In the year since he won the hydroplane Gold Cup for the second successive year, it has never once occurred to Bill Muncey that he will not make it three in a row. If it did, he would probably go off somewhere to die quietly, because to Muncey the only reason for living is to win. Now, all the drivers entered in the big race August 10 at Seattle, especially the best ones like Freddie Alter and Mira Slovak (opposite), think they are going to win. But Muncey, who will be driving a new Miss Thriftway, doesn't think he is going to win. He knows he is going to win, and he is willing to tell anyone who happens to ask him.
"The Thriftway's running perfectly now," he said to a reporter who visited him in his home overlooking the Lake Washington Gold Cup course. "Our crew is the best. We're going to win the race."
In predicting the outcome so certainly, however, he gives precious little credit to Muncey the driver. "A man would be a damn fool to call himself a great driver," he said. "When you're in that boat, you're just part of a chain of elements which decide in the end whether you win, lose, flip, blow up or just go dead in the water. You're just nothing but a piece of protoplasm, subordinate to a mechanical being. I'm no more important to it than a carburetor or a quill shaft."
The other drivers cannot agree with this unflattering self-evaluation.
"Muncey is the greatest," says his bitter rival Mira Slovak, adding, "Nothing would please me more than to beat him."
Nor do the other drivers agree with Muncey's reasons for racing in the first place: "I don't think there's anybody wants to win worse than I do," Muncey said. "I expect no quarter from anybody and I don't expect anybody to give me any. I'm a great believer in knowing the rules, and I don't expect any deviation from the rules. Another boat alongside or up ahead isn't any particular boat or any particular driver. It's just a thing, and I've got to try to whip it."
While Muncey submitted to this agony of introspection, 2,500 miles away in Detroit, Freddy Alter, the marine engine distributor who pilots Miss U.S. I, happily sipped his beer, chomped a cheeseburger and offered a far more relaxed opinion of what Gold Cup racing is all about.
"Why do we do it?" he repeated the reporter's question. "Why, for the sense of satisfaction, I guess. Or competition. I don't get paid to race. I don't know why I race. I guess nobody who is in hydroplaning knows why he is doing it." While he was talking, Alter thumbed through a Gold Cup program and came upon a photograph of Muncey surrounded by pretty girls just after the 1957 Gold Cup. "Look at that Muncey," said Alter, an easygoing nomad who describes home as the place he washes his socks. "I'd battle him just to get in a picture like that."
Back in Seattle, Mira Slovak, the third man in the trio most experts feel will dominate the race, had entirely different ideas about the dangerous game of hurtling along at 180 mph with a 2,000-hp engine winding up to destruction speed in front, and nothing between you and the brick-hard surface of the water but a highly perishable plywood hull.
"It scares me," he said, "but it is the climax of living." This was quite a statement coming from Slovak, whose life seems to be a series of climaxes, all carried off with an artistic flourish. When, for example, as a young Czechoslovakian Airlines pilot in 1953 he decided to defect from his homeland, he took with him all the passengers—including a handful of howling-mad Communist officials—who happened to be aboard his aircraft at the time. There followed some marvelous cloak-and-dagger doings as the Air Force spirited him away for a year of questioning by the CIA. Once in the U.S., Slovak took a quick course in crop dusting and got a job spraying for Central Aircraft, Inc., a firm in Yakima, Wash.
In the two years since, he has set himself up as one of the most glamorous characters in the Pacific Northwest. He tools around town in a flashy Thunderbird—"the picture of a poor refugee," as he laughingly puts it. He skis every weekend in the season, ice skates expertly, water skis as well, and flies gliders when he has the opportunity. He is also busy trying to reorganize airplane racing as a sport. And, as a serious patriot, he is trying to form a new "Flying Tiger" group of refugee (and volunteer U.S.) pilots to fight Communists. He has even managed to draw the admiration of Congress, which passed a private law granting Slovak, an alien, the right to fly commercial aircraft in the U.S.
No one with a background like this who happens to settle in the hydro-happy state of Washington, could avoid falling in with the Gold Cup crowd. Slovak fell in, rather he jumped with a gallant leap, not having the vaguest idea of how to drive a speedboat, when William Boeing Jr. turned up with a new hydroplane and no driver. Since then, Slovak has had a ball racing around the country, swiftly becoming a first-class driver, but getting his kicks not so much from winning as from the fun of booming across the water.
