Bill Muncey – The First Golden Age
February 9, 2021 - 6:50pm
By Fred Farley – APBA/HYDRO-PROP Unlimited Historian
Copyright 2002-2017 by Fred Farley.
When the definitive history of 20th Century power boat competition is written, the two titans of the racing world will be the “Gray Fox” Gar Wood for the pre-World War II years and Bill Muncey for the post-war era.
This book focuses primarily on Muncey’s tenure with the third MISS THRIFTWAY, which was built in 1959. It was with this boat that Bill’s racing career shifted into high gear. These years were his first Golden Age.
Prior to taking the wheel of the third MISS THRIFTWAY, Muncey had been a very erratic driver. Not until 1960 did Bill ever win three heats in one day.
In the fifties, Muncey always seemed to have his act together at the Gold Cup race. Indeed, between 1955 and 1959, he won twice and finished second twice. But his Gold Cups aside, Bill’s record was very mediocre. Arch-rival Jack Regas was the top driver of the decade and had a much higher winning percentage (45%) with nine victories in twenty races between 1954 and 1959.
In fact, Muncey won only two non-Gold Cup races during the entire decade of the fifties. And one of those, the 1958 Detroit Memorial Regatta, was a fluke on account of MISS U.S. I conking out and GALE VI jumping the gun.
In this volume, I have not tried to delve too deeply into the personality of Bill Muncey. Biographers Tony Hogg and Weldon Johnson have already done that. My emphasis is on what happened out on the race course. I have also tried to put Muncey’s career into some kind of context. I talk not only about Bill but also about the other people and events that shaped his world.
The sixth chapter of this book deals with Muncey’s so-called “lean years,” following the retirement of the Associated Grocers team in 1963, when he handled the likes of NOTRE DAME, SUCH CRUST IV, $ BILL and two different boats named MISS U.S.
Although he won only four races between 1964 and 1969, I consider this time period to be an interesting contrast between Bill’s first Golden Age, which began with the MISS THRIFTWAY, and his second Golden Age, which began when he signed on with Joe and Lee Schoenith’s Gale Enterprises team in 1970.
The Schoenith years were a prelude to Muncey’s becoming his own owner in 1976 with a new team under the sponsorship of Atlas Van lines, Inc. Bill kept his team in the forefront of Unlimited racing for six years– until a “blow-over” accident with the ATLAS VAN LINES “Blue Blaster” brought the curtain down on October 18, 1981, at Laguna de Coyucca, Mexico.
Chapter 1: 1959
The year 1959 marked the beginning of one of the most illustrious associations in motor sports history. It was then that William Edward Muncey, age 30, the transplanted former Detroiter, began driving the famous third MISS THRIFTWAY from Seattle, the last of the line and a superboat if ever there was one in the Unlimited hydroplane ranks.
Not to be outdone by two major mishaps in as many years during 1957 and 1958, Muncey re-affirmed his ties with the same Associated Grocers organization, headed by Willard Rhodes, that had plucked him from obscurity to the “Big Time” in 1955.
The new Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered hull, one foot shorter than its immediate predecessor at 30 feet 9 inches, was designed by Ted Jones and built this time by the MISS THRIFTWAY crew, headed by Crew Chief Jack Ramsey.
Twenty-six boats would constitute the 1959 APBA Unlimited Class contingent. Other new boats, in addition to MISS THRIFTWAY, were Bill Waggoner’s second MAVERICK, J. Gordon Thompson’s MISS SUPERTEST III, Bob Schroeder’s MISS BUFFALO, Joe Schoenith’s twin-Allison-powered GALE VI, and Bill Schuyler’s eccentric-looking $ BILL.
Returning to the fray was the defending National Champion MISS BARDAHL, driven this year by Jack Regas of HAWAII KAI III fame. The KAI would also return to the racing wars with a new owner in Joe Mascari of Huntington, New York, and driven by former THRIFTWAY TOO pilot Brien Wygle. Also back, after a one-year hiatus, was Bill Boeing, Jr.’s WAHOO with Mira Slovak at the helm.
As the racing season dawned, Muncey was observed with a pink scarf attached to his crash helmet in the hope that his first wife Kit’s expected third child would prove to be a girl. In response, fellow competitor Slovak, at one point, affixed a black sock to HIS helmet so as to jokingly “jinx” the Muncey family’s hopes. Lady Luck ruled in Mira’s favor and another son–Kenton–was born to Bill and Kit in September of 1959.
Lady Luck proved to be less than lady-like in more ways than one as the first season with the third MISS THRIFTWAY progressed, despite a strong debut at Chelan, Washington, on May 10.
Muncey showed no ill effects whatsoever from his accident of the previous August when the second MISS THRIFTWAY, out of control (after losing a rudder) had struck a U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat on Lake Washington. (Bill had been pronounced “dead” at the scene when a rescue worker could find no pulse.) He claimed first-place in Heat 1-A of the Lake Chelan Apple Cup, averaging 101.656 and demonstrating his craft’s winning potential by outrunning Don Wilson in MISS U.S. I, Bill Stead in MAVERICK, and Slovak in WAHOO. During Heat 2-B, however, MISS THRIFTWAY was beaten decisively by MISS BARDAHL, 107 miles per hour to 104.
High winds necessitated cancellation of the final Apple Cup heat and Muncey was awarded an overall third in his comeback appearance. The victory that day went to Bill’s long time friend Chuck Hickling in the MISS PAY ‘n SAVE. But even in defeat, the new MISS THRIFTWAY demonstrably had what it took to be a winner by impressing favorably as a strong contender right from the start.
The Detroit Memorial Regatta, on July 4, proved to be a letdown after the MISS THRIFTWAY team’s strong performance at Chelan. The new boat rode awfully rough on the choppy Detroit River. Defending champion Muncey was outrun in Heat 1-A by Bob Hayward in MISS SUPERTEST III, the Rolls-Royce Griffon-powered Canadian entry that never lost a race during its brief but illustrious career. In Heat 2-B, Bill finished an unfamiliar fourth behind BARDAHL, SUPERTEST, and Don Dunnington in NITROGEN and didn’t earn enough points to qualify for the Final.
Back on the smoother West Coast courses, Muncey and MISS THRIFTWAY regained their commendable Apple Cup form. They nearly won the Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Diamond Cup. THRIFTWAY and BARDAHL staged an incredible side-by-side shoot-out in Heat 1-A that brought the crowd to its feet. In a down-to-the-wire example of Unlimited racing at its best, Bill outdistanced his rival over the finish line, 108.895 to 108.813, a screamer all the way. The white-and-persimmon U-60 had definitely “arrived.”
Muncey took a second to HAWAII KAI III, driven by his former teammate, in Heat 2-B and then won the Final, beating MAVERICK, 105 miles per hour to 103. At day’s end, THRIFTWAY and MAVERICK were tied with 1100 points each for two firsts and a second. As per the existing rules, Bill Stead received the victory nod for having an elapsed time edge of 1.8 seconds over the frustrated Muncey.
In other developments at Coeur d’Alene, Jack Regas suffered critical injuries when MISS BARDAHL slammed into the roostertail of another boat during Heat 2-A. He would remain in a coma for weeks and would not appear in competition again until 1967. Muncey spent the entire night after the race at the local hospital waiting for updated news on Jack’s condition.
The 1959 Diamond Cup was indeed a grisly boat racing weekend. In addition to Regas, Bill Brow of MISS BURIEN (which was destroyed) and Chuck Hickling of MISS PAY ‘n SAVE also sustained injuries and required hospitalization. Norm Evans was pitched out of MISS SPOKANE and suffered facial cuts.
And in another hydroplane accident, Bob Doros, the relief driver for Mira Slovak in the 280 Cubic Inch Class WEE WAHOO, lost an arm when he was run over by another boat during a Limited Inboard race at the Pasco Water Follies on the Columbia River in southeastern Washington.
Although despondent over the injuries, the racing fraternity as a whole proceeded with business as usual, three weeks later, when qualifying for the Gold Cup–the biggest event of the year–got underway at Seattle. MISS BARDAHL, however, was not in attendance, having been temporarily withdrawn from competition by owner Ole Bardahl.
The weekend prior to the Gold Cup, Muncey had planned to drive his 7-Litre Class BEST WISHES in the Seafair Regatta race for Limiteds on Seattle’s Green Lake. But he was “beached” by THRIFTWAY owner Rhodes who insisted that Bill “save” himself for the upcoming Unlimited event. So Muncey put his friend Don Dunnington in the BEST WISHES at Green Lake.
For the Gold Cup, Bill found himself driving the cabover THRIFTWAY TOO as well as his regular mount. Muncey qualified the TOO at 102.897 for the 9-mile distance and the MISS at 111.111. In the race, THRIFTWAY TOO expired in the first turn of the first heat and was through for the day. Not until 1977 would Bill make another competitive appearance in a forward-cockpit Unlimited hull.
Gold Cup day, August 9, went down in history for being as keenly competitive as it was controversial. The late fifties signalled a last stand–a glorious one–for the amateur sportsman tradition of racing. These were the days when boats with nicknames were more popular than those with commercial titles. And the Gold Cup’s location was still determined by the yacht club of the winning boat, thereby giving the local fans a personal stake in the race’s outcome.
The Seattle Yacht Club had won the Gold Cup in eight of the previous nine years. The 1959 SYC defense team comprised the two THRIFTWAYs, WAHOO, MISS PAY ‘n SAVE, and MISS SEATTLE.
Drawn into Heat 1-A, MISS THRIFTWAY had to contend with the likes of MAVERICK, WAHOO, MISS SPOKANE, and NITROGEN. The THRIFTWAY started up, entered the course, and seemed to be running well. Then the photorecorder, a device for observing engine performance, exploded. Almost instantly, Muncey found himself wrapped up in yards and yards of photographic recording tape. This interfered with his concentration and cost him precious seconds in the moments just prior to the start.
Bill managed to salvage a third-place finish behind WAHOO and MAVERICK. But he was already at a disadvantage in respect to total elapsed time. Clearly, Muncey and MISS THRIFTWAY had their work cut out for them in the remaining 60 miles of racing.
Unlike 1-A, Heat 2-A went according to plan with THRIFTWAY winning it decisively over MISS SPOKANE. Heat 2-B went to MAVERICK’s Bill Stead who turned in the day’s fastest 30-mile heat at 106.287, compared to Muncey’s 105.820 speed in 2-A. Although nearly equal in accumulated points, MAVERICK possessed a considerable elapsed time edge over MISS THRIFTWAY at the outset of Heat Three.
In the final showdown, Muncey and Stead ran close together with Muncey ahead and Stead electing to run conservatively, being content to maintain his elapsed time edge for all three heats combined. Then, abruptly, MAVERICK spun out in the lower turn and missed a buoy.
Stead circled back to correct his error while MISS THRIFTWAY rocketed away and moved up on the front-running Mira Slovak in WAHOO. Slovak, not having scored in the Second Heat, had no chance of winning and “opened the door” for Muncey, voluntarily relinquishing the lead to his fellow SYC defender.
MISS THRIFTWAY took the checkered flag with WAHOO close behind. MISS SPOKANE followed and MAVERICK crossed the finish line in fourth. Stead stil had an 8.3-second advantage over THRIFTWAY for the 90 miles, but had fallen behind Muncey on total points, 1269 to 1325.
The Seattle Yacht Club team’s strategy had apparently worked. Bill Muncey and MISS THRIFTWAY had seemingly done it again for the third time in five years of Gold Cup participation.
But such was not to be.
Third-place MISS SPOKANE, it was later determined, had jumped the gun and had to be assesed a one-lap penalty. This dropped the Norm Evans-chauffeured craft to fifth and moved Bill Stead from fourth-place to third.
In the corrected order of finish, MAVERICK and MISS THRIFTWAY ended in a tie in points, which paved the way for a replay of their 1959 Diamond Cup scenario. In both instances, Muncey had outrun his rival from Las Vegas in the Final Heat only to lose the overall race on total elapsed time. This was before the days when the winner of the Final Heat was automatically the winner of the race in an Unlimited event.
MISS SPOKANE’s blunder cost Seattle the Gold Cup, which was whisked off to Lake Mead, Nevada, for 1960. A heavy cloud of despondency descended on the crestfallen Muncey as officials declared MAVERICK the winner and MISS THRIFTWAY the loser. A jubilant Stead declared, “I can’t thank Norm Evans enough!” as the Bill Waggoner team took possession of power boat racing’s Holy Grail.
Ironically, Waggoner had affiliated with the SYC during 1956 and 1957 before transferring to the Lake Mead Yacht Club in 1958.
As the winner savored his victory, Bill Muncey didn’t try to conceal his intense disappointment. He was truly heartbroken and didn’t care if the world knew about it.
A third Muncey victory in the Gold Cup would have to wait for another day in another season. The 1959 event marked the second time that Bill had physically won the big race out on the race course but had been prevented from taking the trophy home because of the official fine print.
A case could undeniably be made that the 1955 Gold Cup loss was brought about by Muncey’s own inexcuseable ignorance of the rules regarding Bonus Points and total elapsed time–but not so in 1959 when he did everything according to Hoyle.
As it was, Norm Evans made a mistake. But it was Muncey, the Seattle Yacht Club, and the entire Pacific Northwest that wound up having to pay for it–with the Gold Cup.
Definitely a snake-bitten year, the balance of 1959 proved to be a huge disappointment for the MISS THRIFTWAY team. In the Detroit Silver Cup, Muncey’s boat lost its entire tailfin assembly when the craft impacted with a buoy–at the cost of disqualification–in the First Heat. Bad luck cointinued in the second stanza when MISS THRIFTWAY failed to finish and earned a zero result for the day.
Moving on to Buffalo, New York, Muncey was beaten decisively in all three heats on the Niagara River by MAVERICK, which was well on its way toward the National Championship. Bill suffered the added humiliation of being outrun by Bob Gilliam’s KOLroy, the homebuilt and under-financed “Cinderella” boat of Unlimited racing.
Muncey complained at Buffalo that MISS THRIFTWAY didn’t have anymore of the speed needed to win. Team manager/designer Ted Jones disagreed. He took the boat out and–to Bill’s embarrassment–turned a test lap faster than Muncey.
MISS THRIFTWAY hadn’t averaged a heat over 100 miles per hour since Seattle. The team opted to forego the remainder of the Eastern tour and concentrate instead on the two Nevada races at Lake Pyramid and Lake Mead that would conclude the season.
At the Reno Regatta on Lake Pyramid, Muncey experienced his first Unlimited Class confrontation with Ron Musson of Akron, Ohio, an old friend from the Mid-West Limited Inboard circuit. Musson was the newly appointed rookie driver of HAWAII KAI III, the rival boat that Muncey liked perhaps the least during his long career.
In the years that followed, Musson would gain recognition as one of only a handful of other drivers truly considered in the same “class” as Bill Muncey.
The initial Muncey-Musson Thunderboat shoot-out saw Ron outpoint Bill in both preliminary heats at Reno. The “Pink Lady” overpowered MISS THRIFTWAY, 97 to 95 miles per hour in section 1-B and 106 to 104 in 2-A. Meanwhile, MAVERICK and Bill Stead, at the top of their form, outdid both the KAI and the THRIFTWAY with victorious speeds of 108 and 107 in Heats 1-A and 2-B.
