We're racing through history!
By Brad Haskin
Perhaps the greatest tale of "Riches-to-Rags-to-Riches-to-Rags" in the hydroplane world is that of Circus Circus Enterprises. Rarely in the history of the sport has a racing team experienced such a dynamic swing of fortunes as the Las Vegas based Hotel/Casino. And rarely has a sponsor left it's fans in such a state of limbo.
In the summer of 1978, Ed Fisher, a prominent R/C boat racer from Seattle hooked up with Bill Bennett, the CEO of Circus Circus Enterprises. Bennett was also a radio control freak, and took immediate interest in R/C hydro racing. Things quickly progressed, and with the help of some fellow Seattle based R/C people, a decision was made to go boat racing for real in the Unlimited class. Bernie Little had the Anhauser Busch Natural Light boat (the former Weisfields/Olympia Beer hull) up for sale, and a deal was soon struck. The U-31 team debuted at the season-ending San Diego race that fall with a young Seattle driver named Steve Reynolds at the wheel. Reynolds had come to prominence in the limited ranks driving a boat named "White Lightning". With Reynolds came other prominent crew members, including Jim Harvey and Danny Heye. The Circus team produced a strong third place showing at San Diego, and the stage was set for bigger things.
For 1979 a new Dave Knowlen designed, pink & white cabover hull was developed. With the extremely fan-and-media-friendly Reynolds at the wheel, the Circus team showed it's muscle early in the season. With the new Budweiser and Squire Shop hulls still under construction, the U -31 team was second only to Bill Muncey's dominant "Blue Blaster" Atlas Van Lines for most of the Eastern swing. Several second place finishes kept the team in high point contention all season. A sure victory at Seattle was taken away when Reynolds jumped the gun, but the team found redemption with a win at San Diego to close out the season. The upstart team finished second place in the high points, and things looked promising for the team heading into the new decade. Ed Fisher had gained much of his R/C hydro success using a 4-point hull design. It entailed a running surface under the long nose and the ram wing with sponsons at the rear of the hull. Fisher had so much success with the craft that he convinced Bill Bennett to build a full size Unlimited in the same fashion. The majority of the hydroplane world shook their heads in disbelief and collectively warned that it would not work, but the Circus team started the 1980 season with the '79 boat running until the new "rocket ship" could be completed. While '79 had been somewhat of a Cinderella season, 1980 turned into a year of turmoil. Changes to the primary hull resulted in an unstable ride, and many blown engines and thrown propellers resulted in DNF's. As the season went on, the owners concentrated more of their efforts in the new 4-point boat, while driver and crew were left to struggle with the primary hull. The future of the Circus Circus team, said the management, lay strictly in the futuristic looking experimental hull. Tension and discontent was rising amongst the crew, and when the tiny new 4-point made a less than stellar debut at the San Diego race, most of the crew including Reynolds and Harvey either quit or were fired.
From the last race of the 1980 season, through the 1981 season, the Circus team management operated somewhat of a "revolving door" policy for their crew. Instead of listening to the suggestions of the experts on how to change the hull, the team insisted on firing anyone who showed any kind of discontent, and hiring only people who "believed" in the concept of the project. Over the winter Ron Armstrong was hired to drive the boat, which had been extensively modified and beefed up for the '81 season.
With a level of optimism rivaling that of the Atlas and Budweiser teams, the Circus team burst upon the '81 season with their U-31 4-point "rocket ship"....and promptly went nowhere. The boat pushed water every which way, was difficult to get on plane, and at speed could barely muster 90 mph. As the boat failed to qualify at more and more races, more personnel changes were made. Weight distribution was changed, sponson angles were changed, the engine was mounted differently, but nothing would work. At qualifying for the Gold Cup in Seattle, Armstrong was nearly thrown out when the boat violently hooked halfway down the front-stretch during a qualifying attempt. Footage of that incident would grace the opening of the ESPN broadcasts for many years.
At the second to last race of the season in San Diego, where the boat had inauspiciously debuted the year before, Armstrong finally qualified the Circus Circus at just above minimum qualifying speed. In the race itself, the boat finished one heat. In last place. After the race, the disgraced Circus team threw in the towel and closed it's doors. Though Circus Circus would continue in the sport for the next couple of years as sponsor of the San Diego regatta, the team disappeared as quickly as it had formed.
Limited driver John Prevost of Louisiana had been tinkering with Unlimited racing for several years. In 1987 he started construction on a behemoth Unlimited racer powered by four automotive engines driving two prop shafts. Towards the end of the '87 season Prevost was called upon to assist the Miller American team owned by Fran Muncey and driven by Chip Hanauer. Chip had spent all season unsuccessfully fighting the new "Darth Vader" canopied boat. Prevost made modifications to the older Miller American hull (former turbine Atlas) that allowed it to win the final two races of the 1987 season.
The relationship between John Prevost and Fran Muncey went much deeper than was seen on the surface, however. It was a poorly kept secret that the two were also dating. John Prevost had wooed Circus Circus back into the sport under the pretense of sponsoring his new automotive boat for the 1988 season. (In fact, the button the Circus team handed out for '88 shows this boat) When it became apparent that the automotive hull would not be completed in time for the start of the season, a deal was struck between Muncey and Prevost. Muncey and Hanauer would race the old "uncovered" Miller hull as the U-00 Miller High Life, while Prevost would race Muncey's '87 hull (since reconfigured with a standard F-16 canopy) as the U-31 Circus Circus.
