Bill Bennett Remembered
By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
Casino owner William G. ("Bill") Bennett, a long-time participant in Unlimited hydroplane racing, passed away on December 22, 2002, in Las Vegas, Nevada. He was 78.
Mr. Bennett owned and/or sponsored Unlimiteds between 1978 and 1993 under the aegis of MISS CIRCUS CIRCUS. He was also active in Offshore powerboat racing and radio-controlled model competition.
The MISS CIRCUS CIRCUS team made its debut at the 1978 San Diego race on Mission Bay where they placed third with Jim Harvey as crew chief and Steve Reynolds as driver. Bennett had promoted a well-known 225 Cubic Inch Class racing team--the WHITE LIGHTNING--to the Unlimited ranks and given them an "unlimited" budget.
In 1979, Bennett unveiled a new Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered state-of-the-art hull, designed by Dave Knowlen and built by Norm Berg. The Bennett/Harvey/Reynolds combination, together with co-owner Bill Pennington, finished second in National High Points, scored a victory at San Diego, and established a world lap speed record of 133.136 on a 2.5-mile course at the Tri-Cities, Washington. Pilot Reynolds was also designated as Rookie of the Year.
The 1980 season garnered mixed reviews. A steady turn-over in personnel resulted in an uneven performance. Surprisingly, most of the original WHITE LIGHTNING team members were discharged--despite their stellar year in 1979. A second-place by MISS CIRCUS CIRCUS at Evansville, Indiana, was the team's best 1980 performance.
Bennett concentrated on an experimental four-point hydroplane in 1981, but it failed to achieve competitive results. The craft was an enlargement of a radio-controlled model that had been highly successful. Unfortunately, something was lost in the transition to a full-sized race boat. With Ron Armstrong driving, the four-point MISS CIRCUS CIRCUS finished only one heat during 1981--in last-place.
Bennett had a soft spot for the San Diego race and was the title sponsor for it in 1980, 1981, and 1982. He retired temporarily as an Unlimited owner after 1981 but made a spectacular comeback a few years later. He sponsored one of Fran Muncey's turbine-powered boats in 1988 and won the APBA Gold Cup at Evansville with co-drivers John Prevost and Chip Hanauer.
With the retirement from the sport by Mrs. Muncey, Bennett bought her entire equipment inventory, which included two top-notch hulls, and returned as a full-fledged owner in 1989. He hired Hanauer as driver and Dave Villwock as crew chief.
The years 1989 and 1990 represented the high water mark for Bill Bennett in Unlimited racing.
The pink-with-white-and-blue-trim MISS CIRCUS CIRCUS won nine races during those two seasons and finished second and first in National High Points.
At Syracuse, New York, in 1989, MISS CIRCUS CIRCUS was virtually destroyed in a spectacular blow-over accident. The team came back to score victories in Seattle and Las Vegas.
The 1990 campaign was an uphill struggle all the way for Bennett, Hanauer, and Villwock. With six down and five races remaining, MISS CIRCUS CIRCUS trailed MISS BUDWEISER by almost a thousand points. The CIRCUS had failed to start in the Final Heat at the Tri-Cities and had been penalized for rule infractions at Detroit and Syracuse.
Then, in the last month and a half of the season, the Bennett team sparked one of the great comebacks in racing history. They won four of the next five races and finished five-hundred points ahead of rival MISS BUDWEISER in the final standings. Moreover, MISS CIRCUS CIRCUS raised the world lap speed record for a 2.5-mile course to 168.128 in qualification on Mission Bay.
At season's end, it was six race victories for MISS CIRCUS CIRCUS, compared to five wins for MISS BUDWEISER. The CIRCUS also claimed the National Championship throne, which had been occupied the four previous years by the BUDWEISER.
Bill Bennett now stood at the very top of Unlimited racing. And he decided to go out a winner. He quit while he was ahead and once again retired as an owner. A few weeks after the end of the season, he sold his boats to Steve Woomer.
Bennett's final involvement with the Unlimited sport occurred in 1993, when he briefly sponsored the Ron Jones, Jr., team. But this arrangement was canceled in mid-season after the boat flipped while warming up for the first heat of the Tri-Cities race.
Between 1978 and 1993, the various MISS CIRCUS CIRCUS hydroplanes attended a total of 61 Unlimited races and finished in the top-three at 28 of them. They finished first eleven times, second twelve times, and third five times.
(1) 1979 - San Diego, CA - Steve Reynolds
(1) 1979 - Miami, FL - Steve Reynolds
(1) 1978 - San Diego, CA - Steve Reynolds