In the Final, MAVERICK again would not be denied, her “miracle” aux-stage Allison engine nailing the Rolls-Royce Merlin opposition flat. Hometown driver Stead, the millionaire cattle rancher, posted a 106.077 heat speed and averaged an unprecedented 107.411 overall, a world record for the 45-mile distance that would stand until 1962.
Meanwhile, M & M–Muncey and Musson–both came acropper. They jumped the Final Heat starting gun and concluded the day with a DNF–Did Not Finish–for their efforts.
The Lake Mead Cup at Las Vegas brought down the competitive curtain on the fabulous fifties but was yet another long day at the races for Bill Muncey and MISS THRIFTWAY.
Mira Slovak won all three heats with the fast-moving WAHOO. Bill Stead, in his last race, jumped the gun in the Third Heat with MAVERICK and was out in front but officially took second, ahead of Dallas Sartz in MISS SEATTLE TOO (the former MISS PAY ‘n SAVE), and George McKernan in MISS BARDAHL.
Muncey wasn’t among the finalists. He had been unable to finish in either one of his two preliminary skirmishes.
Bill’s season box score showed no victories for 1959 but indicated first places in five out of 21 heats entered, although none of these occurred during the second half of the season. Having scored DNF seven times, Muncey received the humorous Plumber’s Helper Trophy from Bob Brinton’s UNLIMITED HYDROPLANE NEWS for being the most unlucky driver of the year.
In spite of the team’s various misfortunes and the boat’s difficulty in rough water, Muncey nevertheless managed a second-place in Driver Points behind Bill Stead. The MISS THRIFTWAY took third behind MAVERICK and MISS BARDAHL in the national boat standings.
In contrast to her two predecessors, the third MISS THRIFTWAY’s fastest heat of racing had been 105.820 (at Seattle) compared to 112.312 by the first boat (at Madison, Indiana) in 1957 and 108.259 by the second hull (at Seattle) in 1958.
Still, the third THRIFTWAY had turned nine heats at over the century mark and, when her equipment held together, could hold her own with the other top contenders of the day. This was proven by the boat’s two near victories at Coeur d’Alene and Seattle.
Chapter 2: 1960
After five seasons of sometimes brilliant–but often erratic–driving for the MISS THRIFTWAY team, things started to pick up for Bill Muncey with the advent of the sixties.
Starting in 1960, his consistency of performance improved considerably. He began winning a lot of races. Prior to 1960, he had only once (in 1956) won more than one race during a given season.
It must be acknowledged that many of the top drivers of the fifties were no longer active. Danny Foster, Jack Regas, Bill Stead, and Lee Schoenith–all of whom were past National Champions–had retired. Russ Schleeh and Mira Slovak were semi-active. Bill Cantrell and Chuck Thompson had inferior equipment.
Still, Muncey had to contend with such top-notch chauffeurs as Ron Musson, Don Wilson, Bob Hayward, and Rex Manchester in the early sixties.
To start the decade, on February 15, 1960, Bill established a mile straightaway record of 192.001 miles per hour on Lake Washington’s East Channel. This eclipsed the former mark of 187.627 set in 1957 by Jack Regas in HAWAII KAI III.
Muncey admitted years later that he had grave doubts about attempting the record run and regretted almost immediately having committed himself to it. “I’ll do this for you once, but never again,” he told MISS THRIFTWAY owner Willard Rhodes.
He honestly believed that he would be killed and put his will and other personal matters in order before stepping into the boat.
His intense anxiety notwithstanding, Bill stepped onto the dock after setting the record and did an on-the-spot TV interview, acting as non-chalant as ever.
Fresh from the straightaway triumph, Bill and Crew Chief Jack Ramsey focused their attentions on the upcoming season, which started May 8 at Chelan. For a team that hadn’t scored a victory since their sloppy win at the 1958 Detroit Memorial Regatta, the pressure to perform must have been considerable.
Muncey clearly needed a successful 1960 campaign. The team had Russ Schleeh waiting in the wings, penciled in as pilot of THRIFTWAY TOO and as a possible replacement driver for MISS THRIFTWAY.
The MAVERICK organization had retired but all of the other teams from 1959 remained active. Three new hulls appeared in 1960: another MISS BURIEN, replacing the boat that had been destroyed at Coeur d’Alene; NITROGEN TOO, a teammate for Sam DuPont’s two-year-old NITROGEN; and KOLroy I, another in a series of Bob Gilliam-crafted hulls under the aegis of Seattle Radio Station KOL. All three used essentially stock Allison V-1710 power.
For its second season, the third MISS THRIFTWAY underwent several mechanical changes. The sponsons were redesigned as was the rudder assembly.
Ten years had now elapsed since Muncey’s entry into the Unlimited ranks as the rookie pilot of Albin Fallon’s MISS GREAT LAKES. A decade earlier, the sport had been almost strictly amateurish in nature, looking and acting as such. The fifties had seen the world of business begin serious speculation with regard to the advertising and promotional potential inherent in Unlimited racing.
The sport, destined as it was for professional stature, had experienced growing pains where rules and procedures more applicable to non-commercial ventures were concerned. The Unlimited Class had chaffed within the administrative confines of the APBA’s Inboard Racing Commission and had yearned for the day when it could finally govern its own affairs independent of the American Power Boat Association. That day arrived with the formation of the Unlimited Racing Commission (URC) in 1957.
The late fifties and early sixties were characterized by early attempts–not all of them adequate–at self-administration by the Unlimited participants.
The roots of commercialism–out of economic necessity–were now firmly embedded, although the old amateur element was likewise solidly ensconced. Unfortunately, the inevitable disputes between the two factions were all too often distorted out of all proportion by the sensation-seeking news media. The generally excellent competitive record of the races themselves frequently took an undeserved second billing to the on-shore wrangling.
If one can lay aside the rash of fatalities still a few years in the future and the dishearteningly low level of competitive action that characterized much of the late 1970s, the 1960 season in particular ranks as the one above all others that is best forgotten.
The forces of new and old met in their inevitable showdown that had been pre-destined nearly a decade before. From the first race of the year to the last, disharmony was an ever-present irritant. This was especially true at the infamous Lake Mead Gold Cup in Las Vegas where the Unlimited pastime surely reached its all-time low water mark. The “No Contest” result recorded in the history books for November 13, 1960, is indicative as the day when big-time boat racing lost its amateur innocence.
Despite the chaos that was going on around him in the sport at large, Bill Muncey acquitted himself quite professionally during 1960, aside from an angry flap that occurred in the first heat of the season at Lake Chelan.
Muncey accused WAHOO pilot Mira Slovak of “cutting him off” while entering the initial turn. (MISS THRIFTWAY had encountered Mira’s roostertail, stalled, re-started, and taken a distant third in the heat.) The officials ruled that no foul had occurred and the WAHOO’s first-place finish in Heat 1-A was allowed to stand.
The news media quickly capitalized on the dispute between the two popular drivers who had professed on television to be friends just moments before the start of the race.
Slovak tended to shrug off Muncey’s verbal vollies. He pointed out that Bill had done exactly the same thing to him two years earlier on the same race course when Mira was handling the first MISS BURIEN. In that previous incident, Slovak said that he thought nothing of it and dismissed it as part of racing.
Time eventually dimmed the intensity of the Muncey-Slovak feud at Lake Chelan. Neither man held a lasting grudge over the heated exchange. Bill and Mira in fact enjoyed a cordial relationship with each other that lasted for the next 21 years.
Still, the incident unfortunately added fuel to the fire of those who would demean the sport for its so-called “prima donna image.”
MISS THRIFTWAY and WAHOO dueled closely in the second Apple Cup heat until the Bill Boeing entry went dead in the water. Muncey took first-place in both Heats Two and Three to gain his first overall race victory in 23 months. Norm Evans and NITROGEN finished second, Chuck Hickling and MISS BURIEN were third, and MISS BARDAHL, handled by rookie Jim McGuire, took fourth.
Race day, June 26, 1960, at the Detroit Memorial Regatta, was a perfect day for Bill Muncey. The victory was the sixth of his career and the first that boasted first-place finishes in all three heats.
Muncey and MISS THRIFTWAY fought off a stiff challenge from Chuck Thompson and MISS DETROIT in the opening stanza, 99.741 to 99.101. Bill then won the next two heats decisively and demonstrated his skill by deftly sprinting through a narrow opening as the rest of the field charged en masse over the starting line in the final go-around.
After having so much trouble finishing the year before, the THRIFTWAY people seemed to have found the combination with reliability no longer being a problem. The boat was also riding much better in rough water than it had during 1959.
The Diamond Cup at Coeur d’Alene proved once again that there were faster boats on the circuit than MISS THRIFTWAY with the U-60’s durability not proving decisive.
In Heat 1-B, Muncey squared off against his old nemesis HAWAII KAI III and took the lead while maintaining the inside lane. Bill seemed enroute to his sixth straight heat win until “Pink Lady” pilot Ron Musson slipped past and accelerated away to a comfortable lead and a first-place finish with the fastest lap of the race at 112.500.
“I let him off my hip,” declared a dejected Muncey. The THRIFTWAY averaged 105.017 for the 15 miles to HAWAII KAI’s 106.761, which called into question the validity of Bill’s frequent claim that the KAI “wasn’t much of a boat.”
MISS THRIFTWAY managed to rebound with a vengeance and dominate Heat 2-B over mediocre opposition at a speed of 107.398, the fastest heat of the year thus far. Muncey also succeeded in avoiding a hair-raising near-collision with Chuck Hickling and MISS BURIEN, which speared the guywire on the THRIFTWAY’s tailfin but inflicted no other damage.
Bill’s luck ran out in the Diamond Cup finale. He had starting and stopping problems and finished a poor fourth. HAWAII KAI III also fell by the wayside and the overall victory went to the combination of Norm Evans and Dallas Sartz, co-drivers of MISS SEATTLE TOO, owned by Milo and Glen Stoen.
The less said about the next race on the tour, the Seattle Seafair Regatta, the better. Despite an abundance of action-filled drama out on the race course, seldom has any event in history borne the brunt of a more hostile news media reaction, precipitated by a plethora of protests and accidents.
The Seattle area sports writers and broadcasters, after years of being generally supportive, showed the sport no mercy in 1960 and plumbed the depths of journalistic one-sidedness. THE SEATTLE TIMES went so far as to lambaste the race as a “hydro-pain in the neck.”
Three drivers made hospital visits during Seafair ’60: Mira Slovak, who barrel-rolled the WAHOO; Don Wilson, who suffered serious burns when MISS U.S. I caught fire; and Russ Schleeh, who parted company with THRIFTWAY TOO and took an unscheduled swim. Thankfully, all three men–and their boats–mended quickly and returned to action before the end of the year.
Lady Luck smiled on Bill Muncey at Seafair. Fledgling pilot Rex Manchester of MISS SPOKANE was the apparent race winner. Unfortunately for Rex, the accident to MISS U.S. I stopped down the Final Heat with Manchester leading Muncey and being just seconds away from the checkered flag. The race had to be completed on Monday with MISS THRIFTWAY winning it decisively and MISS SPOKANE finishing a distant second.
Many persons were quick to sympathize with the crestfallen Manchester who had come so close to victory. The situation was almost a replay of the 1955 Gold Cup controversy wherein Bill Muncey had just missed winning the big race.
This time, incredibly, Bill was unjustly cast as the “villain.” The stoppage and re-run were entirely in accordance with APBA Unlimited rules, which stated that a Final Heat must be re-run regardless of when it was stopped.
One of the human ironies is the way in which the world rolls out the red carpet for the underdog. The opposite side of the coin is the puzzling manner in which the consistent champion is scorned for the “sin” of winning too much.
This describes the Manchester-Muncey situation at the 1960 Seafair race precisely. It mattered not that Rex and Bill were personal friends and harbored no enmity over the incident. To them, it was just the breaks of racing.
The Seattle fans opened their hearts to the personable MISS SPOKANE driver and closed them to the victorious pilot of MISS THRIFTWAY. Hence, for the rest of his days, Muncey would remain a popular lightning rod for criticism, justified or otherwise, as the price of his fame. An example of this criticism occurred one time when Bill was loudly booed when he threw out the first ball at a Seattle Mariners baseball game.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, the results of the 1960 Seafair Trophy race could not be officially announced for several weeks. MISS U.S. I owner George Simon had filed a protest, which claimed that the heat run on Monday was not allowed by the rules and was thereby invalid. The Unlimited Racing Commission didn’t see it that way and disallowed Simon’s protest. The Monday results were allowed to stand and MISS THRIFTWAY was officially declared the winner.
With the Seafair decision still up in the air, the THRIFTWAY team headed East for another try at the Silver Cup in Detroit. They were surprisingly defeated by Musson and the underpowered NITROGEN TOO.
Muncey found himself running third behind Musson and GALE V’s Bill Cantrell in the opening stanza. MISS THRIFTWAY then took an impressive first in the Second Heat and outdistanced NITROGEN TOO 103 miles per hour to 99. Then, in the Final Heat, Musson led out of the first turn with his smooth-riding Allison-powered projectile and was never headed. The Merlin-powered Muncey craft was outrun by a margin of 103 to 102 with Ron Musson scoring the upset of the season.
NITROGEN TOO was the same hull that, eleven years later, would win the 1971 APBA Gold Cup as the second MISS MADISON with Jim McCormick driving.
At the Washington, D.C., President’s Cup, MISS THRIFTWAY was the apparent victor until officials ruled that Muncey had jumped the gun in the Final Heat. The evidence was very flimsy and the THRIFTWAY people were quite upset by the decision that resulted in Chuck Thompson’s MISS DETROIT being declared the winner.
After two official second-place finishes in a row, Muncey put it all together to win the Indiana Governor’s Cup at Madison. This was his first appearance in the Ohio River town since the 1957 disintegration with the original MISS THRIFTWAY, Bill advanced to the Final Heat in an 800-point tie with the team of Musson and NITROGEN TOO, which likewise had two firsts in the preliminary action.
Muncey and THRIFTWAY sprinted on to a perfect 1200-point total with a 102.660 average for five laps around the narrow 3-mile oval with its tight turns and long straightaways. MISS BARDAHL’s Bill Brow followed at 101.670 and NITROGEN TOO at 100.000 even.
In a season cursed by internal bickering and extraordinarily bad press, the Madison Regatta seemed to go off like clockwork. It served as a reminder to the haggard participants that, in the heartland of smalltown Americana, an Unlimited race could still be a fun weekend where a good time was had by all.
With two races remaining on the Unlimited calender, MISS THRIFTWAY and Bill Muncey clinched their first National High Point Championship. It would not be their last. The team’s total point accumulation was based upon four regatta firsts, two seconds, and one third. They had also finished 21 heats in a row without a single DNF.
