We're racing through history!
By Bill Curry
Reprinted from the 1979 Spirit of Detroit program
When today's Spirit of Detroit Regatta is history the unlimited hydroplane sitting in the winner's circle may well be a product of Norm Berg's Tacoma, Washington boat shop. You see, the 37-year-old Berg is the builder of Bill Muncey's 1978 national champion Atlas Van Lines, winner of the last two Detroit River go-arounds. Norm Berg is also the builder of two other top-flight contenders - Circus Circus and The Squire Shop. Both came out of Berg's shop this spring.
Boats have always been a part of Berg's life. "My family was involved in commercial fishing when I was growing up. I remember as a youngster watching the hydros race on Seattle's Lake Washington and thinking how much I would enjoy being a part of it all."
After working at a commercial boat works for several years, Berg decided in 1972 to go into the construction of race boats. "The first boats I built were outboard performance craft. The first hydro I put together was the 280-class limited Spirit of '76. That was back in 1974" said Berg. His second hydro is his best known limited to date, the ultra-successful 225-class White Lightning, which has won many national titles and set speed records the past four seasons.
In 1975, Berg was asked by Pay 'N Pak crew chief Jim Lucero to construct a new hull for that race team. "I had done repair work on the Pay 'N Pak and Miss Budweiserunlimiteds, so a lot of people in the unlimited ranks knew of my work," Berg continued. "Much of the hull was constructed of hexcel." "Hexcel", an aluminum honeycomb "sandwich," was developed in the aerospace industry to save weight but to still afford strength and rigidity. In the same equivalent cubic space Hexcel weighs less than plywood and has the strength of steel.
While Berg was building the new Pak, Bill Muncey bought out the entire Pay 'N Pak racing team. After more than 2000 hours' work, Berg's hull debuted in 1977 as Atlas Van Lines. Muncey went on to win six of nine races on the circuit, including the Gold Cup.
Many feel that 1978 was Muncey's premier season after 28 years of racing a variety of hydros. Last year Muncey piloted the Berg hull to victory in six of seven races on the circuit, smashing speed records on every course in the country.
After watching Muncey dominate the unlimited ranks for two years, the sports most flamboyant owner, Bernie Little, approached the down-to-earth Berg about building a new Miss Budweiser. "Last summer, Little asked me about building him a new boat like that Atlas. Little has several business deals going at the time, one of which was selling the then Miss Budweiser boat. I had materials to build Little a new boat in my shop when his plan to sell the Buddidn't come off.
By then the Squire Shop people had given me the down payment to build them a boat for 1979. When Little got back to order a boat from me, I told him I was building a new hull for the Squire Shops, but I still could construct a hydro for him, too. Little cancelled out. Shortly after that, the Nevada casino owners of Circus Circus ordered a hull from me," said Berg. When two firms put down $73,000 each (the going price for a new Berg unlimited hull) that tells you the kind of confidence knowledgeable boat racers have in Norm Berg.
"I never dreamed I would be building two unlimited at the same time this past winter. The Squirehull is made of wood and aluminum, while the Circus Circus people wanted to try a few different ideas in their hull.
The Circus Circus is also made of wood and aluminum plus a lot of Hexcel, which makes it lighter than the Squire boat. They somewhat resemble my White Lightinglimited boat," stated Berg. Berg's latest creations are cabovers with rear wings and Rolls-Royce Merlin power. With the help of his three-man shop crew, Berg finished both boats in April.
Berg feels that after several years of struggling to bring more competitive boats into the sport, things are looking up. Besides Berg's two new hulls, Ron Jones constructed a new Miss Budweiser that is Rolls-Royce Griffon powered. And before the 1980 season begins Jim Lucero will build a new turbine-powered Pay 'N Pak and a new Rolls-engined Atlas Van Linesfor Bill Muncey.
"Boat racing has been growing very slowly toward professionalism. The Circus Circus people are a good example of a new, very professional race team, the type the sport needs. I think that permanent race sites would go a long way to bring in more spectators," Berg added. "I think boats will become even faster with lighter, stronger materials."