Bernie Little, Sr. Professional Hustler

The Miami News – June 3, 1981 - Tom Archdeacon

Up in the little farm towns of northwest Ohio, those who know Bernie Little still get a chuckle out of the story. A lumberman named Mike, one of Bernie's buddies from the old days, told the tale from Rader's Happy Hour Bar, a shot and beer joint in tiny McComb, Bernie's birthplace.

"There was this car dealer over in the next town and he had an old Kaiser Frazer he couldn't sell," the lumberman said. "Bernie comes walking into the place one day and asks about the car. The dealer said he wanted $1,600 for it, but he couldn't sell the thing for the life of him. The car had been setting on the lot for a long time. Bernie was scratching back then, not near so successful. But he just smiled at the dealer and promised he'd be back.

"A little later Bernie walks back in with his arm around this old farmer. Bernie is talking to the guy the whole time. They both look at the car and finally the farmer peels out $2,200 cash. Well, the car dealer pulls Bernie aside and says, 'I thought I told you it was only $1,600?'

"Bernie just grinned at him and said, "That's right, I'll take the other $600." The car dealer and the farmer just stood there and watched as Bernie took his commission and walked out of the place smiling.

"The farmer looked at the dealer, then at the car. Finally he made the confession. He didn't even know how to drive!"

That sales job was classic Bernie Little. Nothing has changed.

Today, some 30 years later, Little no longer peddles cars for a few hundred bucks commission. His rags-to-riches tale of an eight-grade dropout in little McComb turned millionaire entrepreneur who has mixed sparkle with aggression.

He wears an eight-carat diamond the size of a grape on the little finger of his left hand, a diamond set in a Banque Suisse gold bar on a gold chain around his neck. He drives a Rolls Royce Corniche, flies his own $1.3 million twin-engine Agusta jet helicopter, sails the 110-foot yacht he keeps behind the Jockey Club, quotes Oral Roberts and chews a lot of Rolaids.

"I've always believed you've got to be a self-starter," Little said. "I've always believed there was a Mister Right for everything, you just had to find him. And once I do, I've always been a good closer of deals."

He lives in Lakeland and has the Central Florida beer distributorship for Anheuser-Busch. His company is considered one of the best in the brewery's chain of 1,000. He is a board member of a bank in Clearwater, sells jet airplanes and helicopters and his Palm Beach Rolls Royce dealership is the largest in the world.

But Bernie Little has made his biggest splash in boat racing, with the thundering unlimited hydroplanes and, to a lesser degree, on the offshore powerboat circuit. It is hydroplane racing where his rise has been most visual, most dramatic.

His first unlimited hydroplane race was 19 years ago. It ended in embarrassment. His driver blew one engine leaving the docks. After an all-night repair attempt, Little still couldn't get his boat to run by race time. It was another driver who finally pointed out that the Little crew had somehow installed the crankshaft backwards. They never made the race and were nearly hooted out of the awards ceremony afterwards. But the laughter died long ago.

Today, with its brewery sponsorship, Little's Miss Budweiser is the best-known boat in hydroplane racing. He has become unlimited hydroplane's winningest owner with 34 career victories, five national championships (including the 1980 title) and four American Power Boat Association Gold Cups.

The Champion Spark Plug Regatta at Miami Marine Stadium this weekend opens the 1981 season and once again the Miss Budweiser, the defending champ, is the top boat in the field. Besides his winning record, Little is considered the sport's biggest booster and its most entertaining personality.

"Bernie is very flamboyant, and beneath that ... he's even more flamboyant," said Bill Muncey, the winningest driver in the sport. "He's a professional hustler, a colorful wheeler dealer and he's excellent at what he does. He's respected on the circuit for his tremendous contributions and is singularly more responsible for the public attention to the sport than anyone associated with it."

"He made the Miss Budweiser the most popular boat in the sport, no one else comes close. The corporation, over the past four or five years, has supported it with at least $50 million. Any team publicized at that level is bound to be the best known. Fortunately, our sport has been able to ride on its coattails."

Little spends quite a bit of time in the Miami area, conducting business out of the Jockey Club or his Palm Beach car dealership. When he commutes from Lakeland, his new jet helicopter makes the trip in just 55 minutes.

Little joined the Navy as a teenager from McComb. It seemed like a better prospect than school, where he repeated two grades before quitting after the 8th grade. After being sent home from the Merchant Marines with asthma, he talked his way into the Navy and went to sea on the U.S.S. Marathon. He has the ship's name along with a dagger tattooed on his arm to commemorate the occasion.

But the Marathon never became a happy memory. A Japanese suicide sub crashed into the big troop ship one hot July night in Buckner Bay off Okinawa. It was 1945 and Little, a bosun's mate, was just 19. Amid the explosions, fire and smoke, he scrambled to the deck in his shorts. Everywhere he looked men lay dead, so he jumped overboard in the dark. He was one of only 36 men who survived. More than 200 men died.