At the Reno Regatta on Lake Pyramid, the newly crowned season champions drew mixed reviews. Muncey and THRIFTWAY stopped but managed to re-start in Heat 1-A and took a distant fourth. In Heat 2-A, Bill ran a frustrating third behind Rex Manchester in MISS SPOKANE and Norm Evans in NITROGEN. This gave MISS THRIFTWAY 394 total points, compared to the 800 markers accumulated in Heats 1-B and 2-B by Ron Musson, who was back driving his regular mount HAWAII KAI III.
Although mathmatically out of contention for the Mapes Trophy, Muncey entered the Final Heat anyway and vindicated himself by turning the fastest heat of the year at 110.087 miles per hour. In so doing, Bill climbed to an overall fourth in points for the day. Meanwhile, his rival Musson, nursing a damaged sponson, settled for a second in the heat and a first in the race with the aging “Pink Lady,” which now had ten victories since 1956.
Perhaps the THRIFTWAY team’s greatest accomplishment during 1960 was their 100 per cent reliability record of 24 heats started and 24 heats finished. In the words of Associate Unlimited Historian David Greene, “There had been faster boats than the third MISS THRIFTWAY. But none had ever combined their speed with such amazing consistency.”
A season-concluding victory in the Gold Cup at Las Vegas would have been the crowning jewel in a stellar year for Bill Muncey, Jack Ramsey, and Willard Rhodes. But such was not to be. The 1960 Lake Mead fiasco proved to be the costliest debacle in the history of Unlimited racing.
Fifteen boats qualified for the race that never was. It was one of the strongest fields in Gold Cup history with seven boats checking in at better than 110 miles per hour. MISS U.S. I, WAHOO, and MISS THRIFTWAY were the three fastest at 114, 113, and 111 respectively.
Muncey was drawn into Heat 1-C and waited on the sidelines as MISS SEATTLE TOO took 1-A. Heat 1-B was stopped and not re-run when GALE V flipped, injuring Bill Cantrell.
On account of wind, there was no further activity out on the race course. But plenty happened in the pit area and in the smoke-filled rooms–much to the sport’s detriment.
The wind, which had not been a factor during Heat 1-A, picked up in earnest soon afterwards. Conditions were marginal but not unraceable. But the teams drawn into Heats 1-B and 1-C saw themselves at a distinct disadvantage where the critical Bonus Point factor for the fastest race was concerned.
On the one hand, the sport’s amateur element advocated an “on-with-the-show” approach, regardless of the elapsed time problem. The sport’s professional faction, however, refused to run.
The race committee pointed out that a narrow window of opportunity was predicted for the following morning at around 6:00 AM when calm conditions were expected to prevail. The teams with commercial sponsors pointed out that spectators would be virtually non-existent at that early hour. And this was unacceptable.
So the event was cancelled and–for the first time in 56 years of Gold Cup history–declared “No Contest.” It also brought down the curtain on Thunderboat racing in Las Vegas for many years to come. Not until 1986 would Unlimited hydroplanes again churn the waters of wind-swept Lake Mead.
Bill Muncey made no public comment on the 1960 Gold Cup fiasco, a press agent’s nightmare if ever there was one. But his friend Chuck Hickling, driver of MISS BURIEN, openly doubted if the promised prize money package even existed.
The Unlimited participants were quick to criticize the competence of the sponsoring organization. The local committee had indeed drawn negative reviews in its handling of the Lake Mead Cup event in 1959. Their ability to stage a top-flight show such as the Gold Cup had been questioned by many.
In retrospect, hardly anyone involved with the 1960 Gold Cup emerged unscathed. The timing especially couldn’t have been worse. All season long, the media had blackened the skies over the boat racing world with its journalistic artilleries.
The Unlimiteds desperately needed a strong positive show of strength at the end of that troubled year. But that didn’t happen. Instead, many long time supporters of the sport walked away in disgust, never to return.
Thunderboat racing’s amateur tradition died on that November 13 at Las Vegas in 1960. A crossroads had been reached. The days when the sport could truthfully be described as a rich man’s hobby were gone forever. A new era–for better or for worse–was unavoidably at hand.
Chapter 3: 1961
For 1961, Bill Muncey’s mount–the MISS THRIFTWAY–had its name changed to MISS CENTURY 21 to publicize the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. This signalled the beginning of the end of Thriftway Stores as an Unlimited hydroplane sponsor. Simultaneously, the unsuccessful THRIFTWAY TOO was retired after four years of trying.
Despite the name change, the basic organization of the racing team remained the same. Willard Rhodes was still the representative owner with Bill Muncey as the driver and Jack Ramsey as the crew chief. Serving under Ramsey were Stan Adsit, Joe Langer, Mike O’Sullivan, Lorris Ohnsager, Spanky Allan, Joe Lewis, Bud Hubbard, Ray Ballard, and Jerry Rhodes.
In the face of predictions that the Unlimited Class of APBA racing was on a collision course with extinction after the excesses of bad publicity and errors in judgement, the Thunderboat hierarchy embarked slowly but persistently on a more no-nonsense approach toward the solving of their problems. They desperately needed to restore their waning credibility if they were to survive.
The era of the millionaire sportsman variety of owner had passed. Gone in the ensuing years were the Bill Waggoners, the Edgar Kaisers, the Bill Boeings, the Horace Dodges, and the Sam DuPonts. In their places emerged the likes of Willard Rhodes and Ole Bardahl, who fielded boats with patently commercial names–titles that, at one time, had been prohibited or at least strongly discouraged in the Unlimited ranks.
The absence of many of the famous names of the 1950s was keenly felt. But the impressive performances of the MISS THRIFTWAY and the MISS BARDAHL organizations still attracted large crowds and thereby proved that the public would indeed accept boats that were intended primarily for advertising.
The 1961 season saw a decrease from 29 to 22 active Unlimiteds with only one new boat–Joe Dewey’s homebuilt MISS LUMBERVILLE from Detroit. There were fewer race sites, too. Absent from the Thunderboat calender were stopovers in Chelan, Buffalo, Las Vegas, and St. Clair, Michigan.
During the 1960-61 off-season, two major teams retired: Joe Mascari’s HAWAII KAI III, along with Sam DuPont’s NITROGEN and NITROGEN TOO. Both organizations had employed the year’s number-two driver, Ron Musson, who was at that point without a ride–but not for long.
In the early sixties, Unlimited racing still possessed a distinctly regional flavor with the traditional East-West rivalry still very much intact. The first Eastern race of 1961 was the Detroit Memorial Regatta, which saw Bill Cantrell score a decisive victory with GALE V over Bob Hayward in MISS SUPERTEST II.
Finishing fifth in a field of eight boats at Detroit was a new team from southern Indiana–the community-owned MISS MADISON with Marion Cooper in the cockpit. The MISS MADISON was the former NITROGEN, which had been donated to the city by Mr. DuPont. This was the start of the longest-running race team in Thunderboat history. (As of 2002, the MISS M had participated on the Unlimited tour for 42 consecutive seasons.)
For the first time in several years, no West Coast boats attended the Detroit Memorial–not even the U-60 team, which had won two of the previous three Memorial races.
Conversely, no Eastern boats participated in the 1961 Diamond Cup at Coeur d’Alene, which attracted an all-West Coast starting field.
The newly renamed MISS CENTURY 21 was a model of preparedness at Coeur d’Alene and won all three heats handily. Rex Manchester took a distant second with the “Lilac Lady” MISS SPOKANE, which was obviously no longer in the same speed range as Bill Muncey’s boat.
About the only noteworthy facet of the 1961 Diamond Cup, a distinctly lackluster event, was the debut of 18-year-old Limited Inboard and Outboard champion Billy Schumacher. As pilot of Bob Miller’s under-powered and under-financed CUTIE RADIO, Schumacher completed all three heats and finished an overall third but only averaged 74.500 for the 45 miles.
Ole Bardahl’s MISS BARDAHL team passed up both the Detroit and the Coeur d’Alene races and appeared to be doubtful starter on the 1961 tour. Bardahl, who hadn’t won a race since 1958, was without a driver. Many people expected Ole to hire his son-in-law Rex Manchester. But on the recommendation of Bill Muncey, Ron Musson was recruited to pilot the “Green Dragon,” beginning with the World’s Championship Race at Seattle on August 5.
The 1961 World’s Championship Seafair Regatta certainly ranks as the finest example of remedial public relations surgery in hydroplane history. And it occurred at a time when a positive impression was needed the most.
For the first time, all responsibility for the actual running of the race itself was vested with the Referee rather than with the local committee. The result was a first-class competitive show, conducted with a refreshingly business-like flair and hailed by spectators and the media alike. (Even THE SEATTLE TIMES, which had harshly criticized the previous year’s proceedings, gave the race a rave review.)
The Seafair Regatta featured a forerunner of the “fan-plan” race format that would be tried in the 1970s. The field was divided into three groups, based upon qualification speeds. Fast boats ran against fast boats, middle boats ran against middle boats, and slow boats ran against slow boats. Bonus Points for finishing in the third stanza were added to put greater emphasis on Final Heat performance.
The two secondary races were won Marion Cooper and MISS MADISON in the middle group (for the Seattle Trophy) and Bob Gilliam and FASCINATION in the slow group (for the Seafair Queen’s Trophy).
On the eve of the race, Muncey and MISS CENTURY 21 were the obvious favorites, but this was to be a bad day for Bill. He got off to a miserable start in Heat One, found himself running seventh and last, but managed to work his way up to third behind Musson in MISS BARDAHL and Dallas Sartz in MISS SEATTLE TOO.
In Heat Two, Muncey had C-21 running well in second but missed a buoy in the upper (north) turn and lost two positions, an error that ultimately cost him the race by a mere ten points.
Bill made an on-the-nose start in Heat Three and led all the way. In so doing, he posted the fastest heat of the day at 111.111 miles per hour. The race was almost a repeat of Muncey’s uneven 1960 Reno Regatta performance, which had also ended on an “up” beat for the U-60.
Ron Musson ran a conservative fourth in the final go-around to claim the World’s Championship with 1054 points to Bill’s 1044. Ron’s victory signalled a magnificent “comeback” performance by the MISS BARDAHL team, which had finally come back to life after a long dry spell.
Muncey had been fairly and squarely beaten at Seattle. Yet, even in defeat, he had re-affirmed his credentials as the one most likely to win at the Reno Gold Cup Regatta, three weeks later on Lake Pyramid.
And sure enough, William Edward Muncey did indeed wind up in the winner’s circle on August 28. But the victory proved to be the most bizarre of Bill’s career in that he didn’t win a single heat.
On the contrary, he finished second three times, but still managed to outscore the fastest qualifiers, Don Wilson and MISS U.S. I, 900 points to 800. Wilson had a pair of firsts, but had failed to finish the middle stanza. Ron Musson and MISS BARDAHL beat Muncey in Hear Two but could tally no more than 794 points for an overall third.
The Reno Gold Cup took three days to run on account of accidents and high winds. Two boats–MISS SPOKANE with Rex Manchester and MISS RENO (the former MAVERICK) with Russ Schleeh (who beat the winner MISS CENTURY 21 in Heat 1-A)–flipped in the competitive goings-on.
Only four times in the 53 runnings of the Gold Cup had the overall winner been unsuccessful in winning at least one heat. The most recent occurrence had been the 1955 renewal when GALE V’s Lee Schoenith had run second, second, and third, but managed to defeat–with the aid of Bonus Points–the fledgling team of Bill Muncey and MISS THRIFTWAY.
Muncey had posted heat finishes of third, first, and first in 1955, but was 4.536 seconds slower than GALE V in total elapsed time. The GALE had then become eligible for 400 additional points for running the fastest race. This gave Schoenith a victorious total of 1225 points to Muncey’s 1025.
For 1961, the Bonus Point rule was not in effect, having been abandoned after the 1960 Lake Mead fiasco. Muncey didn’t have the fastest boat in the 1961 race, but he managed to outlast everyone else.
Bill’s victory meant the return of the Gold Cup to Seattle’s Lake Washington for 1962, as per the time-honored rules. At the trophy presentation ceremony, Muncey exclaimed, “Let’s throw it [the Gold Cup] in the lake so no one can ever take it away from us again!”
But the end of an era was at hand. Never again would the winner’s yacht club be allowed the privilege of defending the cup on its home waters. Beginning in 1963, the race site would be determined by the city with the highest financial bid.
The sport did admittedly lose many old-time supporters when this break with tradition, which dated back to 1904, occurred. On the other hand, the change was entirely in line with the new professional school of thought, which included mandatory cash prizes at all Unlimited events.
With the de-emphasis on the importance of the Gold Cup race location, the significance of that prestigious event was, for the first time, eclipsed by the annual contest for the National High Point Championship. Overall performance throughout the season began to carry more weight with boat owners than an individual race performance. Correspondingly, no longer were conflicting sanction dates assigned for Unlimited Class races.
The alteration of the Gold Cup location rule also accounted for the disappearance of the East-West rivalry, which had so defined Unlimited racing in the 1950s. Many veteran followers of the sport were understandably reluctant to see this and other facets of the amateur tradition vanish into history.
But change was necessary for the sport to survive. And for those that accepted the new order of things, their reward was as competitive a series of aquatic festivals as one could expect, which compared favorably–if not better–to many of the great races of the past.
After their Gold Cup victory in Reno, the MISS CENTURY 21 team headed East for three races in four weekends to conclude the 1961 campaign. For the second consecutive year, the U-60 was enjoying a substantial lead in National Points.
At Detroit on September 10, Muncey took a sixth try at the Silver Cup, one of the few trophies to consistently elude his grasp during his long career.
In Heat 1-A, MISS BARDAHL ran away from the field to win handily. MISS CENTURY 21 was a fast second but finished fourteen seconds behind the “Green Dragon.” Defending Silver Cup titlist Ron Musson did 108 miles per hour to Muncey’s 105. Fred Alter and SUCH CRUST IV then annexed Heat 1-B, followed by Bill Cantrell and GALE V.
The draw for Heat 2-A matched MISS CENTURY 21 against MISS U.S. I, MISS SUPERTEST II, MISS DETROIT, and THUNDERBOLT. C-21 held a distinct advantage since MISS BARDAHL was drawn into a different section and because neither the U.S. nor the GALE V appeared to have the necessary speed to make them likely winners that day.
MISS SUPERTEST II started Heat 2-A in last-place but quickly roared up through the pack and overtook the front runners, MISS CENTURY 21 and MISS U.S. I. In the dash through the first turn, near the Belle Isle Bridge, SUPERTEST flipped over at about 100 miles per hour after cascading wildly through MISS CENTURY 21’s roostertail. In so doing, the Canadian entry soared over MISS U.S. I’s bow, rolled completely over, and landed upright. The heat was immediately red-flagged.
SUPERTEST driver Bob Hayward died instantly from a broken neck when the Rolls-Royce Griffon-powered craft impacted with the water. Hayward had been disqualified in Heat 1-A for striking a buoy and needed a high finish in 2-A to qualify for the Final Heat.
After realizing what had happened, Bill Muncey immediately turned the U-60 around, returned to the pits, broke down on the deck of his boat, and wept.
When patrol boats reached MISS SUPERTEST II, her cockpit was a mass of twisted metal. The decking was also ripped off in several places.
