Washing down" is an old tool in the lockers of most hydroplane racers. A tactical maneuver, now illegal under the racing rules, it consists of deliberately aiming the fierce fire-hose power of the towering rooster tail from the stern of your boat at a competitor's engine in order to put him out of the race. Last Sunday in Detroit, in Heat 2A of the annual Gold Cup regatta, Seattle supermarket man Bill Muncey was efficiently—if not illegally—washed down and out.
In the first of the seven heats that were run in this year's thunderboat classic, Muncey drove his red-and-white Miss Thriftway effortlessly around the oblong course for an easy win. No other boat could touch him, and the crowd cheered and the knowing ones nodded. All that stood between the champion and his fifth cup was a determined man in a yellow-and-green flame suit who might have been taken for Arnold Palmer. This was Ron Musson, driver of the boat called Miss Bardahl and Bill Muncey's arch-rival.
After one false start during which a boat named Miss U.S. lost a sponson amid a cloud of acrid smoke, Musson took an easy lead in his own first heat, and the crowd nodded knowingly once again. Musson, they learned, had turned faster laps than Muncey, and the excitement contingent on their eventual meeting grew even more tense.
At the end of each heat in a hydro race, names are drawn from a hat to determine who races next. Out of the hat at the end of the first heats came, among others, the numbers of both Muncey and Musson. The duel was on.
July 14, 1963
With a roar of engines, the two got off to a nearly perfect start, but in a moment Muncey found himself trapped behind Miss Bardahl and a third boat, Tahoe Miss, driven by Chuck Thompson. Seeing what looked like a hole in the huge wall of water thrown up in their wakes, Muncey steered straight for it just as the gap between the two boats closed. Tons of water from their combined rooster tails sloshed down on his engine, killing it as dead as an old family car in a cloudburst, and thoroughly washing out his hopes of a victory in what might have been the greatest boat-for-boat contest in the history of unlimited hydroplane racing.
While the other boats skidded around the course, Muncey busied himself trying to restart his big Rolls-Merlin engine. Puffs of smoke and flame punctuated the effort. Eventually the engine began to perk again, and Muncey toured the course in perfunctory fashion. But the water that washed out his engine seemed to have washed out his spirit as well. He took last place in the heat, and the best he could do in those that followed were a dismal fourth and fifth.
Once Ron Musson, the cool little man who drives for Oilman Ole Bardahl, got going, there was no stopping him. "We had the race planned out ahead of time," he said when it was all over, "and everything went exactly according to plan. We changed the engine after the first heat because it seemed to be running a little hard, but that's all we had to do." For those who think changing a $100,000 engine is difficult, Ron had news. "It takes 14 minutes on a bad day," he explained, "12 on a good."
As for the rooster tail from Musson's boat that cost Bill Muncey his fifth Gold Cup: "I didn't even see him," said Ron dryly.