The problems started almost immediately. By splitting the Muncey team's assets, both teams were effected. Hanauer took advantage of early season setbacks by the Circus and Bud teams to capture the Detroit race, but it was the last checkered flag the Miller High Life team would see all year. Circus's season started at the Evansville Gold Cup at the third race of the season. In the second heat, the Circus collided with the Sutphen Spirit. Parts from the Miller High Life, which had been seriously damaged in the first heat, were used to repair the U-31. Hanauer took over the wheel of the resulting Circus/High Life hybrid boat, and somehow managed to win the Gold Cup for the Circus Circus team. It was the highlight of the season.
The rest of the '88 campaign was marked by turmoil and controversy. At Madison Prevost and the Circus chopped off Larry Lauterbach and the Competition Specialties boat in the final. The Seattle race saw another altercation with Lauterbach in the first heat, and a low speed collusion with the Miss Madison at the end of the third heat. Fingers were pointed and angry words were exchanged with the Circus team in the pits. The Muncey team withdrew after the Seattle race to lick their wounds and make serious changes.
The teams swapped boats. The Miller team took the Circus hull, now running as U-31 Miller High Life, and the Circus team took the U-00, and in the month between Seattle and San Diego, installed a safety canopy. The luck only got worse, though. In the first heat of the San Diego race, Prevost in the U-00 Circus Circus found himself screaming side by side with the Miss Madison up the backstretch. The ESPN coverage shows the boat was riding so perfectly that it was literally a one point hydro...riding only on the prop. But then a sudden gust of wind hit both boats and gracefully lifted them skyward. The spectacular "double flip" footage still makes the highlight films to this day. The Circus boat hit the water so hard that, though it landed upright, it literally broke the boat in half. Only the engine mounts kept both halves attached. The accident was enough for Muncey. Though Hanauer and the Miller boat would continue on to the last race of the season, the Circus team was through for 1988. It was also the demise of the Muncey team. The Miller Brewing Company was unhappy that the team resources had been "split" between the two boats, and promptly withdrew sponsorship after the Las Vegas race.
For 1989, Bill Bennett and Circus Circus bought out Muncey's entire racing operation. Hanauer came with the deal. With Dave Villwock as crew chief, the new team once again became a powerhouse. Hanauer drove the "new" U-31 to victory at Detroit, before being destroyed in a vicious blowover at Syracuse. The "old" Circus hull, having been rebuilt from the San Diego crash the year before, was put into service for the Northwest races. Two broken rudders caused a DNQ at Pasco, but the following week the team scored an emotional victory at Seattle. In an amazing drive, Hanauer chauffeured the "school bus" around the more capable Miss Budweiser driven by Tom D'Eath. Hanauer capped off the '89 season in the rebuilt "new" boat with a win at Las Vegas. The victory gave Hanauer the Driver's Championship for the year.
1990 was en epic battle all year long between Circus Circus and Budweiser. The teams swapped victories the entire season. Hanauer took the checkered flag at Miami, Madison, Seattle, Milwaukee, and San Diego. But the season ending race at Las Vegas was the coup de gras. Hanauer had trailed D'Eath and the Budweiser all season long, but in the last few races had overcome a huge point deficit. At the Silver Cup, D'Eath did everything he could to protect his lead. Unfortunately he did it a bit too aggressively. Two separate altercations, including a violent "chop" that sent the Circus boat flying through the Budweiser roostertail, resulted in a Disqualification for D'Eath. Hanauer and the Circus team snatched the victory, and National Championship away from the Beer boat. 12 years after first entering the sport, the Circus team was on top of the world, the prize so much sweeter with it having been won on the sponsor's "home" race course. The celebration was incredibly short lived, however.
Citing negative press accusations that the Hotel/Casino team had "bought" the championship, Circus Circus immediately shut down their racing operations and put the team up for sale the following week. Once again, the team disappeared into hydro lore. Ironically at the time the team quit another 4- point hull, powered by a turbine this time, was under construction.
While Hanauer entered a short period of "retirement", crew chief Dave Villwock kept his hands in touch with all concerned parties. In late 1992, Villwock hooked up with Ron Jones, Jr. who had been campaigning the "old" Circus hull as the American Spirit. The two teamed up to build a revolutionary two-wing hull, the Coors Dry, which Villwock promptly drove to victory in his very first race at San Diego.
Since Villwock and Bill Bennett both shared the same passion for Radio Control aircraft, the two had remained close associates. For 1993, the two arranged a deal for Circus Circus to sponsor the Jones/Villwock racing team, albeit on a reduced budget. With the two wing hull as the primary, and the "old" Circus hull as backup, Circus Circus entered the fray for the third and final time.
Strong preliminary heats led to a fourth place finish at the season opening race in Dallas, but the following race Villwock barrel rolled the two-wing boat in the Roostertail turn at the Detroit Gold Cup. With the primary boat severely damaged, the "old" Circus backup hull was pressed into service for the next several races. Disaster struck again, however, in a bizzare accident at Tri-Cities. Wile attempting to catch up with the rest of the field for the start of one of the heat races, Villwock gave the Circus a sudden burst of speed. The boat lifted up and blew over, seriously damaging the backup hull. With two heavily damaged boats, severely flaring tempers, and sponsorship money that was now rapidly running out, the Jones team quit.
Villwock and Jones, Jr. bitterly parted ways, but not before Jones signed a termination of sponsorship agreement with Circus Circus. It is rumored that the agreement included a clause preventing Circus Circus from further involvement in hydroplane racing. So for the third time in 13 years the Hotel Casino left the sport. This time for good.