A shocked Thunderboat fraternity voted to suspend racing for the day. Hayward’s death was the first in the Unlimited Class since the QUICKSILVER crash of 1951 in Seattle.
According to the rules, the final results were determined on the basis of Heat One. MISS BARDAHL took the trophy by virtue of having won section 1-A in a faster time than SUCH CRUST IV had done in winning 1-B. MISS CENTURY 21 was officially third with GALE V fourth.
In ten deathless years, the Unlimited fraternity had been extraordinarily lucky. But their luck ran out on September 10, 1961.
Some of the near-misses that could easily have been fatalities included the accident to Bill Cantrell in the original SUCH CRUST IV at Seattle in 1952, Lou Fageol in SLO-MO-SHUN V at Seattle in 1955, Ken St. Oegger in HAWAII KAI at Honolulu in 1956, Joe Taggart in SLO-MO-SHUN IV at Detroit in 1956, Russ Schleeh in SHANTY I at Washington, D.C., in 1957, Bill Muncey in the first MISS THRIFTWAY at Madison in 1957, Muncey in the second MISS THRIFTWAY at Seattle in 1958, and Jack Regas in MISS BARDAHL at Coeur d’Alene in 1959.
In the wake of the Hayward tragedy, the MISS SUPERTEST team retired from racing. Ironically, owner J. Gordon Thompson had never planned to campaign the “II” again after MISS SUPERTEST III debuted so sensationally in 1959. The “III” had been reserved for Harmsworth competition and only participated in one American Power Boat Association event (the 1959 Detroit Memorial).
But because of the great demand that the team appear on the APBA circuit, Thompson relented and re-activated MISS SUPERTEST II at a few races during 1960 and 1961.
When MISS SUPERTEST III and Hayward won their third successive Harmsworth Trophy at Picton, Ontario, in 1961, Thompson indicated that he planned to send the “III” to Seattle in 1962 to challenge MISS CENTURY 21 for the Gold Cup. But this was never to be.
Eight boats appeared for the 1961 President’s Cup, the week after the Silver Cup, despite talk of a boycott after Hayward’s death. These were MISS CENTURY 21, MISS U.S. I, MISS BARDAHL, SUCH CRUST IV, GALE V, GALE VII, MISS DETROIT, and MISS MADISON.
After scoring two decisive preliminary heat victories over MISS U.S. I, Muncey coasted MISS CENTURY 21 to a safe second to MISS BARDAHL in the Final for an 1100-point total and his second President’s Cup since 1956. Musson and BARDAHL hadn’t finished the First Heat and had to settle for an overall third behind Wilson and MISS U.S.
For the second weekend in a row, a major accident marred the running of an Unlimited regatta. Fred Alter cracked up the SUCH CRUST IV at 130 miles per hour in Heat 2-A. The right sponson sheared off along with the entire right side of the boat. (SUCH CRUST IV was the craft that had raced as the second GALE V during 1956 and 1957.)
Alter was hurtled out of the driver’s seat, bounced onto the Allison engine, and was thrown back into the cockpit. As Fred struggled to free himself from the rapidly sinking CRUST, a nearby patrol boat remained inexplicably motionless.
Fortunately, Bob Schroeder, who had been running 200 yards astern of Alter at the time of the crash, shut off his own boat (GALE VII), leaped aboard the quickly submerging SUCH CRUST IV, and rescued the stricken Alter.
Bob supported Fred on the sponson of the GALE VII, while a Coast Guard 40-footer finally moved in from a quarter mile away.
Alter was treated for cuts and bruises but was released from the hospital in time to watch the Final Heat. His boat, however, was a total wreck.
As the President’s Cup winner, Muncey earned the privilege of having the cup presented to him by the Chief Executive of the United States. President John F. Kennedy did the honors that year at a White House ceremony.
So impressed was Kennedy by Bill’s performance in the race that–in addition to the trophy–the President handed Muncey one of the famed PT-109 tie clips, right off of Kennedy’s own tie. (The PT-109 was a gunboat that JFK had commanded in the South Pacific during World War II.)
Although arguably the fastest craft on the circuit, MISS CENTURY 21 was not invulnerable. Other boats–notably the MISS BARDAHL–could run with her and, on a given day, could defeat the C-21 decisively. And it seemed that whenever the “Green Dragon” had trouble finishing, the Bill Muncey-chauffeured craft was always there to grab the marbles.
Unlike the previous year, the National High Point Championship for 1961 wasn’t decided until the last race of the season at Madison, Indiana.
It was another sobering weekend for power boat racing. Jim Clark, a 266 Cubic Inch Class driver from Detroit, died of injuries suffered in a Limited hydroplane accident on the picturesque Ohio River.
Muncey and MISS CENTURY 21 duplicated their President’s Cup performance by winning two preliminary heats and taking a safe second in the Final.
GALE V and Bill Cantrell gave their strongest performance of the year. They tied MISS CENTURY 21 on points and beat the Muncey boat in the Final, 107 miles per hour to 105. Cantrell also turned the fastest lap of the race at 111.340.
MISS U.S. I, with crew chief Roy Duby filling in for regular pilot Don Wilson, took an overall third with a victory in the First Heat.
MISS BARDAHL, the only craft with a mathematical chance of eclipsing the C-21’s National Points lead, won its first preliminary heat but failed to finish the second and was through for the day.
Bill Muncey and U-60 now had back-to-back season titles for 1960 and 1961. (This hadn’t happened since Lee Schoenith won two in a row in 1954 and 1955 with GALE V.)
For the second straight year, the Associated Grocers team had also not scored a single DNF and now possessed a start/finish record of 40 consecutive heats. (This didn’t include the ill-fated Heat 2-A of the 1961 Silver Cup, which was halted on the first lap and not re-run.)
In both seasons, Muncey turned the fastest heat of the year: 110.087 at Reno in 1960 and 111.111 at Seattle in 1961. This compared to the world record for a 15-mile heat of 112.312, set by the original MISS THRIFTWAY at Madison in 1957.
The three-year-old U-60 had a career total of eight wins, which made her the most successful Unlimited hydroplane since HAWAII KAI III.
Muncey had twelve victories since 1956. This tied him with his boyhood idol Cantrell, who likewise had an even dozen major wins, dating back to 1949. (A major race is defined as an event that is scheduled for a minimum of two heats and has at least four Unlimited Class boats making a legal start.)
William Edward Muncey stood only two short of the post-World War II record of fourteen wins set by Danny Foster between 1946 and 1955.
Chapter 4: 1962
The 1962 Unlimited hydroplane season had all of the preliminary indications of a great year with a lot of formidable challengers to Bill Muncey’s National Championship crown on the horizon.
Muncey and MISS CENTURY 21 had ridden the crest of the wave for two years, but had the odds of history stacked against them. No boat had ever won the High Points title three years in a row.
And only one driver (Lee Schoenith) had ever taken three straight season titles (in 1953, 1954, and 1955 with GALE II and GALE V)–and that had occurred when Unlimited racing was still quite regional in nature with no one boat ever participating in every race.
During Schoenith’s championship years, he had won six races and finished second or third twelve times. Lee’s consistency had paid off when racing against speedier rivals. He also benefited from the fact that no other team had participated in more races than the GALE boats.
Times had changed. Every race on the calender in 1962 was considered to be of national–rather than regional–importance. That year, for the first time, the National Champion would be attending every single event. Gone were the days when an owner could pick and choose which race he wished to concentrate upon if he expected to win the coveted Martini & Rossi National High Points Trophy.
Unlike the previous year, a bumper crop of new boats appeared on the scene. Ole Bardahl introduced a new MISS BARDAHL, designed and built by Ted Jones, for Ron Musson to drive. (This was to be the last Unlimited built by Jones, although he would design a few more over the next couple of years.)
Shirley Mendelson McDonald of Detroit revived a tradition started in 1935 by her late father, Herb Mendelson, with the latest in a series of hulls named NOTRE DAME, the first since 1947. The new NOTRE DAME was a Les Staudacher project driven by rookie Warner Gardner.
Built at the same time as NOTRE DAME by Staudacher was a new $ BILL for Bill Schuyler who at long last had retired the unsuccessful “Ugly Duckling” predecessor that Fred Wickens had built.
NOTRE DAME and $ BILL were virtually identical, featured “drop” sponsons, and used Allison power. Rex Manchester was hired to drive $ BILL after the MISS SPOKANE organization had retired from racing.
Another new boat for 1962 was an enormous twin-Allison entry for Jack Schafer named SUCH CRUST IV, a namesake for the surprisingly competitive namesake that had used a single Allison and been destroyed at the 1961 President’s Cup Regatta.
A more apt title would have been SUCH CRUST III, because the hull was more of a step backwards than anything else.
MISS RENO, the former MAVERICK, became the property of Nevada casino owner Bill Harrah and was renamed TAHOE MISS. Driven by Russ Schleeh and managed by ex-driver Bill Stead, the boat would be the host entry for the first of a new series of races on Lake Tahoe at Stateline, Nevada, sponsored by Harrah.
The first significant “boat news” of the year was the word that MISS U.S. I was now the fastest propeller-driven boat in the world. With Roy Duby at the wheel, the U.S. had eclipsed MISS THRIFTWAY’s 1960 mile straightaway record of 192.001 miles per hour with a new mark of 200.419556 on Guntersville Lake in Alabama.
Using Rolls-Royce Merlin power, Duby had also erased HAWAII KAI III’s 1957 kilometer record of 195.329 with a new mark of 198.168.
An infrequent driver in competition, Roy never won a closed course race. But as the sport’s first official 200 mile an hour man, he achieved immortality.
The 200.419 record would stand for 38 years until eclipsed in 2000 by Russ Wicks who did 205.494 with the turbine-powered MISS FREEI.
Designed by Dan Arena and built by Les Staudacher, MISS U.S. I had always been a very fast boat. And even though she hadn’t won a race since 1958, the U.S. had been the fastest Gold Cup qualifier during 1959, 1960, and 1961.
Unfortunately, the adjustments that were made to MISS U.S. I for the straightaway record attempt ruined the boat for closed course racing. During the 1962 season with Don Wilson in the cockpit, she ran continually in the middle of the pack, showing all of her six years of wear and tear.
The newly crowned record holder could average no higher than 95.070 (at the Diamond Cup) in a heat of racing.
The season opened uncharacteristically that year in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, on July 21-22. The traditional late June/early July Detroit Memorial Regatta was no more. The prize money demands of the APBA Unlimited Racing Commission had proved too costly for the sponsoring Windmill Pointe Yacht Club. After fifteen consecutive years in the sport, the WPYC was out of the boat racing business.
Prize money problems had also brought down the curtain on the traditional late-summer Silver Cup race, sponsored by the prestigious Detroit Yacht Club. This was a major blow to the sport, because the DYC had for nearly half a century been the acknowledged Capitol of big-time power boat racing in North America.
For the first time since before World War II, the Motor City was in danger of being bereft of Unlimited hydroplane racing entirely.
And Detroit wasn’t the only trouble spot on the URC’s 1962 schedule. On the Fourth of July, only three race sites were firm: Coeur d’Alene, Seattle, and Madison. This was an incredible reversal of fortune. (In 1958, the Commission’s first full year of operation, twelve regattas had crowded the Unlimited calender.)
Newly elected Commissioner Lee Schoenith saw it necessary to maintain a hard line stance on the issue of cash prizes–even if it meant turning down two sanction requests in his own home town. The Internal Revenue Service was questioning the sport’s deductibility as a legitimate business expense. For racing to survive, it had to professionalize itself.
Happily, a new organization was formed in time to stage an Unlimited event in Detroit on August 26. The President’s Cup Regatta returned to the fold. And the new Harrah’s Tahoe Regatta was also approved by Commissioner Schoenith. This brought the season total for 1962 to six races, the smallest number since 1946 (which had four).
Bill Muncey and MISS CENTURY 21 picked up right where they had left off at the end of 1961. Muncey again won at Coeur d’Alene and earned himself the local nickname of “Diamond Bill.”
After the first race of the season, several things were glaringly obvious. For one, the U-60 was still running in the same speed range as the year before. The other fast boats were not. Only one–GALE V with Bill Cantrell–came anywhere close to C-21’s performance with Cantrell doing 104 miles per hour to Muncey’s 108 in Heat 1-B.
The new MISS BARDAHL was a late and unprepared entry.
TAHOE MISS ended up an overall second but proved to be an embarrassment, being outrun by the underpowered TEMPEST and NOTRE DAME in Heat 2-A.
MISS SEATTLE TOO and Bill Brow took third-place and were the only team besides MISS CENTURY 21 and GALE V to clear 100 miles per hour. Still, MISS SEATTLE TOO was definitely running slower than before and–Rolls-Royce Merlin power not withstanding–was trounced in the Final Heat by Chuck Hickling and the Allison-powered TEMPEST.
In short, of the supposed “hot dogs,” MISS CENTURY 21 alone had its act together. The craft had won all three of its heats at Coeur d’Alene and was a model of speed and consistency. The same could not be said for the rest of the fleet.
At the Gold Cup in Seattle, two weeks later, Muncey and C-21 didn’t waste time in re-affirming their superiority over the other seventeen hopefuls. They qualified at 111.111 for the three-lap/nine-mile distance and later upped their time to 116.212 to claim the “Pop” Cooper Memorial Trophy for the fastest Gold Cup qualifier. (This compared to the qualifying record of 119.956, established in 1958 by Bill Stead and the original MAVERICK.)
GALE V, perhaps the only contender capable of giving MISS CENTURY 21 a race, qualified second at 113.524. MISS SEATTLE TOO with Dallas Sartz was third at 112.188. Fourth-place on the ladder, incredibly was TEMPEST, which did 111.417 and bettered the times of such well-financed entries as TAHOE MISS, MISS BARDAHL, and MISS U.S. I.
Because of the inexplicable drop in performance by the top teams, a smooth-running field horse such as TEMPEST (the future SAVAIR’S PROBE) had to be considered an extremely competitive challenger for the 1962 Gold Cup with Chuck Hickling at the wheel.
Winning the Cooper Trophy was considered by some to be a jinx. This was because no Gold Cup fastest qualifier in recent years had been able to win the big race. This notion vanished into nothingness when MISS CENTURY 21 coasted to an easy victory and duplicated her Coeur d’Alene performance by winning all three heats.
Bill Muncey now had four Gold Cups in seven tries and stood second only to Gar Wood who had won five straight between 1917 and 1921. And yet, as impressive as Bill’s record had been thus far in the race of races, not for ten long years would another Muncey Gold Cup victory be entered into the books.
In winning his second race of the season, Bill now had a total of fourteen Unlimited Class wins, which put him in a tie for number-one with Danny Foster.
MISS CENTURY 21 claimed its fourth straight race win under cold, cloudy, rainy skies. After eleven years of perfect race day weather in Seattle, Mother Nature could not have been more uncooperative. It was a truly miserable day and reflected the pitifully low level of competition.
Racing was a calculated risk as heavy winds whipped up Lake Washington like the froth on a root beer. MISS SEATTLE TOO, accelerating toward the first turn in Heat 1-A, hit a wave and blew apart. Driver Sartz escaped with a badly broken leg.