The ship sustained a gapping 20-by-40 hole, so the Navy decided to patch it and use it as a minesweeper over the Inland Sea. Little and nine other men guided the ship, becoming human daredevils as they wore football helmets and life jackets while they stood on egg crates platforms padded with mattresses.

"The mines were supposed to pop up behind us after we went over them," said Little. "Instead, a lot of them came up too quick and blew off the rear ends of several ships. We lost a few good men and four of 11 ships."

Little's hazardous duty lasted two months and then he was discharged. But when he got back home to McComb, he felt out of place. That's when he hatched his first car-dealing scheme.

He took the 1941 Chevrolet his wife had gotten him upon his return, drove it to the west coast and sold it for $1,000 profit. He made a couple more such trips and that was the start of a storied career selling cars at dealerships from Ohio to Miami Beach.

Eventually a shady business associate ruined Little in Ohio. A car-dealing scheme went sour, the associate skipped town and Bernie was forced to sell everything he owned to pay the debts. Finally, Little moved to Miami with a wife and family and just $170 in his pocket. He was desperate for a job when he showed up at the old J.D. Ball Ford Agency.

"I told the sales manager I could outsell all 35 of his salesmen, but he kept telling me he didn't have an opening," said Little. "I started on him at eight in the morning and by that afternoon I finally had him convinced. I sold a car that first day and every day after that for weeks. Within five months, I was his top salesman."

Little and his wife now live in Eaglewood, their 11 acre estate on Scott Lake just outside of Lakeland. The bar room in the back of their home is Bernie's showroom. A sailfish and dolphin are mounted on the wall along with an antelope head. Zebra skins lay on the floor, a stuffed pheasant sits on the back bar. A performing cockatoo and a Black African parrot sit in their cages, gifts from brewer Augie Busch, III. It is from this room that Little can look out over the lake ... although that wasn't always the case.

"We used to have just seven acres here," said Little. "A doctor with a four-bedroom home lived next door. His house blocked part of our view, so I bought his place and then bulldozed it. We can see the water fine now."

When Bernie Little wants something, he gets it. That's never been more evident than in unlimited hydroplane racing.

He got into the sport on a spur of the moment deal. He was reading the sports page and saw a picture of a movie star sitting in Tempo, Guy Lombardo's unlimited hydroplane. The boat was at Lombardo's St. Petersburg resort where a movie was being filmed. Little called Lombardo, who invited him to come over and take a ride in the Tempo.

"It was the greatest thrill of my life," said Little. "I wanted that boat so I traded him the 38-foot Chris Craft I had just bought. I didn't know anything about boat racing, but I thought I had the fastest thing in the world. I took it to the next race, the Dixie Cup in Guntersville, Ala."

He made a flashy entrance with a limo and a chauffeur, but quickly realized he was in over his head. The other teams had pit crews, spare engines, back-up boats. What's more, he had talked Augie Busch, III into sponsoring him for this one race. But this was the bumbled initiation where he ended up the butt of all the jokes at the awards ceremony.

"I don't like being laughed at," said Little. "I thought to myself during that banquet, 'All right you SOBs, this won't happen again. Some day I'll be the one laughing'."

He convinced Busch not to give up on him, that unlimited hydroplanes would give the company the world's fastest beer commercial, a 200 miles per hour billboard. The two men have stayed together 19 years.

Little goes all-out with the unlimited hydros. "Every time we get into the water we want to win," he said. "I don't care about second or third."

But sometimes the price is high. Since he began racing he has had three drivers killed, two in unlimited hydroplaning, and this past year Joel Halpern died in one of Little's offshore powerboats.

More than a dozen unlimited hydroplanes have been lost in crashes, too. The last two nearly cost the life of Dean Chenoweth, the Miss Budweiser's veteran driver. Two years ago, in an attempt to establish a new world record in the straightaway, the boat was destroyed in a spectacular 220 mph crash on Seattle's Lake Washington. Chenoweth was critically injured.

Discussing the crashes and the deaths sobers Little until his arms break out in goose bumps. His voice trails off into a whisper. "The worst things have seemed to happen to me. I've paid a lot, but then I guess it was due, because I know I sure have taken a lot from life."

He frowned and his face furrowed into five deep creases across his forehead. Suddenly Bernie Little looked all of his 55 years. But the melancholy was momentary and with a shift of gears, the wrinkles disappeared and the blue eyes again flashed their diamond sparkle. He had to catch a plane to St. Louis where he had to wrap up a million dollar deal before nightfall.

And then Little roared off, his colorful legacy trailing behind him like one of those magnificent rooster tails that fans up behind the Miss Budweiser as she thunders through the water with her throttle wide open.