Like the sport he dominates, Bernie-Little is racy, highly audible and disasterproof. The only man in recent memory to crash a helicopter on a Miami street, a feat he performed last year, Little backflipped into unlimited hydroplane racing in much the same way just eight years ago. He bought a boat and named it Tempo after Guy Lombardo's racers. It never found the beat. But since Little's flair for success is as pronounced as his instinct for survival, he soon became a winner. Indeed, so consistent a winner that his Miss Budweiser captured the national championship in both 1969 and 1970. Last weekend, in a grand commingling of chaos and sporting �lan at Dallas, of all places, Little, Miss Budweiser and Driver Dean Chenoweth won the title again.
Among those who shared Little's glee as the departing racing crowd slogged up the muddy banks of Lake Dallas, a 20-mile-long slash of moisture in a state that is no water wonderland, was Gussie Busch, the beer king, who seems to appear at hydro races more often than at his Cardinals' baseball games. Maybe that is because it costs him a trifling $150,000 a year to fancy up Miss Budweiser as a 200-mph billboard—one that delivers, and can't give him any lip.
What Little might say to Busch is something else. What does he have to lose but the world's fastest beer commercial? And not having yielded his life by now, he has a kind of colossal cool. He has earned it. Flash back to an April night in 1945. Bernie, age 18, is a bosun's mate aboard a troop ship moored off Okinawa. A Japanese suicide sub smashes into the ship, the U.S.S. Marathon, and as one of the 36 survivors, Bernie scrambles up on deck and bails out. "Man, when you jump into smoke, oil and flame in the middle of the night, that's fear," he recalls. "That's the scaredest Little Bernie's ever been."
Grant him guts, but you wonder about the brains. Little volunteered to reboard the still floating Marathon to help patch the hull, and afterward volunteered to steer that expendable vessel through Japanese minefields to help clear them. People like Little were given football helmets and assorted additional protective gear, then sent through the minefields to try to shiver mines loose from their moorings, whereupon marksmen in gunboats would blow them up. The trouble was, some of the mines blew up the mine mowers. After 60 days of such boating fun, Bernie and Marathon were still intact, and Bernie called it quits.
He emerged from the South Pacific to become a supersalesman of yachts and airplanes. Naturally, he flew some of the latter in air races. And, naturally, there were incidents. "I've landed wheels off," he says. "I've had wheels collapse. I've had pretty near every kind of accident there is." Then he added thoughtfully: "Except fire."
By getting rich from his high-class huckstering, Little was able to play on Lombardo's street. He saw Tempo one day at a marina in St. Petersburg. "I gotta have that," he thought, and promptly traded a new 38-foot Chris-Craft for it. Soon he showed up for a race at Guntersville, Ala. in a long, black chauffeured limousine. He garbed his racing driver in the same basic black. Little possessed one untried boat and two engines; his competitors boasted vans of parts, acres of spare engines, platoons of mechanics and drivers who thought his man's uniform was real precious. They laughed when they heard that Little put the crankshaft in one of his engines back to front, and guffawed when Tempo nearly broke in two on its first practice lap. "I hate," said Little, "to be laughed at."
So he applied money and sweat. En route to the top he has had eight different unlimiteds in eight years and has won virtually every race that is run in the United States and Canada. He has also seen three of his boats crash in a big way and had "the lights go dim," as he puts it, when two of his drivers were killed.
As the chief and most visible owner of the champion boat (Little has as an almost silent partner a California sportsman, Tom Friedkin), he throws a wide loop around an often muddled sport. Rules are occasionally observed in the breach, prize money is often scarce, the racing itself is all too often dull—and the casualty rate is appalling. Rare is the year that is unmarred by the death of a driver or two. In 1966 three of the best were killed on the Potomac at Washington in a single afternoon. No hydro race is free of all confusion, but in Texas the normal quotient was compounded by heavy midweek rain and the fact that it was the first such event ever for Lake Dallas. Initially scheduled for Saturday, the finals were postponed until Sunday when rain washed away the pits. From the new pits boats had to be towed out through shallow water between rows of boat sheds, first by skin divers, then powerboats. Just getting a boat out sometimes took 20 minutes.
Little was all over the place, now wiping down Miss Budweiser, now helping retrieve Hallmark Homes, which embarrassingly sank in the pits, now directing the directors of a commercial being shot around Miss Bud, now roaring around on his motorcycle, now shouting salutations through the bullhorn of his bus, a luxurious motorized pad.
To be sure, Little could afford his exuberance since he had acquired a long lead on the boat nearest to Miss Budweiser in the season's point standings. Miss Madison. It would take a catastrophe of near-Marathon proportions to blow the championship. But hydroplane racing being what it is, that was not a possibility to be completely dismissed. Boats ram other boats, take off like airplanes, blow their engines, sometimes even fail to start.