TEMPEST suffered extensive fire damage in Heat 1-B, had to be withdrawn, and was retired for the season.
TAHOE MISS again disappointed by only completing three quarters of a lap all day.
GALE V started out well and turned in the day’s fastest lap (at 109.091) but couldn’t finish a heat.
On the plus side, MISS BARDAHL showed some improvement and was the only boat besides MISS CENTURY 21 to average a 30-mile heat at over 100 miles per hour (in Heat 1-A). Ron Musson managed to tie down an overall second-place but was outperformed by NOTRE DAME and had to settle for a third in the Final Heat.
In the opinion of Associate Unlimited Historian David Greene, “Despite flashes of good form with considerable promise for the future, the new ‘Green Dragon’ was still not as able as its hard-cornering predecessor of the year before. Clearly, Ole Bardahl would have been better advised to have run the old boat for one more year, while bringing the new craft along slowly.”
After only two races, Muncey already had a formidable lead in APBA National High Points. In addition to dominating the Unlimited Class in 1962, Bill was also, for a time, leading in 7-Litre Class High Points with his self-owned BEST WISHES, which he drove when he could and not conflict with his assignment in MISS CENTURY 21.
Then it was on to Detroit where the local citizenry, headed by the likes of Joe Schoenith and Jack Love, had banded together to form the Spirit Of Detroit Association. It was the start of a new racing tradition for the Motor City.
MISS CENTURY 21 easily dispatched a dozen other entries and added the Spirit Of Detroit Trophy to its ever-growing list of accolades. C-21 was the only boat to clear the 100 mile an hour hurdle for a 15-mile heat and did so at 104.530 in Heat 2-B.
The fastest 3-mile lap was again turned by GALE V’s Bill Cantrell at 108.488. Cantrell managed to win Heat 2-A but ran into bad luck again and couldn’t finish either the 1-B section or the Final. GALE V arguably could have won a race in 1962 were it not not for her frustrating inability to finish.
Chapter 4b 1962
Rookie Warner Gardner won the first heat of his career with the new NOTRE DAME in Heat 1-A at Detroit. But he was beaten decisively by MISS CENTURY 21 in the next two outings.
TAHOE MISS had another erratic day with Russ Schleeh running a solid first and second in the preliminaries but slipping to a distant fifth in the Final. After the race, reports began to circulate that Schleeh was in disfavor with TAHOE MISS Team Manager Bill Stead and on his way out.
MISS BARDAHL and MISS U.S. I both had horrendous luck at Detroit and didn’t score a point all day.
The generally poor showing by many of the better financed teams allowed a couple of low-budget “also-rans” (MISS MADISON with Marion Cooper and THUNDERBOLT with Bud Saile) to qualify for the Final Heat and finish very respectably overall.
In claiming his third victory of the year, Bill Muncey now had a total of fifteen Unlimited Class wins since 1956. He had now moved ahead of the previous leader Danny Foster. Bill was the most victorious driver of all time, a distinction that he would never relinquish and which remains in the record book to this day.
On a human interest level, Muncey had the opportunity at Detroit to run against the “Old Pro” Foster who finished fourth in Heat 2-B. Danny was making one of his rare 1960s appearances as pilot for the Schoeniths’ workhorse GALE VII, powered by an enormous Packard PT-Boat engine.
This was to be the last appearance in competition by the two Superstars on the same race course with each other. They had first crossed competitive swords at the 1950 Silver Cup when the veteran Foster was the winner with the original SUCH CRUST and the rookie Muncey had sunk in the First Heat with MISS GREAT LAKES.
The one time that Danny and Bill had faced each other with comparable equipment was during the 1955 season. Muncey with MISS THRIFTWAY was beaten in two races out of three by Foster who was driving Guy Lombardo’s TEMPO VII.
Bill arguably should have won the 1955 President’s Cup. That was the time when Danny spun out in the first turn of the Final Heat and Muncey thought he had the race wrapped up. But Foster rebounded quickly and worked his way up through the field. He passed first one boat and then another and caught up with the front-running MISS THRIFTWAY. TEMPO VII thundered past Muncey as if he were tied to the dock, much to Bill’s astonishment, and went on to claim the victory.
A week after winning the 1962 Spirit of Detroit Trophy, MISS CENTURY 21 continued her win streak by annexing the Indiana Governor’s Cup on the Ohio River at Madison. The team scored another three-heat grand slam. The boat and driver had now tied the six-in-a-row victory record set in 1957 and 1958 by HAWAII KAI III and Jack Regas.
Inasmuch as this was third Governor’s Cup victory in as many years by owner Willard Rhodes, this entitled Rhodes to gain permanent possession of the trophy, as per the Madison Regatta rules.
Muncey and C-21 had now won twelve heats in a row–225 miles at a winning pace. Not since the glory days of Chuck Thompson and MISS PEPSI, a decade earlier, had an Unlimited hydroplane compiled a more perfect competitive record.
MISS PEPSI had finished first in ten consecutive heats in 1951, before failing to start in two heats at New Martinsville, West Virginia, the last race of the season. MISS PEPSI had then won its first seven heats of 1952 before registering a DNF at the Gold Cup in Seattle.
Unlike MISS PEPSI, MISS CENTURY 21 sported a perfect reliability record. Beginning with the first heat of the first race of 1960, Muncey and C-21 had never failed to finish. They had completed an unprecedented 52 consecutive heats.
Ron Musson and MISS BARDAHL finished second at Madison with the “Green Dragon” beginning to emerge as a contender of some substance. Musson averaged 101 and 100 miles per hour and finished first and second in the preliminary heats. MISS BARDAHL actually led MISS CENTURY 21 in the final go-around but was penalized an extra lap for jumping the gun along with Russ Schleeh in TAHOE MISS.
The official corrected order of finish in the Final Heat was MISS CENTURY 21 first, the community-owned MISS MADISON second, MISS BARDAHL third, TAHOE MISS fourth, and Bob Miller’s MISS B & I fifth.
With four down and two races remaining on the Unlimited calender, people were beginning to wonder if MISS CENTURY 21 was ever going to stop winning. It did indeed seem that C-21 was unbeatable as long as she kept running.
The 1962 President’s Cup was definitely an “upper” in a generally “downer” year with respect to high performance by the fleet as a whole. Despite the Potomac River’s reputation as a rugged place to race, the track proved surprisingly swift that weekend.
MISS CENTURY 21, MISS BARDAHL, and GALE V drew each other in Heat 1-B and finished in that order. Muncey toured the 15 miles at 111.639 miles per hour, thereby achieving the fastest heat of the year for the third straight season. Musson ran second at 107.935, the quickest time of 1962 for any boat other than C-21, while Cantrell took third at 103.966.
Luck of the draw placed MISS CENTURY 21, MISS BARDAHL, and GALE V together again in Heat 2-B, but this time Musson and Cantrell both fell by the wayside and into the DNF category. This nullified the BARDAHL’s and the GALE’s chances of qualifying for the Final Heat as Muncey roared around the 3-mile course virtually unopposed at a solid 107.968.
Although Musson and Cantrell were missing from the Championship go-around, Muncey still had to face TAHOE MISS, which was now being driven by the formidable Chuck Thompson, a replacement for the fired Russ Schleeh. The former MAVERICK had won Heats 1-A and 2-A hands down at speeds of 101 and 100 miles per hour.
When the roostertails subsided after the Final Heat, the World’s Fair boat had again outclassed the opposition with a speed of 108.216. TAHOE MISS had checked in second at 104.206.
Muncey and Thompson had duplicated their 1956 performances on the same race course when Bill was an overall first with the original MISS THRIFTWAY and Chuck had taken second with MISS PEPSI, a twin-Allison-powered step hydroplane.
In a race characterized by higher than usual speeds, even the big lumbering SUCH CRUST IV was at the top of her form. The CRUST averaged 100.055 in the President’s Cup Final Heat.
This was the fastest time ever recorded in a heat of competition by a Jack Schafer-owned boat, and also a testament to the driving skill of pilot Fred Alter who had had such a narrow escape the year before on the same track.
The competitive pressure exerted on MISS CENTURY 21 at Washington, D.C., had prompted Bill Muncey to urge his mount to a world record average for three heats. His time for 45 miles of racing was an unprecedented 109.157. This meant that C-21 was arguably the fastest boat in history.
It appeared that only HAWAII KAI III (in its 1957/1958 configuration) or the fantastically swift MISS SUPERTEST III could have provided MISS CENTURY 21 with meaningful competition in 1962.
Muncey’s President’s Cup victory stretched his win streak to an unheard of seven in a row., which had started at the previous year’s Potomac River classic. The record would stand until 1979 when Bill would win nine consecutive races with the ATLAS VAN LINES “Blue Blaster.”
MISS CENTURY 21 had now won 15 straight heats, three each in the initial five races of 1962. Not until Dean Chenoweth’s 20-in-a-row triumph with MISS BUDWEISER in 1980 would this performance be overshadowed.
Muncey’s team had also finished an unbelievable 55 consecutive heats, beginning with Heat 1-A at Lake Chelan in 1960. The boat had traveled 912 competitive miles without a breakdown.
All good things must come to an end. And, for MISS CENTURY 21, it came at the end of a tow rope on Lake Tahoe in the final race of the season.
Drawn into Heat 1-B of the Harrah’s Tahoe Regatta, Muncey squared off against the host boat, TAHOE MISS, with Chuck Thompson loaded for bear. Muncey’s old rival grabbed the lead and pulled away. Bill found himself in second-place, leading MISS BARDAHL, but losing ground to TAHOE MISS.
Then, the inevitable happened. MISS CENTURY 21 went dead in the water and posted its first DNF since 1959, felled by a broken crankshaft.
The World’s Fair team withdrew from the remaining action. MISS BARDAHL, probably the second fastest boat in the country, became the only Unlimited hydroplane besides MISS CENTURY 21 to win a High Points race during 1962.
$ BILL and Rex Manchester, after a dismal season, finished second and managed to tie the “Green Dragon” and Ron Musson on points that day, after TAHOE MISS failed to start in the Final Heat.
Clearly, MISS BARDAHL won at Lake Tahoe only because MISS CENTURY 21 lost. Muncey’s boat was obviously in a class by itself. Almost from Day One, the C-21 had been assured of an unprecedented third straight National High Point Championship.
The 1962 season would mark the first of Muncey’s three near-perfect years (together with 1972 and 1978) when Bill would almost totally dominate the competitive action and win every race on the calender but one.
In 1962, he grabbed five trophies out of six; in both 1972 and 1978, he won six out of a possible seven races.
Four previous champions had also lost only one major event in their otherwise flawless campaigns at recognized races. These were Danny Foster in 1947 with MISS PEPS V, Bill Cantrell in 1949 with MY SWEETIE, and Chuck Thompson in both 1951 and 1952 with MISS PEPSI.
But no one–not even the great Muncey–has ever won everything 100 percent during a given year.
Bill came the closest to perfection when he won the last two races of 1978 and the first seven races of 1979 with ATLAS VAN LINES–a performance that clearly was Muncey at his best.
Hopefully, no hydroplane will ever dominate a season as completely as MISS CENTURY 21 did in 1962. In the words of David Greene, “Perhaps the reason for the C-21’s dominance was her rivals’ recession from their previous performance records. Although, during the 1961/1962 off-season, no other team had tested to the extent that MISS CENTURY 21 had.”
If any boat was capable of running with C-21, they weren’t running long enough to make a difference. The U-60’s off-day at Lake Tahoe not withstanding, the 1962 campaign belonged to MISS CENTURY 21 outright. Because, all year long, no one appeared on the horizon that could be counted on to give Muncey a race.
Chapter 5: 1963
After eight years in the sport, the U-60 organization stood at the very top of the racing world with Bill Muncey as the reigning momarch, the most victorious driver of all time.
The team’s flagship was the most successful Unlimited hydroplane in history and could only be described with superlatives. It had won three straight season championships–an unprecedented feat. (Not until 1976 would any hull–the “Winged Wonder” PAY ‘n PAK/ATLAS VAN LINES–win four championships.)
Muncey deserved a lot of the credit for his team’s success with his amazing consistency and burning desire to win. The same applied to Crew Chief Jack Ramsey, the soft-spoken, taciturn former sheepherder who seemingly smiled only on the occasion of a race victory.
Ramsey was the first of several top-echelon crew chiefs whose mechanical careers would coincide over the years with the driving exploits of Bill Muncey. (The others would include Dave Seefeldt, Jim Kerth, and Jim Lucero.)
But no human condition is ever permanent. And the end of an era was just around the corner. Lean years rather than affluent ones were in store for Muncey. The 1963 season would be the last time for the persimmon-and-white U-60, which was named MISS THRIFTWAY again. Not until 1972 would Bill again experience such an all-around excellent season as he had in 1962.
The opposition, after having been caught napping the year before, had one objective in mind for 1963. And that was to stop Bill Muncey’s domination.
Toward that end, Bill Harrah ordered a new TAHOE MISS and retained the cockpit services of Chuck Thompson. The craft was designed by Ted Jones and built by the TAHOE MISS mechanical crew.
Another new Jones hull that year was the MISS EXIDE, which was built by Ed Karelsen for the Stoen brothers as a replacement for the destroyed MISS SEATTLE TOO. Ending a three-year retirement to replace Dallas Sartz as the Stoens’ driver was Muncey’s old nemesis Mira Slovak.
Ole Bardahl, meanwhile, was having his one-year-old “Green Dragon” fine-tuned. He hired Ron Jones, Ted’s son, to redesign the sponsons for MISS BARDAHL and change the length of the afterplane among other things.
Ironically, both Ted and Ron Jones had been closely associated with–but then departed from–the MISS THRIFTWAY effort in 1959 with Ted as the boat manager and Ron as a crew member.
As pre-season testing got underway, the Associated Grocers team maintained a distinctly lower profile than usual and attempted no major changes in their proven formula. This was sharply in contrast with previous practice. In the past, MISS THRIFTWAY had always tested extensively. But this time, she stayed pretty much under wraps. This caught many fans by surprise.
When the starting gun fired for the first race of the season at Guntersville, Alabama, the defending National Champion was conspicuously absent. For this their last season together, Muncey and the U-60 would postpone their debut until the Gold Cup in Detroit, two weeks later.
For the rest of the fleet, Guntersville proved a rousing lid-lifter. Speeds were impressively high, considering that they were turned on a 2.5-mile course with shorter straightaways and less distance to accelerate than the standard 3-mile track.
Ron Musson and MISS BARDAHL won all three heats with an average speed of 106.267 in Heat 2-B, which translated to approximately 111 miles per hour on a 3-mile course. Clearly, the “Green Dragon” was over its case of the new boat blahs and in the speed range of MISS THRIFTWAY.
Bill Cantrell took second at Guntersville with GALE V and finished all three heats, thus indicating that the team’s reliability problem of the year before was a thing of the past. Cantrell posted the second fastest heat of the day at 104.046 in Heat 2-B. This put the GALE–as well as the BARDAHL–in close speed proximity to the absent MISS THRIFTWAY.
Bill Muncey would have to do without the sharpening of a recent race competition at the upcoming Gold Cup event.
