanes. It was during this time that Little entered Unlimited hydroplane racing with his first boat, Tempo.
In 1972, Little purchased his first Anheuser-Busch distributorship in Lakeland. He later purchased two additional distributorships and turned all three into major successes.
In addition to Little's unprecedented racing accomplishments, he had received several honors both in and out of the sport of Unlimited hydroplane racing. The Unlimited Racing Commission (URC) honored Little in 1985 for his dedication to the sport with the inaugural Gar Wood Award. He was elected "Owner of the Year" 12 times by the URC; named to the Unlimited
Hydroplane Hall of Fame in 1980 and the APBA Honor Squadron in 1981; and was inducted into the Hancock County (Ohio) Hall of Fame in 1988, the Florida Sports Hall of Fame in 1982, the Stan Sayres Hall of Fame in Seattle in 1980, and the Sun Dome Walk of Fame in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1992.
Little also was the recipient of the Unlimited Racing Commission's Historical Award in 1992; was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in Novi, Mich., in 1994. Little received the prestigious Horatio Alger Award in 1994. The Award is bestowed annually to ten outstanding Americans who have achieved success despite having to overcome difficult childhood circumstances and have become adults who exemplify hard work, honesty, and service to others.
As a businessman, Little was awarded the Polk County, Fla., Top Manager of the Year Award in 1992, and was named a "Hometown Hero" by the City of Lakeland Advertising and Publicity Board in 1993.
In 1987, Missouri Valley College honored Little by granting him an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters degree in recognition of his outstanding accomplishments and service to the community. In February 1996, Little was honored with a special achievement award from the prestigious APBA Hall of Champions. It marked the first time the Hall of Champions had ever honored anyone other than a driver in its 22-year history.
For those who knew Bernie Little, he'll always be remembered as a hard charging, dedicated individual.
Bernie Little: October 7, 2925 - April 25, 2003
Legendary Miss Budweiser Unlimited Hydroplane Owner, Bernie Little, Passes Away at Age 77
Gary Garbrecht - Chairman of Hydro-Prop
"The death of Bernie Little leaves a void in the Unlimited Hydroplane community," said Gary Garbrecht, Chairman of Hydro-Prop. "Bernie has been a friend for over 35 years and I will miss his passion and spirit for life. His life story is remarkable and it is a testament to the type of individual he became. I have always had a profound respect for him and I am proud to have called him a friend."
"Bernie Little's Unlimited Hydroplane records will likely never be broken," continued Garbrecht. "But those records are not the only thing that he should be remembered for in his career. Bernie was instrumental in providing additional safety measures for the drivers of these powerful boats. In 1986, Bernie's Miss Budweiser team was the first to utilize the F-16 safety canopy, which eventually became mandatory on all Unlimited Hydroplanes. That initiative has saved numerous lives and has made our racing one of the safest in the realm of motorsports."
Dave Villwock - Miss Budweiser Driver and Team Manager
"Bernie was a mentor, a friend and a family member all at the same time," said David Villwock, driver of the U-1 Miss Budweiser. "Everyone through the years of the Miss Budweiser team looked to Bernie for guidance and stability."
"With Bernie's passing, we'll have to move on," Villwock said. "We know that's what Bernie would want us to do, and he did his best to prepare us for that. Bernie always tried to help the team and others move forward and be successful. Bernie was bigger than life and he'll be missed."