The Budweiser team wrote the opening chapter of the Tri-Cities unlimited hydroplane races in 1966 when Bernie Little’s driver, Bill Brow, took the Atomic Cup title.
On Sunday, Joe Little - Bernie’s son - and driver Dave Villwock quite possibly could have written the final chapter for that storied team by winning the 39th annual Columbia Cup.
With Anheuser Busch’s announcement earlier this year that it would quit sponsoring the U-1 Miss Budweiser race team after this season, Sunday may have been the last Tri-City race fans have seen of this unit.
And what they saw was close to perfection.
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Villwock drove flawlessly all day, winning Heat 2A and 3A before coasting to victory in the championship final.
In fact, the championship was anticlimatic when it should have been the “Thrilla in Manilla.”
It was a much-anticipated race, with the U-3 Vacationville.com and the U-1 scheduled to meet for the first time all weekend.
Neither team had faced each other in the preliminary heats Saturday or Sunday, or in the last two races - Detroit and Madison, Ind. - because the U-3 is in the middle of boycotting all Hydro-Prop races.
Like Bud, the U-3 had won every heat it had raced in to that point over the weekend, so Villwock and U-3 driver Mitch Evans were licking their chops for a meeting in the finals.
“It definitely builds the anticipation,” Evans said. “At some point you want to go up against those guys.”
“Think of what the Unlimited Lights Hydroplane Racing Association and this race site have set down,” Villwock said before the race. “It’s like an NHRA bracket. You want the big dogs to meet in the semifinals or finals. This’ll be fun.”
Villwock expected himself, Evans and the U-8 Llumar Window Film boat with driver J.W. Myers to be the front-runners for the final.
He was right - for a half lap.
The final heat was a free-for-all start with no assigned lanes, meaning whoever could claim the inside lane closest to the start of the race would have a huge advantage.
All three drivers played a mesmerizing cat-and-mouse game in the minutes leading up to the final. Evans cut off Villwock on the Franklin County side of the course, settling into Lane 1. But it was too early. Then Myers cut in, almost washing down Villwock. Yet it was still too early. There was a near-collision in the middle of the course between Myers and Villwock.
Finally, Villwock found himself tucked into Lane 1 entering the score-up buoy - a point where no one can move in - with Myers settled into Lane 2 in Villwock’s right pocket.
Evans made one last-ditch effort to cut in, but it was too late and he had to settle for Lane 3.
“I tried turning back inside, but Dave had already got to the buoy,” Evans said. “Dave rolled me over and shoved me outside.”
Said Villwock: “We had to get inside Everybody had the same idea.”
Myers loved the strategy.
“As soon as I got to the score-up buoy, I radioed my team,” Myers said. “I was just laughing because that was so much fun.”
As the race began, rookie J. Michael Kelly in the U-2 Miss APBA brought everyone down into the first turn from the outside. However, it was Villwock, in Lane 1, who got in and out of the turn first. But it got too tight in there. Myers lost sight of everything and tried using Evans on his right as a mark.
The two boats then collided. Evans - whose boat had just a scratch on it - kept on going, but Myers spun out the U-8 and ended up facing the wrong way.
“I felt like I had a boat length ahead of him,” Evans said. “Next thing I know, he just ricocheted of my left side. It wasn’t a violent collision. It was just so tight. I thought we made it through there. It was just enough to turn him around.”
Myers didn’t blame anyone.
“It was real tight going in there in that first turn,” Myers said. “My vision went away because there was a lot of water flying. Then it seemed out of nowhere, ka-boom! I got hit. I’m not gonna point fingers. That’s just hard racing.”
“Mitch came in hard and hard going out,” Villwock said. “That’s good clean racing. I know Mitch was pulling two or three more miles per hour more on me. I was just trying to stay close to the buoys at the turn. It’s always rough in there.”
Myers tried putting flotation devices on the right side of the boat to keep it afloat. The right sponson had been ripped open and was taking on water.
“I tried to keep the motor from going under water, but I couldn’t,” Myers said. “That’s two weeks in a row. I feel bad because the guys on the crew have been working their butts off six, seven weeks in a row.”
Villwock, who was able to avoid the incident, already had enough cushion on the rest of the field and he coasted to victory - his third of the season.
Little praised Villwock for his start, something that the veteran driver does better than anyone.
“Dave sits in that truck an hour before the race and plays it in his mind,” Little said. “Then he’ll come out and tell me what will happen. And he’s usually right a lot of the time.”
Evans was penalized a lap and ended up finishing fifth.
Steve David and the U-6 Oh Boy! Oberto, starting in Lane 4, finished second.
“We did the best we could with what we had,” David said. “The fuel restrictor we had to use, we weren’t set up with very well.”
Kelly, in just his first weekend of unlimited racing, placed third.
“I grew up watching these guys race,” said Kelly, 25. “I never thought I’d race against them. It’s an honor.”
Another rookie, Richland’s Steve Hook, drove the U-99 Round Table Pizza Presents Conover Insurance to a fourth-place finish.
Meanwhile, Water Follies director Emily Janikowski said she felt good about the weekend’s events and the turnout despite the 103-degree heat.
“This attendance should be comparable to last year’s, and we had 52,000 here over the course of three days,” she said.
Tom D’Eath, who was hired to run Hydro-Prop this past week, also liked what he saw.
“I think the APBA boats (U-6 and U-2) did a hell of a job here,” D’Eath said. “They came in and supported Emily Janikowski and (Water Follies president) Todd Blackman. We’re tickled. It just shows what can happen when everyone works together.
“Somehow now we’ve got to bridge the gap and get everyone back together,” he continued. “We’re gonna make this thing work.”
For Villwock and the Bud team, their future is uncertain, so Sunday’s race was satisfying.
“I’ve got to run every race as if it’s my last,” he said.