Seventeen Thunderboats appeared for the 1963 Motor City classic. The Spirit Of Detroit Association, less than a year old, had emerged as the highest bidder to host the race of races for the first time in Detroit since 1956.
In addition to the new emphasis on financial bidding, the Gold Cup also departed from its time-honored format of three 30-mile heats. Beginning in 1963, the event would be reduced from 90 to 60 miles and characterized more as a sprint race than as an endurance test. As opposed to previous practice, each boat would run in as many as four heats of 15 miles in length. The format change was intended to make the race more appealing to the spectators.
Muncey and MISS THRIFTWAY quickly demonstrated that they were still a force with which to be reckoned. They reeled of three nearly identical laps for a qualifying average of 116.463, the fastest time of the week.
Musson and MISS BARDAHL were next at 113.849, followed by Roy Duby at 113.600 with MISS U.S. I, Don Wilson at 113.326 with MISS U.S. 5 (former HAWAII KAI III), Chuck Thompson at 111.300 with TAHOE MISS, and Cantrell at 108.600 with GALE V.
The qualifying period was not without its “down” moments. MISS MADISON, the community-owned entry from Indiana, was completely destroyed when it struck a log during a test run. Driver Morlan Visel was badly injured. GALE VII also ended up at the bottom of the Detroit River when it sank out from under Danny Foster, who fortunately escaped unscathed.
The MISS MADISON people, thankfully, had another hull (the former NITROGEN TOO) waiting in the wings that would enable the Ohio River town to remain active in racing. The GALE VII was retrieved but never appeared at another race.
As Gold Cup day dawned, Bill Muncey found himself in Heat 1-A opposite the two highly touted new boats, TAHOE MISS and MISS EXIDE, while MISS BARDAHL and GALE V faced each other in 1-B.
MISS THRIFTWAY showed Thompson and Slovak the short way around the buoys in 1-A. Muncey maintained a conservative edge over TAHOE MISS and averaged 102.428 to Thompson’s 101.199 with MISS EXIDE a distant third.
So far, so good. The nifty THRIFTY was still following its familiar script. Now it was MISS BARDAHL’s turn to run the gauntlet.
Musson took Heat 1-B but had to fight off a determined Bill Cantrell who had been driving in Detroit River races since 1937 and had been a Gold Cup winner there in 1949. When the checkered flag dropped, MISS BARDAHL had won and GALE V was second with both running the 15 miles faster than MISS THRIFTWAY. Musson had done 104.936 and Cantrell 102.622.
With one down and three heats to go, the four top boats had asserted themselves and demonstrated their capacity to run fast. At long last, competition had returned to the Unlimited Class.
The racing world held its collective breath as the boat names were drawn by lot to determine the starting fields for Heats 2-A and 2-B. Luck of the draw placed three of the top four–THRIFTWAY, BARDAHL, and TAHOE–in section A, while GALE went into section B.
As the seconds ticked away before the start, Muncey, Musson, and Thompson entered the race course and started working into position. Along for the ride were two lesser lights–NOTRE DAME with Warner Gardner and ST. REGIS with Jimmy Fyle.
At the one-minute gun, the field converged on the “Roostertail Turn” with MISS THRIFTWAY trailing slightly. The boats rounded the tricky hairpin corner and started a cavalry charge downriver toward the Gar Wood Judges’ Stand and the starting line.
Bang! The gun fired and the race was on. Bill Muncey tried to duck in between boats in search of an opening…but didn’t find one.
Wham! MISS THRIFTWAY encountered a wall of water. The bombardment of roostertails subsided. And there sat the defending champion dead in the water in front of the Judges’ Stand.
It was an incredible sight. As the other four boats ripped around the Belle Isle turn and thundered down the backstretch, Muncey frantically tried to re-start…and finally managed to do so. But pursuit was out of the question. He completed the five laps, picked up 127 last-place points, and returned to the Burns pit area a broken man with tears in his eyes. (“I let my team down.”) There would be no fifth Gold Cup for the MISS THRIFTWAY crew on this day or ever.
What happened to Bill Muncey in Heat 2-A of the 1963 Gold Cup has an eerie parallel to Heat 1-B of the 1981 Gold Cup at Seattle. There, too, Muncey was back at the start (with ATLAS VAN LINES) and tried to squeeze in between boats…only to be drowned out. The 1981 race proved to be Bill’s Gold Cup swan song. Two months later, he was killed at Acapulco.
As for 1963, the nonpareil MISS THRIFTWAY had been brought down to earth. After garnering most of the glory for three consecutive years, the tables had been turned against the incomparable U-60.
Ron Musson, who had spent much of the 1962 season in Muncey’s shadow, now ruled the Unlimited roost.
MISS BARDAHL won Heat 2-A decisively at 109.489 miles per hour, the fastest time of the day. TAHOE MISS ran second at 101.427, followed by NOTRE DAME, ST. REGIS, and MISS THRIFTWAY in that order. And although 30 racing miles still remained, this was clearly to be the “Green Dragon’s” day.
Muncey participated in the next two heats. But he was hardly the flawless driver who had amassed so many impressive victories in the recent past. His heart wasn’t in it. And it showed in his performance, which was arguably the sloppiest of his career.
In Heat 3-A, Bill was beaten handily by MISS BARDAHL, TAHOE MISS and MISS EXIDE, all of which did over 100 miles per hour. Muncey did 99.631.
In the Final Heat, he again ran near the back of the pack. MISS THRIFTWAY finished fifth at a lackluster 95.205, while Bill Cantrell burned up the course at a solid 105.953. Ron Musson, meanwhile, took a safe second at 100.953 to insure the victory.
MISS THRIFTWAY, in her final Gold Cup appearance, finished an overall sixth behind MISS BARDAHL, GALE V, TAHOE MISS, NOTRE DAME, and MISS EXIDE, in that order.
With retirement just two races away, the U-60 team faced a formidable challenge. If vindication of such a dismal showing was to occur, it had to happen quickly, because time was running out.
As the field prepared for its upcoming Diamond Cup date at Coeur d’Alene, pre-race prognostication reached a fever pitch. Would MISS THRIFTWAY regain her championship form? Was MISS BARDAHL just a flash in the pan? Had GALE V finally come into her own? Would TAHOE MISS and MISS EXIDE continue to develop as contenders? Would the recently reactivated MISS EAGLE ELECTRIC (former MISS SPOKANE) be a factor?
Muncey and Musson found themselves facing each other once again in Heat 1-B. But when the roostertails subsided, the tables had dramatically turned once again–this time in MISS THRIFTWAY’s favor.
The U-60 had won hands down at 109.267, a Diamond Cup record. MISS BARDAHL had come acropper with a DNF, her three-race victory string snapped decisively by the still viable MISS THRIFTWAY.
Diamond Cup Heat 2-A proved almost a repeat of 1-B. Muncey and THRIFTWAY did it again at a solid 103.686. Incredibly, Musson and BARDAHL scored another zero result. Also falling by the wayside were Cantrell’s GALE V and Thompson’s TAHOE MISS.
It was 1962 all over again. Muncey’s craft was performing like the U-60 of old with no other boat clearing 100 miles per hour for a heat of racing all weekend. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of MISS THRIFTWAY’s competitive “death” had been greatly exaggerated.
Only one obstacle stood in the way of Bill Muncey and a third straight Diamond Cup. And that obstacle was the “Flying Czech” Mira Slovak whose MISS EXIDE had won Heats 1-A and 2-B at speeds of 99 and 94 miles per hour.
The starting gun fired, and the field sprinted toward the first turn. EXIDE entered the initial backstretch in the lead and in the inside lane. THRIFTWAY was second and in lane-two. At the end of lap-one, Slovak and Muncey were side-by-side.
Then, as the leaders streaked toward the lower turn of lap-two, MISS EXIDE disintegrated spectacularly–just as its predecessor MISS SEATTLE TOO had done the year before.
Slovak was thrown clear of the boat and into the water. The race was immediately halted. Muncey managed to avoid the wreckage and pulled off the course.
After only two races, the new MISS EXIDE was completely destroyed. The boat literally exploded. Slovak was hospitalized and wouldn’t drive in competition again until 1966. Designer Ted Jones, ironically, had disavowd the MISS EXIDE when he learned that builder Ed Karelsen was going to put the boat together with a staple gun.
Owners Milo and Glen Stoen rebounded quickly, however, and purchased the retired WAHOO hull from Bill Boeing, Jr., for the next race of the season in Seattle.
Karelsen would later vindicate himself as the designer/builder of three successful Unlimiteds: the MISS BARDAHL of 1967, the MISS BUDWEISER of 1968, and the NOTRE DAME of 1969.
With all of the top contenders out of commission for the day, the Final Heat re-run of the 1963 Diamond Cup was a mere formality. It didn’t matter that MISS THRIFTWAY was nursing a twisted quill shaft, which drives the supercharger impeller. Muncey ran a conservative fifth-place and secured the victory with points to spare.
Meanwhile, Chuck Hickling in TEMPEST staged a thriller for first-place in the Final Heat and second-place overall. Hickling narrowly outran Norm Evans in $ BILL and Bob Schroeder in the four-seater TEMPO. (TEMPO was the first boat to be campaigned by future MISS BUDWEISER owner Bernie Little.)
Muncey and MISS THRIFTWAY were now back in their familiar first-place and had effectively dimmed the memory of their Detroit setback.
But now the curtain was about to be drawn. Willard Rhodes announced at a press conference that the August 11 Seafair Regatta on Lake Washington–where the Associated Grocers team had debuted eight years earlier–would be the U-60’s final competitive appearance.
The September, 1963, issue of PROPELLER, the official publication of the American Power Boat Association, described the event in these words:
“The voluntary termination of an illustrious reign occurred quietly. Muncey and THRIFTWAY won the first heat setting a record of 112.500 mph, then went dead in the second, requiring a tow to the pits.
“Those decrying this ‘humbled finish for a proud champion’ are not boat racers. Racers accept the good breaks with the bad. They recognize that winning may be the goal of racing but competing is its major function.
“Compete the THRIFTWAY camp did, unsparingly, constantly, totally. And in compiling their three-boat, two-major-accident competitive history, the THRIFTWAY camp not only endured but prevailed to set records of speed and mechanical excellence that would be hard to beat.”
On the last day of his boat’s career, Bill Muncey re-affirmed his position as the world’s fastest boat racer. His speed of 112.500 in Heat 1-A erased his own previous high of 112.312 set in 1957 at Madison, Indiana.
His first-place in Heat 1-A did not come easy. He had to beat Ron Musson and the MISS BARDAHL, which ran 110.474, and the “new” MISS EXIDE (former WAHOO) with Russ Schleeh who did 110.429. The 112.500 mark would stand until 1964.
Following the completion of the first set of preliminary heats, an unusual weather phenomenon for the Pacific Northwest–a line squall–appeared on the horizon. Heavy rains pelted the race area and put the rest of the day’s schedule in doubt. If the remaining heats had been canceled and the race declared a contest on the basis of Heat One, MISS THRIFTWAY would have gone out a winner.
But this was not to be. The squall passed out of the area, the sun came out, and racing resumed.
In Seafair Trophy Heat 2-B, THRIFTWAY dueled briefly with BARDAHL but then slowed to a halt. Muncey stood up on the inert craft’s deck and signalled for a tow.
He watched as Musson, his heir apparent, whipped the “Green Dragon” unopposed around the buoys and completed his remaining laps in solitary splendor, far ahead of the slow-ticking TEMPO with Bob Schroeder and MARINER TOO with Roy Duby.
The King was dead; long live the King!
From 1959 to 1963, Muncey had started in 85 heats with the third MISS THRIFTWAY and had finished 77 of them. He had been first 46 times, second 16 times, third seven times, fourth five times, fifth three times, had averaged 54 heats at better than 100 miles per hour, and won 14 out of 32 races entered.
To be sure, William Edward Muncey would some day again rule the Unlimited world. But for the moment, he was an unemployed hydroplane driver with an uncertain future, although his credentials were second to none.
Since landing his first Unlimited ride in 1950, Muncey had achieved the status of a boat racing immortal. He would always remain so, throughout the rich years–as well as the lean years–that were to follow.
Chapter 6: The Lean Years (1964-1969)
With the retirement of the MISS THRIFTWAY organization in August of 1963, Bill Muncey found himself with a winning reputation but without a boat to drive.
The THRIFTWAY years–from 1955 to 1963–had been good years. Bill had established himself as a bona fide superstar. Almost no one doubted that Muncey would very soon land another competitive “ride” and make a quick return to the winner’s circle.
When Bill started Thunderboat driving thirteen years earlier with the MISS GREAT LAKES, his fellow drivers included the likes of Danny Foster, Bill Cantrell, Chuck Thompson, Guy Lombardo, Dan Arena, and Lee Schoenith.
By 1963, Cantrell and Thompson remained active as competitors. Schoenith, retired from driving, served as the self-styled “Czar” of the newly formed (in 1957) Unlimited Racing Commission of APBA. The new crop of Unlimited drivers in the early sixties included Ron Musson, Rex Manchester, Warner Gardner, Billy Schumacher, and Buddy Byers.
Unlimited racing had entered its long-awaited professional era in 1963. Significantly, that was the year of George Simon’s landmark tax case. The Internal Revenue Service upheld Simon’s contention that big-time boat racing was indeed a legitimate business expense within specified guidelines and thereby tax deductible.
This ruling by the IRS opened the door to major corporate involvement in Unlimited racing on a much larger scale than in the past. One of the first companies to climb on the Unlimited sponsorship bandwagon was Anheuser-Busch, which unveiled its first in a long series of MISS BUDWEISER hydroplanes in 1964.
Curiously enough, the middle and late sixties represent a time period seldom touched upon in the official Bill Muncey biographies. True, he still would come through with an occasional race victory. But these were lean years indeed. Bill would encounter health and marital problems during that troubled decade.
He seemed to have great difficulty in defining himself apart from Unlimited racing and experienced frustration through a puzzling series of unsuccessful business ventures.
During 1964, Muncey was briefly associated with Shirley Mendelson McDonald’s new NOTRE DAME. Designed and built by Les Staudacher, NOTRE DAME was fast. But it was no MISS THRIFTWAY. From Day One, NOTRE DAME was a rough rider. In fact both sponsons had to be replaced before the start of the season.
Bill nevertheless managed to claim his first non-THRIFTWAY win in the Dixie Cup at Guntersville, Alabama, where he scored a stunning upset victory over the defending National Championship team of Musson and MISS BARDAHL.
The boat’s flaws not withstanding, Muncey managed to elevate the NOTRE DAME team from also-ran to front-runner status.
He did 115 miles per hour in qualifying at Detroit. In four races entered, Bill demonstrated heat capability in the 106-107 mile an hour range to keep NOTRE DAME in the thick of things.
Unfortunately for Shirley McDonald, her association with Muncey lasted only half a season. The crew chief, Bud Meldrum, reached an impasse with Bill and fired him without consulting Shirley. Meldrum replaced Muncey at Madison, Indiana, with Rex Manchester who had previously substituted in the NOTRE DAME at Coeur d’Alene when Muncey was ill.
