Pak Owner Stayed on Cutting Edge of Boat Racing
By Mark McKenna - Reprinted from Tri-Cities Herald, July 14, 2004
Legendary hydroplane owner Bernie Little loved nothing more than to command his Miss Budweiser to hit the water and sink the competition.
During his 40-year career as the Bud boss, which began in 1963 and ended with his death in 2003, Little's boats won 134 races, 14 Gold Cups and 22 World High Points Championships.
While there's no question Little is the godfather of the sport, there's also little doubt who his greatest nemesis was during the mid-1970s. That distinction belonged to Dave Heerensperger, the proud owner of the Pay 'N Pak.
Heerensperger's boats, named after his hardware stores, won three consecutive national championships from 1973-75. Mickey Remund drove the Pak to the 1973 title before George Henley took the seat in 1974 and 1975. The Pak also won the Gold Cup in '74 (Seattle) and '75 (Tri-Cities), and it would have won the big race in '73 had it not lost a propeller while leading the final lap of the championship heat.
"Bernie and I were great friends -- he was the best man in my wedding," Heerensperger said. "But I loved to kick the Budweiser's fanny."
The Pak, decked out in white with orange lettering trimmed in black, was made of honeycomb aluminum and nicknamed the "Winged Wonder" because of its horizontal stabilizer. It was designed and constructed by Ron Jones, and Jim Lucero served as its crew chief.
"I think we turned hydroplane racing on its ear with that boat," Heerensperger said. "We had a great crew, a great driver ... everything came together perfectly."
Heerensperger sold the boat to Bill Muncey in 1976, and Muncey kept its successful voyages going by winning another national title as the Atlas Van Lines.
But Heerensperger wasn't out of the sport long. In 1979, Lucero approached him about building a turbine-powered boat, and the gung-ho Heerensperger signed on.
The turbine Pak made its debut at the Tri-City race in 1980 despite the fact it wasn't quite "dialed in." That was obvious during a last-minute test session the morning of the race when the boat sailed into the air at 160 mph, made nearly two complete flips and splashed into the Columbia. Driver John Walters, then a 27-year-old rookie, suffered a broken hip and several lesser injuries.
"Oh s---- was my reaction," Heerensperger said. "All I was worried about was John's safety."
The turbine was repaired in time for the 1981 season and finished second in the Gold Cup in Seattle. In 1982, it became the first turbine to win a race when Walters out dueled the Budweiser to win in Romulus, N.Y. It would be the boat's only victory.
"Maybe we were a little ahead of our time, but I think the big problem with the turbine was that we rushed it," Heerensperger said. Heerensperger decided to leave the sport for good in 1982 and sold his team to Steve Woomer.
"I had enough. I won my Gold Cups and national championships, and I couldn't stand watching my drivers get hurt any more," he said.
Heerensperger, who know lives in Bellevue, was drawn into the sport in 1962 while living in Spokane, where he ran his business, Eagle Electric and Plumbing.
While reading the Spokane Chronicle one day, he came across an invitation to join the Miss Spokane team.
"They were looking for someone to invest $5,000, and I was dumb enough to do it," Heerensperger joked.
Heerensperger sponsored the boat, owned by Bob Gilliam, and ran it under the name Miss Eagle Electric and Plumbing for the 1963-64 seasons.
Heerensperger then became a boat owner, purchasing $-Bill in 1967 and renaming it the Miss Eagle Electric. In 1968, the hydro, nicknamed the "Screaming Eagle," won the Atomic Cup in the Tri-Cities.
"The Tri-Cities was always my favorite race," Heerensperger said. "The people who ran it were efficient and friendly. The course was fast, and the fans were right on top of the water."
The 1968 season, however, would end tragically for Heerensperger's race team. During the final heat of the Gold Cup in Detroit, which was postponed until September, Miss Eagle Electric's driver, Col. Warner Gardner, was killed when the boat rolled and crashed into the water upside down.
Heerensperger decided to keep racing, and in 1969 introduced the outrigger hydroplane -- the Pride of Pay 'N Pak -- after purchasing the chain of Northwest stores. This new radical hydro had gaps between the center hull and sponsons, designed to reduce lift. The boat was difficult to handle and after only five races, the last in the Tri-Cities, was retired.
"It was a real bow wow, a real dog," Heerensperger said.
Heerensperger, always the innovator, built a new boat powered by two Hemi engines for the 1970 season. But after the boat failed to live up to expectations, driver Tommy Fults jumped in the second Pride of Pay 'N Pak -- a hull bought at the end of the 1969 season and renamed Pay 'N Pak's 'lil Buzzard -- and won the 1970 Atomic Cup.
But Heerensperger couldn't escape his bad luck. Fults was killed during qualifying for the Gold Cup in San Diego.
Heerensperger then hired Lucero, who reconfigured the automotive boat and installed it with a Rolls Royce Merlin engine. The boat won three races in 1971 and another in 1972.
Heerensperger, who also founded Eagle Hardware and Garden, Inc. before selling it to Lowe's in 1999, said he doesn't miss hydroplane racing. He became involved in horse racing in 1980 and has owned as many as 50 horses at one time. His best ever was Millennium Wind, the winner of the 2001 Blue Grass Stakes who went on to finish 11th in the Kentucky Derby.
However, he still looks back fondly on his hydroplane career and has a special place in his heart for the Tri-City race.
"I have all my hydroplane trophies and about 250 softball trophies in storage, but the only one I have in my house is from the 1968 Atomic Cup. It's a beauty."