It is this spirit of pure amateur derring-do that curdles the blood of Bill Muncey and has probably done much in the past year to change his friendship for Slovak into a tense personal rivalry. Muncey works as a public relations representative for Associated Grocers which, through its Thriftway stores, owns Miss Thriftway. Muncey takes the job seriously, hitting the youth-and-service-club circuit for three or four hundred speeches a year. But he has no illusions about his real function with the company. "Sure," he said, "I really drive boats for them. I know I'm only valuable to them so long as I'm doing it."
As a professional, he goes about preparing for the race with a professional's thoroughness. He runs a mile or so before breakfast every morning, and then punches a speed bag. "In the days before the race," he said, "I wander around the pits. I make it a point to find out how each driver is feeling, whether he's happy or confident or worried or scared or mad—and I file these ideas away for the race. See, I don't like to do anything casually." Muncey's wife Kit interrupted here with the observation that they had to quit playing canasta together because Bill wanted to win so badly he memorized all the cards. Bill smiled and went on. "If you're going to do something, I think you've got to do your very best. Otherwise everybody's let down, including yourself. I'm a poor loser. When I lose I'm terribly unhappy, because I feel somehow I've failed. I haven't done what everyone had a right to expect of me."
Actually, losing would mean more than this. As Gold Cup champion in a town that regularly turns out between 200,000 and 500,000 people for the event, the rugged, boyishly handsome Muncey has become a regional hero with local standing—complete with fan mail and autograph hounds—some distance ahead of Mickey Mantle, Fess Parker and Elvis Presley. In fact, Muncey's popularity even got him a job running a nightly popular music program over station KING, and he is probably the only disc jockey in the country who could keep a top rating while steadfastly refusing to play rock 'n' roll.
"I pick all my own records," he explained. "Mostly modern jazz—Brubeck, Shearing and Goodman. When I go on the racing circuit, I phone-transcribe the breaks, giving them a fix on our day's travel, telling of stopping for a drink of water in Wild Bill Hickok's old home town. Some little kids follow the Thriftway by marking maps, they'll letter in 'drink of water,' and all that. You know, I've had a mother call me up and say, 'Mr. Muncey, can you come over and talk with my boy? I can't get him to eat his asparagus.' Don't let anyone tell you hydroplanes haven't got this town a little silly."
Naturally, Muncey hopes the town stays that way, and particularly that it stays pleasantly silly about Muncey. Rather, he is certain things will stay that way. And he is quick to argue with anyone who suggests that last year's near-fatal crack-up, which destroyed the old Miss Thriftway and led doctors to warn Muncey he could not take another bad accident, really took anything out of her driver's nerves or ability.
"I got fed up quick," he said, "when people started talking about me fighting a mental block getting back into the new boat after that breakup last year. Hell, I've been in other wrecks. I went all the way down with Miss Great Lakes in 1950. I broke an arm in one, and I've been through two serious explosions and fires. Sure, when the Thriftway broke up last year on the Ohio River, I went into the water at 175 mph, and I guess I should have died. But I got knocked out early. Last thing I remember before waking up in the hospital, everything was running perfectly. Well, the point is, you don't have problems like mental blocks if you have a philosophy. I am quite religious. I'm a great believer in predestination. No matter what happens, the good Lord is taking care of me."
There was someone else taking care of Muncey that day on the Ohio River, namely Mira Slovak, who stopped his boat and went into the water to fish out his unconscious rival. Muncey, however, was quite out of sympathy with his rescuer, announcing flatly that it was a violation of the rules to jump into the water, and he'd be damned if he'd do the same for Mira or anybody else.
In spite of his personal feelings, Muncey is too shrewd a racer to allow himself to underrate a rival, even a high-flying amateur. "I don't knock any driver," he said. "You start getting complacent about some guy and the next moment he's out there whippin' you." And from the way he talked, it was quite evident that Muncey, admittedly or not, expected his toughest run from Slovak, with Freddie Alter not far away. "But," he concluded, "if you pick probable winners, you've got to take in equipment and crew. Here I can't be objective. I've got the best. We'll win it. We'll win the Gold Cup."