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Tuesday, March 02, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Bob Condotta
The Miss Budweiser the winningest boat in the history of unlimited hydroplane racing will be no more after this season.
The Anheuser-Busch company announced that it will discontinue its sponsorship of anything related to hydroplane racing after the 2004 season, a decision that could change the entire face of the sport.
It's a decision that also likely will result in the retirement of Bud driver Dave Villwock, whose 41 victories are third-most in hydroplane history behind Bill Muncey and Chip Hanauer. Villwock said yesterday he has no interest in racing a boat other than the Miss Bud on the Hydro-Prop circuit. "This is probably my farewell season," he said.
Anheuser-Busch has been involved in hydroplane racing since 1963. It not only funded the Bud team so well that the boat has dominated for years, winning a record 23 national championships and 136 races, but has also long been the title sponsor for the Hydro-Prop tour and individual races.
Villwock said he thinks the loss of the money Anheuser-Busch pumped into hydroplanes could be a big blow for a sport that has struggled in recent years.
"Hopefully there will be a future for some form of supreme class of boat racing," he said.
In a statement, Anheuser-Busch said, "We constantly evaluate our marketing programs and have decided to reallocate our resources and not renew our series, team and event sponsorships after this season. Based on our long-standing relationship with the sport ... and the Miss Budweiser team, this was a very difficult decision."
But not one that was entirely unexpected as Bud's sponsorship had been tied to the company's close relationship with longtime boat owner Bernie Little, who died last April at age 77.
"We all knew this could happen when Bernie passed away," said Eric Radovich, director of public relations for Seafair.
The hydroplane race at Seafair, however, seems secure for the time being despite the loss of Budweiser's dollars. The race will have Chevrolet as its title sponsor for the next two years, including this year's Aug. 8 competition. And Radovich said Seafair earned "less than five percent" of its sponsorship dollars from Anheuser-Busch. "It will probably have a more significant impact at other sites," Radovich said.
Budweiser team members had also complained loudly in recent years about efforts by Hydro-Prop CEO Gary Garbrecht to bring more parity to the sport, most of which meant slowing down the Bud. It's been estimated the Bud had a budget of roughly $2 million to $3 million, dwarfing the budgets of other boats.
"You have to treat a sponsor with respect and a degree of fairness if they happen to be a competitor, and I don't know that that was the case," Villwock said.
But Garbrecht said he didn't look upon the loss of Budweiser's money "as a major thing" and said the loss of the Bud and a team that was tough to compete against might entice new sponsors into hydro racing.
"Sponsors come and go and maybe it's time (for Bud to go)," Garbrecht said. "I expect to have that sponsorship replaced by the summer. There's a good side and a bad side to everything. Bud was certainly an intimidating sponsor with the team they had out on the water, and I'm not so sure if it didn't contribute to some major sponsors leaving the sport in the last 20 years."
Maybe. But the loss of the Miss Budweiser will deprive the sport of its most identifiable competitor, a boat alternately loved and hated for its domination in much the same manner as baseball's New York Yankees.
"Certainly, they've been a big draw," said Emily Janikowski, event director for the Columbia Cup race in the Tri-Cities.
That race is one of four that has Budweiser as its title sponsor this year, and all will have to look elsewhere in the future.
Also at issue is the future of the Bud team. Bernie Little's son, Joe Little, headed it up last season and was prepared to run it as long as Budweiser was a sponsor.
"We're going to run it this season and treat it as a farewell tour," Villwock said. "It's really going to be an emotional time for a lot of people. People came out to see her win or get beat, and either was OK. It will be sad to see her go."
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Budweiser by the numbers
42: Years as a sponsor (first year was 1963)
23: National championships won by the Miss Budweiser
360: Races entered by the Miss Budweiser
136: Races won by the Miss Budweiser
14: Gold Cups won by the Miss Budweiser
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