It is interesting to compare the performances of Bill and Rex, both of whom completed nine heats in the same boat during the 1964 season.
Muncey’s fastest heat was 107.620 (at Seattle); Manchester’s fastest was 102.350 (at Lake Tahoe). Bill had five heats over 100; Rex had one. Muncey won one race; Manchester won none.
Letting Muncey get away from her was clearly Shirley McDonald’s biggest mistake in racing. She continued as an Unlimited owner for another nine years but only won one other race.
There was a single instance in 1964 when Bill was cited for unsportsmanlike conduct. After finishing in Heat One at Coeur d’Alene, Muncey washed down an already dead-in-the-water Chuck Thompson in the “Gray Ghost” TAHOE MISS. This grew out of an unspecified disagreement between Bill and Chuck, who had never been the best of friends. Muncey was assessed a monetary fine by Chief Referee Bill Newton.
If Bill had any consolation over the split with NOTRE DAME, it was probably the knowledge that he wasn’t alone. Indeed, the list of quality personnel discharged from the “Shamrock Lady” organization over the years reads as a veritable “Who’s Who” of Unlimited racing.
After finding himself back in the fraternity of unemployed boat racers, Muncey concentrated on Limited hydroplane competition for the balance of 1964. He also managed a small neighborhood grocery story–a franchise of Associated Grocers–on Mercer Island, Washington, at this time. But this venture went bankrupt rather quickly.
A back ailment (which eventually required surgery) prevented Bill from accepting a full-time assignment in 1965. He did try unsuccessfully to persuade the MISS THRIFTWAY people to “unretire” for one last try at the Gold Cup.
Loath to remain on shore, Bill participated at Seattle and Detroit with the huge twin-Allison-powered SUCH CRUST IV as a favor to the owner, Jack Schafer, an old friend.
When Muncey took the wheel of SUCH CRUST IV at Seattle, he had not settled himself into an Unlimited cockpit in a full twelve months–his longest period of inactivity ever between 1955 and 1981.
In September of 1965, George Simon of the MISS U.S. from Detroit offered Bill a five-year contract as both driver and manager, starting with the 1965 San Diego Cup on Mission Bay. Muncey accepted and moved the team, which had headquartered in the Motor City since 1953, to Seattle.
Working for Simon proved to be a mixed blessing. George was an old-style “sportsman” variety of owner. His boats obviously were advertising vehicles for his U.S. Equipment Co. But at heart, Simon epitomized the graciousness of the sport’s amateur era.
George liked to win races. But he had been unable to do so since 1958. He lacked Bill’s insatiable thirst for winning. To Muncey, the thrill of victory was perishable; it had to be renewed all the time. And that meant doing everything first-class–MISS THRIFTWAY-style–with no expense spared.
It therefore irked Bill to be denied operating funds that he considered necessary to field a more competitive entry. Years later, Muncey complained to a newspaper reporter, “Simon wouldn’t give me enough money for the boat. Then he would turn right around and spend untold thousands flying in relatives from all over the country to see the races.”
The MISS U.S. hull of 1966 was a 1964 Les Staudacher craft built of Titanium that resembled the highly successful HAWAII KAI III. But that’s where the similarity with the “Pink Lady” ended. From the beginning, MISS U.S. had ridden like a bucking bronco and defied the efforts of Don Wilson and Roy Duby, her two previous drivers.
In the season-opener at Tampa, Florida, Muncey had his clumsy craft on the ragged edge in extremely rough water. He trailed Rex Manchester and NOTRE DAME over the finish line in the Final Heat but tied his former mount on total points. He won the overall victory on the basis of a faster total elapsed time for all three heats.
The 1966 Tampa Suncoast Cup marked Bill’s twentieth career victory and George Simon’s first visit to the winner’s circle in eight years. But the price was high.
The boat had suffered extensive damage in the ocean-like chop of Tampa Bay. The team, headed by Crew Chief Dave Seefeldt (a MISS THRIFTWAY alumnus), had to cancel its plans for the President’s Cup in Washington, D.C., the following weekend. They would concentrate instead on the Detroit Gold Cup, three weeks away.
Closer examination of the MISS U.S.’s hull revealed considerably more damage than first thought. There were those who considered the boat to be beyond repair, including the original builder Staudacher who refused to even touch it.
Muncey was frantic. In desperation, he and his crew went to work on the stricken craft themselves, hoping that they could still pass inspection at Detroit.
It was while repairs to the MISS U.S. were underway on Sunday, June 19, that word was received from Washington, D.C., that shook the racing world to its foundation.
Three drivers–Ron Musson of MISS BARDAHL, Rex Manchester of NOTRE DAME, and Don Wilson of MISS BUDWEISER–were tragically lost in two separate accidents on the Potomac.
Musson perished when his radical-designed cabover craft, running in only its second heat of competition, became airborne and crashed to the bottom of the Potomac River, while battling for the lead in Heat 2-B.
Manchester and Wilson were killed when their boats collided while contending for first-place in the Final Heat.
All three had been close friends of Bill Muncey. It was Bill who had recommended that Musson be hired to drive for Ole Bardahl in 1961. Wilson had been Muncey’s roommate in college.
In the dark days that followed “Black Sunday,” Bill pondered the possibility of retirement from racing.
His oldest son, Wil Muncey, Jr., who was 13 at the time, remembers those days vividly: “He realized that to quit now would be like cutting slack when he was needed most. Quitting would have meant debasing the sport that his friends had died enjoying, promoting, supporting, and participating in. He was compelled to make a contribution and to help keep things rolling.
“The sport had suffered a lethal wound and needed to fire back just as hard as before. It was necessary to grieve the loss but to still perform.”
Muncey decided to stay with it. He made good his commitment to appear at Detroit as scheduled. But for the rest of his life, not a week would go by that he wouldn’t recall the sad memory of his three friends lost on the Potomac.
A stunned and decimated Unlimited contingent went through the motions of business as usual at the Gold Cup. From the standpoint of speed, MISS U.S. appeared to be none the worse for wear after its Tampa mishap. Bill brought her in at 115.138 for the 9-mile distance to claim the fastest qualifier trophy. But the race was not to be one of Muncey’s better days.
n the first Gold Cup heat, MISS U.S. dropped into a “hole” on the treacherous Detroit River and disintegrated spectacularly. Although, by some miracle, Bill managed to stay with the boat, finish the heat despite being badly shaken, and return to the pits under his own power before collapsing in the cockpit. He credited a steel corset with saving his life.
In the words of Wil Muncey, Jr., “It was exceptionally rough. When he blew into that ‘hole,’ his right knee came up and hit the steering wheel which was made of steel and caved in one side of it. The fact that his bones didn’t break is amazing. But what also happened is that the steel strap in the corset worked its way down in front and started digging a hole in the top of his thigh.
“He kept on racing and didn’t have time to look down. Then, when he finally brought the boat back in, he looked down and discovered blood all over the place. The strap had dug a deep wide hole in his thigh. He had been concentrating so much on the race that the pain, which is a mental thing, was secondary.”
Although racked with physical agony, Muncey, the eternal trooper, honored an earlier promise to provide color commentary for a delayed network television broadcast of the race for ABC WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS.
It was in this capacity as a TV announcer, later in the day, that he observed another veteran of the Thunderboat wars, Chuck Thompson, sustain fatal injuries at the wheel of SMIRNOFF.
While contending for high position in the run down to the first turn in Heat 3-A, SMIRNOFF became airborne and crashed. The Allison engine was ripped completely out of the boat. Chuck never regained consciousness.
The death count had now risen to four.
Distraught committee people cancelled the remainder of the race but then re-considered and re-scheduled the balance of the program for the following day. Muncey checked himself into a hospital for observation and, out on the race course, Mira Slovak won the Gold Cup with TAHOE MISS. But no one felt like celebrating.
This time, MISS U.S. was beyond saving. For the George Simon team, the season was over. They would retire for the time being and await delivery of a new Les Staudacher hull for 1967.
During the interim, Muncey replaced Ron Musson as a Deputy Unlimited Commissioner for the APBA. He also filled in as pilot for Bill Schuyler’s $ BILL at three Northwest races. He gave that perennial tailender the ride of its long career with a solid second-place to TAHOE MISS in the 1966 British Columbia Cup at Kelowna, B.C.
The new “bobtailed” MISS U.S., truth to tell, wasn’t much of an improvement on her predecessor. While undeniably fast during the first year, her riding characteristics were not the best. The boat had an alarming tendency to fall on its nose at high speeds. That she did as well as she did is a testimonial to the skill of her driver.
Nicknamed the “Red Baron,” the new MISS U.S. turned the fastest heat at each of the 1967 Tampa Suncoast Cup, Indiana Governor’s Cup, and British Columbia Cup regattas (99.962, 100.727, and 105.222) and ran the fastest lap of the Tri-Cities Atomic Cup, British Columbia Cup, and Sacramento Cup events (110.024, 108.696, and 108.434).
And yet, out of eight races entered, Muncey and the MISS U.S. finished only three. Most of the time, Bill would run well early in the race but tended to run out of steam later on.
In four races, MISS U.S. was maddeningly consistent in her inconsistency. The boat would (a) win the First Heat, (b) score a zero result in the Second Heat, and (c) not have enough points to qualify for the Final. This aggravating scenario was followed to the letter at each of the Tampa, Madison, Tri-Cities, and Kelowna races.
In his first full season of Unlimited racing since 1962, Muncey didn’t win a race but managed to take second-place to MISS BARDAHL’s Billy Schumacher in the 1967 National Driver Standings. His best race finishes were a pair of third-place performances at the Seattle Gold Cup and the San Diego Cup.
Most veteran observers tended to dismiss the MISS U.S. team’s poor showing as simply an annoying case of new-boatitis. They compared the situation to that of the third MISS THRIFTWAY, which had likewise been fast (at least on smooth water courses) but winless during its first season (in 1959).
Once the reliability problem was solved, MISS U.S. would be an enormously competitive–if somewhat erratic–machine, the experts confidently predicted.
The 1968 campaign was destined to be a banner year for Unlimited hydroplane racing. And so it was for the likes of MISS BARDAHL, MY GYPSY, MISS EAGLE ELECTRIC, and MISS BUDWEISER. But not for MISS U.S. and Bill Muncey.
After being unreliable and fast in 1967, the team was unreliable and slow in 1968.
A back-in victory at the Seattle World Championship Regatta not withstanding, Muncey’s credibility eroded considerably in 1968.
He frankly won at Seattle only because five other boats–all of them faster than MISS U.S.–experienced mechanical difficulties that day: MISS BARDAHL, MISS BUDWEISER, NOTRE DAME, MISS EAGLE ELECTRIC, and HARRAH’S CLUB.
Muncey finished only three out of nine races and averaged only two heats at over 100 miles per hour. After a second-place finish in the first race of the season at Guntersville, Alabama, things went largely downhill and MISS U.S. seldom qualified for the Final Heat of the day. And in four of the last five races, he completed only one heat.
At season’s end, there were those who wondered if Muncey had perhaps seen his better days. His 1968 performance had clearly not been very “Bill Muncey-ish.”
All of this occurred at a time when his first marriage was ending in divorce. An attempted political career as a Republican candidate for Washington State Lieutenant Governor also failed.
Bill’s bid for public office appears to have been largely a passing fancy. According to his first wife Kit, “He never even bothered to memorize the literature that the party sent him.” And, on one occasion, when he had an opportunity to debate one of his opponents, Muncey chose instead to drive in an Offshore power boat race that day. Not surprisingly, his candidacy never made it past the primaries.
He did, however, accept an appointment to President Richard Nixon’s Council On Physical Fitness, a few years later.
Bill’s lackluster showing with the MISS U.S. mirrored to a degree, the problems of the sport as a whole during the late sixties and early seventies.
The traumatic nightmares of the 1966 season, coupled with similar tragic occurrences in 1967, 1968, and 1970, cast a dark cloud over the Unlimited horizon. In addition to Musson, Manchester, Wilson, and Thompson, three more drivers were lost during this time frame: Bill Brow in MISS BUDWEISER, Warner Gardner in MISS EAGLE ELECTRIC, and Tommy “Tucker” Fults in PAY ‘n PAK’S ‘LIL BUZZARD.
A decrease in the level of news media acceptance also contributed to Thunderboating’s troubled outward appearance.
And the departure of such high-caliber owners as Ole Bardahl, Bill Harrah, and Jim Ranger likewise did little to enhance the sport’s image. Indeed, by the end of the decade, Unlimited officials had their hands full just attempting to recruit representative fields of boats to meet the demands of race sponsors.
But in spite of the general bleakness of the 1966-1970 era, labeled by some historians as “The Doldrums,” a number of plus factors helped keep Thunderboat racing pointed in a positive direction toward its next renaissance.
Regatta and boat safety rules were significantly upgraded. A more ambitious public relations program was initiated. And the traditional 3-mile course gave way in most instances to a 2.5-mile oval for the purpose of improving spectator viewing areas–the rationale being that, when the turns are closer together, the spectator can see more of the race.
From a competitive standpoint, the late sixties are best remembered for the dominance of the low-profile Ed Karelsen design of hull–notably the MISS BARDAHL of 1967, the MISS BUDWEISER of 1968, and the NOTRE DAME of 1969. Although, the traditional Ted Jones/Les Staudacher variety, which included the “Red Baron” MISS U.S., still continued to be at least a marginal factor.
Race speeds were generally undistinguished. But this is partly explained by the large-scale transition to the 2.5-mile course with its shorter straightaways.
As 1969 dawned, Bill Muncey faced a crucial test. And he knew it. After all, many a driver in many a class had ridden the crest of the victory wave when a well-financed boat (such as the MISS THRIFTWAY) was available. But rebounding from a career low point was another matter entirely.
Despite his team’s financial limitations and the knowledge that his contract with George Simon’s U.S. Equipment Co. was not going to be renewed at the end of 1969, Muncey turned his career dramatically around. He proved his mettle with a much improved season performance.
He took a third at both Guntersville, Alabama, and Owensboro, Kentucky. Bill then scored a decisive victory in the Detroit World Championship Regatta by defeating two top-notch Joe Schoenith boats–the MYR’S SPECIAL with Dean Chenoweth and the MISS SCHWEPPES with Fred Alter.
The Final Heat was a battle royal. At the outset, MISS U.S. had 700 points for a first and a second and trailed the two Schoenith entries, both of which had 800 points for two firsts in the preliminary action.
For three laps, the trio battled for the lead with the knowledge that the race winner would be determined by the order of finish in that heat in the event of a tie in points. With Muncey maintaining a slight edge, the onlooking spectators were astounded to see both Schoenith boats cough and lose power at almost the same exact instant!
Later examination revealed combustion failure in the MYR’S SPECIAL and a cracked supercharger in the MISS SCHWEPPES.
From there, MISS U.S. pulled away and sprinted on to victory with a heat average of 99.410, while Chenoweth and Alter limped home with heat times of 93.750 and 79.132 respectively.
Bill had now won two successive World Championship events, sanctioned by the Union of International Motorboating in Brussells, Belgium. He would win two more–in 1972 at Madison, Indiana, and in 1980 at Seattle with ATLAS VAN LINES. He would lose his life in another UIM-sanctioned race at Acapulco, Mexico, in 1981.
