Happy New Year! 2014 is Mercury Marine’s 75th Anniversary. The year will be filled with a variety of exciting events to celebrate our company’s rich history. Mike Butler’s restoration of “Little Red,” a historic Mercury Twistercraft tunnel race boat, is the first in a series of stories I’ll be posting throughout the year in celebration of Mercury’s rich performance heritage.
You will not find a greater authority on Mercury’s outboard racing history than Mike. In fact, Mike is a former outboard tunnel boat racer himself. It was 39 years ago when he brought his Twister race outboard to Mercury Hi-Performance to repair damage resulting from a racing accident over the weekend. It was on this visit that Mike saw Little Red. He had asked the late Mike Goerlitz, Mercury Hi-Perf Sales Manager at the time, if he could buy it. Mr. Goerlitz turned him down. It was not for sale. Mr. Goerlitz did offer Mike a position with Hi-Perf from which he quickly accepted.
Mike is also an active pilot and long-time member of the Experimental Aircraft Association. He has restored a number of historic bi-planes and his Piper Cub that he flies year round. His passion for Mercury and craftsmanship skills would meld to bring back the glory of a rare gem in the history of outboard powerboat racing.
Many of you have read my series of posts on Team Mercury drivers Bill Seebold, Reggie Fountain and Earl Bentz. Although each shared their greatest memories, little discussion has been brought forth regarding the boats they drove.
The tunnel hull design originated from Italy. Molinari is synonymous with some of the first tunnel race boats. Renato Molinari was one of the original Team Mercury drivers. The team used his boats almost exclusively in the first half of the ’70s. Almost is a key word as, although the team had access to the best boats, they were continually driven to stay ahead of the competition (Outboard Marine Corporation). “Racing was a test bed for everything back then,” said Mike.
“Carl Stippich was a boat builder who lived in Milwaukee. The late Jim Merten Senior (also a team driver and Mercury employee at the time, had ideas of his own when it came to tunnel boats. He and Carl decided to design their own boats. Carl and Oshkosh native Jack Ferris would build them,” Mike said. They were named Twistercrafts in honor of the various generations of Mercury Twister race outboards that would power them. They were smaller, 16/17-foot boats of non-pickle fork or full tunnel design. A total of five Twistercrafts were built.
Hull number one was built in 1971. Jim Merten was the first to race Mercury’s new 17′ hull. Jim first raced it on Lake Tahoe in October of that year. He would also compete with it the following month at the annual Lake Havasu marathon. This boat went to Dave Packer shortly after Havasu.
Brothers Denis and Dewey Berghauer also competed there, splitting time behind the wheel of a second 17′ Twistercraft, #138. This boat would have a limited run. Bill Petty blew it over while competing in Morgan City, Louisiana. The boat was returned to Mercury Hi-Performance for repairs. It was later destroyed in an auto accident while in tow.
Hull number three was named “Little Red” for its fire engine red paint scheme. Little Red and it’s sibling Little Blue would both earn their place in the record books. Bill Seebold Jr. averaged 85.633 mph in Little Red to set a new S class speed record at the 1972 American Power Boat Association (APBA) Outboard National Championships in Miami. Built in late 1972, Dewey Berghauer would pilot Little Blue (hull number four) to a new outboard U class kilo speed record at Kaukauna, Wisconsin in 1973.
Bill Seebold would continue to race Little Red with a variety of Mercury Outboard power. He used an in-line six cylinder C6 race outboard for the ’72 season and a TII in 1973. Little Red was one of the first boats powered by the prototype Mercury V-6 outboard (T-3 or Twister 3). Bill was able to handle the jump in power on the small 16-foot hull and raced the T-3 through the 74 season. He switched to the T-IIX for the ’75 season.
Hull number five, built in 1974, was deemed the Rhino Nose for its unique nose design. Reggie Fountain raced this boat with T-3 power.
Mercury would eventually sell Little Red to Dave Packer in 1976. He raced it a couple of years before retiring it. It was stored with a number of classic boats and engines Dave had collected over the years. Dave retired from racing in the mid 1980s and passed away a few years later. Mike received a photo of Little Red sometime during the 1990s.
Return to Glory
Mercury has been preparing for the 75th anniversary for some time now. A temporary museum highlighting each decade of Mercury’s rich history is planned. Mike could not imagine Little Red and Mercury’s undisputed racing heritage not being a part of it. He was given the authority to purchase Little Red from the Packer estate.
“It was in a lot rougher shape then originally thought,” said Mike. If it were to be restored to race-ready condition, the complete bottom would need to be replaced. Probably the decks too,” Mike said. “Knowing it is destined for a museum, I tried to maintain what I could and change only what was absolutely necessary,” said Mike.
“I am quite pleased with how it turned out,” Mike said. “I selected the T-IIX as the display engine as our exhibits department had one and the transom was cut for it. The fact that Bill last raced with that power is pretty cool too,” Mike concluded.
Thanks Mike for taking the time to restore this special piece of Mercury’s performance heritage. I look forward to sharing more stories of Mercury’s rich performance heritage as the year unfolds.