Driver Dave Villwock flies Bernie Little’s Miss Budweiser through a corner at Madison in 2004 en route to the last of Little’s record 14 Indiana Governor’s Cup wins. The Budweiser team dominated Unlimited racing for parts of three decades but the series is wide open now. The disbandment of Little’s deep team has scattered top quality race boats and equipment over a number of the series’ teams and that has brought more parity to boat racing than the Unlimiteds have seen in many years. (Courier file photo by Mark Campbell)
Driver Dave Villwock flies Bernie Little’s Miss Budweiser through a corner at Madison in 2004 en route to the last of Little’s record 14 Indiana Governor’s Cup wins. The Budweiser team dominated Unlimited racing for parts of three decades but the series is wide open now. The disbandment of Little’s deep team has scattered top quality race boats and equipment over a number of the series’ teams and that has brought more parity to boat racing than the Unlimiteds have seen in many years. (Courier file photo by Mark Campbell)
There was a time, not too very long ago, when Unlimited hydroplane racing was dominated by a handful of teams. And by handful, we mean one.

Bernie Little's Miss Budweiser team was the predominate force in the sport from 1969 until 2004. From time to time, other teams bubbled up to challenge the Bud for a few years, but the eras of the Pay 'N Pak, Atlas Van Lines, Miller American and Smokin' Joe's teams were woefully short.

That's what makes the past few years so special to drivers like Steve David. Instead of one team dominating, or three at the most, the sport today has a half-dozen or more teams that can win the national title and even more that can win a race.

"There is so much talent and such great equipment nowadays," said David, who steered the U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto/Miss Madison to the team's first national title in 48 years last season. "In the past there was Bud and Pay 'N Pak, Bud and Atlas, or Bud and Smokin' Joe's. There was little chance for anybody else. Today, there are six or seven teams that can win it all."

Little's death in 2003 and the Bud's disbandment a year later played a big part in the sport's transformation. Not only had the big dog on the block retired, but the team's equipment was sold, scattering top quality gear among the remaining teams.

The U-5 Formulaboats, U-7 Graham Trucking and U-37 Miss Beacon Plumbing boats are all former Miss Budweiser crafts. Nearly each of the current 11 teams owns one of the Bud's turbine engines and Hydroplanes Inc., the former Budweiser team, still produces propellors for sale to teams.

But the biggest impact of the Bud's demise was that it allowed other teams to step to the plate and make their presence felt.

From 1997 until 2004, the Miss Budweiser team - with Dave Villwock driving - won every national title and 38 of the 63 races contested, or 60.3 percent. Since then, three teams have won national titles and seven teams have claimed race victories.

There is still a dominate team. The U-16 Miss Elam Plus has won 11 of the 25 races since the 2005 season, 10 with Villwock driving. But the Elam's dominance is just a pittance of what the Bud's was back in the day.

"Dave is the best and that team is the best," David said. "But you have teams that can compete with them."

David's Oberto team is chief among them. The newest boat to wear the Miss Madison colors has been a firecracker since it came out of the box, winning three of the past 11 contested races and claiming at least one heat win in 12-straight. The boat also earned three-straight top qualifying awards, the first fastest qualifier positions in team history.

The Oberto is definitely a contender, as is defending Madison champion Jeff Bernard in the U-5 Formulaboats.com and his teammate, J. Michael Kelly in the U-7 Graham Trucking. U-37 driver Jean Theoret, who has five wins since joining the circuit in 2005, and Jimmy King and the piston-powered U-3 Miss Chrysler-Jeep are serious title contenders.

But Villwock and the bright-orange Elam remain the favorite. The team competed in only the Washington state races last year - winning at Seattle - and has won the last three Indiana Governor's Cups it has entered.

David won the national title last year thanks in large part to the Elam's absence. But the veteran driver welcomes a chance to take on Villwock and the Elam for a full season.

"You always want to measure yourself against the best and Dave is the best," said David. "That's the team to beat. You love facing guys like that because it ramps up everything that you do."

While there are six legitimate contenders for the national crown, there are at least nine teams that can pull an upset and win a race.

With the parity in the sport, there are few surprises, But David does have one team that he is keeping an eye on and one that few are talking about.

"Kip Brown is a nice driver and he is getting a lot of positive experience," David said of the U-17 Our Gang Racing pilot. "(Crew chief) Nate Brown is a heck of a boat builder and that boat can really fly. I think it's only a matter of time before they put it together."