In rounding out his final year with the “Red Baron,” Muncey took second-place at Madison and stayed in the National Points chase right down to the last day of the season. He finished a respectable third in a field of eighteen active boats behind Bill Sterett, Sr., in MISS BUDWEISER and Chenoweth in MYR’S SPECIAL.
Much of the credit for the MISS U.S. team’s mechanical success during 1969 belongs to Dave Seefeldt, the Crew Chief. Muncey had helped put Seefeldt through college. Dave had formerly assisted not only with the MISS THRIFTWAY but also with some of the various Muncey-owned Limited hydroplanes. Seefeldt would return a decade later as Bill’s lead mechanic on ATLAS VAN LINES during 1980 and 1981.
The single most hair-raising moment of the year occurred at the start of the Final Heat at Seattle.
The alternate boat, PARCO’S O-RING MISS with Norm Evans, pulled back into the pit area at a right angle to the race course just after the one-minute gun. Moments later, the six finalists thundered by, streaking toward the first turn, and encountered the PARCO’S wake.
The entire field nearly wiped out. Fred Alter and MISS BARDAHL bounced crazily. And only expert driving on the part of Bill Muncey avoided a probable collision with Jim McCormick in ATLAS VAN LINES U-19.
Miraculously, no one crashed. MISS U.S. sustained incidental bow damage but kept on racing to take a third in the heat and a fourth overall.
Muncey’s only truly disappointing performance of 1969 was at season’s end in the race that Bill most wanted to win: the Gold Cup in San Diego.
The day–and his tenure with George Simon–concluded at the end of a tow rope. Mechanical difficuties, which had been virtually non-existent for much of the year, dropped Muncey to tenth place in an eleven-boat field. His record sixth Gold Cup win would have to wait for another season with another team.
Nevertheless, it was at San Diego in 1969 where Bill met a woman named Fran Norman who, like himself, was no longer married. After a whirlwind courtship, Bill would make Fran his second wife.
After the 1969 campaign, Simon embarked on a severely reduced schedule of races and did not return to full-time participation for several years. And Muncey went hunting for another ride.
The 1964 to 1969 seasons had not been vintage years for Bill. During those six campaigns, he had only won four races. And he never scored more than one victory in any one season.
But he had vindicated himself. He proved in 1969 that he still had what it took to be a winner. Indeed, the next Muncey Golden Age was not far away. For 1970, he signed with Joe and Lee Schoenith’s Gale Enterprises team. And in 1971, Bill made racing history by affiliating with O.H. Frisbie’s Atlas Van Lines, Inc.
Muncey’s lean years are proof that Bill’s singular most significant attribute was his ability to rebound from adversity. He had the maturity to recognize that a bad race–or a bad season–will happen to anybody.
To Muncey, a bad performance was an important contrast to help in better appreciating a good one. Defeat did not down him, but rather made him all the more determined to come bouncing back on top the next time.
Chapter 7: The Second Golden Age (1970-1981)
After the golden years with the MISS THRIFTWAY and the lean years with the MISS U.S., Bill Muncey got his career back on track in the 1970s.
From 1970 to 1975, Bill drove for his old friend Lee Schoenith’s Gale Enterprises team from Detroit. Under the sponsorship of MYR SHEET METAL in 1970, Muncey won three races and finished third in National High Points. This marked the first time that Bill had won more than one race in any one season since 1962.
A career turning point occurred in 1971 when Muncey was hired by O.H. Frisbie’s Atlas Van Lines, Inc., as a corporate Vice-President. This was the equal of any deal that he had ever made with Associated Grocers. For the rest of his life, Bill would wear the white and blue colors of ATLAS VAN LINES as his corporate sponsor.
With a new sponsor and a new state-of-the-art boat (designed by Bill Cantrell) to drive, Muncey expected to win and win big in 1971. He did indeed manage to capture the Kentucky Governor’s Cup at Owensboro and the President’s Cup at Washington, D.C. But he was also nearly barred from racing for repeated violations of the right-of-way rule.
In mid-season 1971, Bill was put on probation by Chief Referee Bill Newton for three “chopping” incidents: at Seattle and San Diego in 1970 and at Madison in 1971. Muncey was warned that any repeat would result in suspension from APBA.
The most obvious violation of the three had occurred at San Diego, where Muncey and MYR SHEET METAL were battling Dean Chenoweth and MISS BUDWEISER. White paint from the MYR’s transom was found on the BUDWEISER’s bow.
Despite the tension between Muncey and Newton, which would flare up on a number of occasions in the years ahead, Muncey managed to keep his driving job and finished the 1971 season with a strong second-place finish to Billy Schumacher and PRIDE OF PAY ‘n PAK at the last stop on the tour at Lake Dallas, Texas.
After the difficulties experienced in 1971, the 1972 campaign was a refreshing change for the better–and arguably the best season of Bill Muncey’s career.
He won six out of seven races, which included his long-anticipated fifth Gold Cup after ten years of trying. This occurred at Detroit where Bill’s Unlimited career had begun in 1950 and where he had won his first Gold Cup in 1956.
In winning all four 15-mile heats of the 1972 Gold Cup, Muncey tied the half-century-old record of Gar Wood who won five Gold Cups between 1917 and 1921.
The mechanical status of Muncey’s Merlin-powered mount could hardly have been more impressive. In 1972, the ATLAS VAN LINES U-71 broke only one engine all year long–and even then, Muncey managed to finish the heat in second-place. (This occurred at the President’s Cup where he was runner-up to Billy Sterett, Jr., in PRIDE OF PAY ‘n PAK after a sensational side-by-side battle in the Final Heat.)
After eleven victories in three years with Gale Enterprises, everyone expected Bill’s winning ways to continue into 1973. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Muncey embarked on the most brutal losing streak of his career. Over the next three years, he lost an unprecedented thirty races in a row.
His engines were breaking a lot more often. And he had trouble running with boats that he had dominated the year before. Bill’s best 1973 finish was a second-place in the Tri-Cities Gold Cup behind Chenoweth and MISS BUDWEISER.
A change of crew chiefs for 1974 did not turn things around for Muncey’s team. A switch from Rolls-Royce Merlin to turbocharged Allison power did not help matters any. And a new boat in 1975 also failed to make the competitive grade.
During this particularly frustrating “down” period in his career, Bill’s ATLAS may not have been in the same league with PAY ‘n PAK and MISS BUDWEISER–a couple of Ron Jones-designed superboats that were the scourge of the racing world.
But many believed that Muncey could have been–and should have been–the best of the rest. But he wasn’t. That honor went instead to Milner Irvin and the under-financed MISS MADISON, a turbo-Allison-powered hull copy of the U-71. The community-owned MISS M had a better 1974 season than ATLAS VAN LINES.
The new boat showed promise at the outset of 1975 but quickly deteriorated. Designed by Jon Staudacher, it kept wanting to swap ends in the turns.
But hope springs eternal. And just when things were looking their blackest in the bleak January of 1976, the “old man” wowed ’em once again.
He became his own owner after a quarter-century of driving for others and established a new racing team under the aegis of ATLAS VAN LINES. He bought out the entire equipment inventory of PAY ‘n PAK owner Dave Heerensperger and hired nonpareil Crew Chief Jim Lucero.
Although initially reluctant to switch allegiance from Heerensperger to Muncey, Lucero quickly warmed to the idea. In no time at all, Jim and Bill were fast friends. Their agreement allowed Lucero to run the team from top to bottom with no interference from Muncey.
Bill then went on to confound the critics who considered him “all washed up” as a driver and entered another Muncey Golden Age.
Between 1976 and 1979, he won 24 out of 34 races, including three more Gold Cups in 1977, 1978, and 1979. He was National High Point Champion in 1976, 1978, and 1979.
Bill lost the 1977 High Points crown to Mickey Remund and MISS BUDWEISER but still managed to win six out of nine races that year. (The 1977 MISS BUDWEISER finished every heat entered, while ATLAS VAN LINES experienced mechanical difficulty at the Madison, Indiana, race and did not qualify for the Final Heat.)
The last Unlimited hydroplane driven in competition by Bill Muncey was the famed Lucero-designed ATLAS VAN LINES “Blue Blaster,” which debuted in 1977. The “Blaster” was an unusual mount for Bill in that it was a cabover.
For years, Muncey had protested that, in a forward-cockpit configuration, a driver was “the first to the scene of the accident.” But Bill evidently decided that he also wanted to be “the first to the scene of the trophy presentation.”
With the ATLAS VAN LINES “Blue Blaster,” he became the first driver to ever do a lap of 140 miles per hour on a 2.5-mile course (at San Diego in 1980).
One of Muncey’s most amazing performances of all time occurred at Detroit in 1977. On race day morning, Bill tripped and fractured his right ankle. Although in considerable pain, Muncey decided against putting a relief driver in the boat. And he won the race!–although crew members had to carry him to and lift him out of the cockpit for every heat.
The Unlimited Class as a whole experienced hard times in the late 1970s, although for Bill it was the best of times. After forty years of dependency on an ever-dwindling supply of World War II fighter plane engines, there simply wasn’t enough good WWII equipment left to justify a class. The level of competitiveness in the Thunderboat sport dropped sharply after 1975. Not until the Turbine Revolution of 1984 would the Unlimiteds have a renaissance.
Many of the top drivers of decades past were either dead or retired by the late 1970s. At the outset of 1978, Muncey was the only active Unlimited driver who had ever won a race.
But that situation changed in 1979 with the return–after a five-year absence–of MISS BUDWEISER pilot Dean Chenoweth to the Thunderboat wars. A two-time National Champion (in 1970 and 1971), Dean was clearly Bill’s equal out on the race course.
With the return of Chenoweth, Muncey’s star status began to diminish. In 1980, “Dapper Dean” had a new Rolls-Royce Griffon-powered MISS BUDWEISER from the drawing board of Ron Jones. Chenoweth was the new king of the Unlimited hill. Bill was reduced to also-ran status.
Muncey could run with the Griffon BUDWEISER but had to drive on the really ragged edge to do it. Bill also had to worry about an up and coming youngster named Lee “Chip” Hanauer. Chip was making quite a name for himself as driver of Bob Steil’s THE SQUIRE SHOP.
An incident between the ATLAS VAN LINES and the MISS BUDWEISER at Ogden, Utah, in 1979 had a profound influence on the driving style of Bill Muncey. While jockeying for a starting position in the Final Heat, Muncey, occupying the inside lane, slid into Chenoweth’s roostertail and nearly capsized.
Bill angrily accused Dean of “cutting him off” but the officials didn’t see it that way. Chenoweth had indeed left Muncey a lane, but Bill couldn’t maintain it.
From then on, the ATLAS never again challenged the BUDWEISER for the inside lane. Muncey would sneak in and take it away from Dean a few times. But Chenoweth was too good of a driver for that to happen very often. In fact, it only happened three times: in the Final Heat at the Tri-Cities in 1980, the Final Heat at the Tri-Cities in 1981, and then the last heat at Acapulco.
Only by trying for the inside lane could Bill hope to achieve parity with the more-powerful Griffon engine. Muncey, in essence, conceded the next two seasons to MISS BUDWEISER. Bill Muncey the owner should have fired Bill Muncey the driver.
Muncey’s last season was a nightmare. He ran into a wall of water at the start of the 1981 Gold Cup in Seattle and had to withdraw on account of equipment damage. He was bested in race after race by Chenoweth and the MISS BUDWEISER. And Hanauer steered THE SQUIRE SHOP to a down-to-the-wire/come-from-behind victory at the Tri-Cities Columbia Cup.
For the first time, rumors were heard of Bill’s possible retirement. But the “old man” still had one win left in him.
The 62nd and last victory of Muncey’s career occurred on a sunny afternoon in Evansville, Indiana, the city which was the world headquarters of Atlas Van Lines, Inc. Evansville’s “Thunder On The Ohio” was a race that Bill had helped to establish on the Unlimited schedule two years earlier.
MISS BUDWEISER broke down and ATLAS VAN LINES showed the rest of the field the short way around the 2-mile tri-oval course.
The day was hot, the humidity was fierce, and the aging “Blue Blaster” brought home the bacon one more time.
It was a happy day for Muncey. From the pit area, he telephoned his elderly father, Edward L. Muncey, to share the excitement of winning.
Bill had won his first Unlimited race 25 years earlier in 1956 with the original MISS THRIFTWAY. How many drivers that won races in the 1950s were still winning races in the 1980s? Only Muncey.
The thousands of spectators lining the Ohio River at Evansville in 1981 could not have known it at the time, but to them was accorded a rare privilege–one that sports fans fans dream about. It was something akin to watching Babe Ruth–the immortal Sultan of Swat–hit his record 60th home run on the final day of the 1927 baseball season.
Three months later, Bill Muncey was gone. And less than a year later, Dean Chenoweth would join Muncey in death. The sun had set on an era.
The details of October 18, 1981, are presumably too well known to warrant painful reiteration here. The purpose of this book is to celebrate the life of Bill Muncey–not his death.
The team that he founded in 1976 continued in racing for another seven years under the leadership of Fran Muncey, Bill’s widow. Atlas Van Lines, Inc., remained as corporate sponsor through 1984. In later years, Miller Brewing and Circus Circus Casinos bankrolled the team.
Fran hired Bill’s hand-picked successor–Chip Hanauer–to replace her late husband in the cockpit. Bill had always told Fran, “If anything ever happens to me, be sure to get the boat to the next race and put a driver in it.”
Hanauer picked up right where Bill had left off. Between 1982 and 1988, he won 24 races for the Bill Muncey Industries team, including an incredible seven consecutive Gold Cups. Chip was also National High Point Champion in 1982, 1983, and 1985.
It is interesting to speculate as to what kind of a post-Acapulco career Bill might have had. He most certainly would have continued as a boat owner and as the sport’s most eloquent ambassador of good will.
The ATLAS VAN LINES “Blue Blaster” would have been retired anyway at the end of 1981, since a new boat was already in the planning stages–even before Muncey’s death. The “Blaster” was eventually donated to the Hydroplane And Raceboat Museum in Seattle.
It is questionable whether Bill would have continued as a driver. At the time of his death, he was just a few weeks shy of his 53rd birthday.
Kenton Muncey, Bill’s son and an ATLAS VAN LINES crew member at the first few races of 1981, is convinced that the Final Heat at Acapulco would have been the last heat that his father would have ever driven.
But Kenton’s older brother, Wil Muncey, Jr., tends to discount this theory. In Wil’s words, “It’s always easy to talk about the one that got away.”
The sport in which Bill Muncey played such a vital role for so long will most certainly continue. His legacy is a standard of excellence that will be difficult to surpass.
And it’s possible, in the mind’s eye, to visualize Bill standing up there on the clouds, wearing that cowboy hat and those white-with-blue-trim coveralls, looking down on “his” sport.
He’s saying, “Okay, guys. I served my time. Now, it’s your turn. The potential of boat racing is still unlimited. The future is in your hands. So, let’s shake a leg and get moving. The 5-minute gun has just fired.”
Apr. 27, 2021