In 1950 Designer Ted Jones of the boat-mad city of Seattle revolutionized unlimited hydroplane racing with a nimble three-point monster named Slo-Mo-Shun IV. Driving her himself, Jones wrested the Gold Cup away from the equally boat-mad city of Detroit. For the next four years Slo-Mo IV, and her sister Slo-Mo V, beat the best of Detroit consistently.
The inter-city rivalry was so bristling that in 1955 when Jones picked 27-year-old William Muncey, a Chevrolet salesman and saxophone player born and raised on the outskirts of Detroit, to drive his latest creation, Miss Thriftway, there was consternation and prolonged booing around the Northwest. To some skeptics, asking a Detroiter to drive a Seattle boat was at best like hiring Lizzie Borden as a baby-sitter. Others pointed out that Muncey's unlimited racing record was spectacularly inauspicious.
Bill Muncey had made his debut as an unlimited driver in his hometown at the 1950 trials for the Harmsworth Trophy where he drove an outdated hull called Miss Great Lakes. Although he had turned the second-fastest lap and had a better average speed than one of the boats finally chosen to defend the trophy against Canada, the selection committee passed him over because he was too new at the game and his hull too old.
Muncey did race Miss Great Lakes once that year against idols of his boyhood: Guy Lombardo, Chuck Thompson, Lou Fageol, Wild Bill Cantrell and the lord god of Thunderboats, Ted Jones himself. As Muncey now recalls, "I was the last of 14 boats over the starting line. When the leaders crossed I was still in the backstraight screwing around and waving to my mother." Before the race was half done, Muncey had brawled his way up through the pack, but just as he was passing Cantrell for third place, the bottom fell out of Miss Great Lakes and it ended up 25 feet down on the mud floor of the Detroit River.
September 26, 1976
After a two-year Army hitch as a band conductor, Muncey went to work in his father's Chevrolet agency, driving his own limited hydroplane spasmodically but generally keeping his racing fever at a low boil. Before the surprising offer from Jones of the rival city of Seattle in 1955, Muncey had only one more chance to drive an unlimited, an obsolete displacement hull called Dora My Sweetie, which sank under him before he reached the starting line in a local race.
At the time he chose little-known Muncey to drive Miss Thriftway, Jones confessed that he had been motivated in part by what he had seen of the Detroiter's driving, and in part by his age. He reminded the press that he himself had quit racing at 41, "because the people I used to be able to see on the shore look like so much blur now. A driver has to have good timing and this is my time to step out. It's a job for kids, say 28 to 35."
As the record book of the sport convincingly shows, Bill Muncey proved that Jones was right to pick him, although terribly wrong in one respect. Between 1956 and 1963, in three different Miss Thriftways (all designed by Jones), Muncey won three national titles, four Gold Cups and 14 lesser races. When he climbed out of his last Miss Thriftway Muncey was a few months shy of 35, the upper limit of what Jones considered the prime age for drivers. But since 1963—in his post-prime time, as it were—Muncey has maintained his original scoring pace, winning and losing spectacularly and keeping the record book in a constant state of unrest.
Last week 47-year-old Bill Muncey qualified for the final race of the 1976 unlimited season on Mission Bay in San Diego with a clocking of 128.023 mph. the fastest any Thunderboat pilot has ever qualified on any course. Two days later, on Sunday, Muncey set new competitive lap and heat records for the San Diego course, but in the final heat he was across the starting line one-fifth of a second early and had to run an extra lap. Nevertheless, he managed a third place behind the winner, his perennial rival, Billy Schumacher of Seattle, driving Olympia Beer. His record breaking and his third at San Diego were in a sense minor examples of his domination of the sport. As is his custom, Muncey had been overhauling the record book all season and, with five wins on the nine-race circuit, had already clinched his fifth national title (another record) six weeks earlier in Seattle at the next to the last race on the schedule.
The San Diego race was the 146th for Muncey in 21 years of serious campaigning. In a total of 147 races (to throw in his one disastrous sinking in 1950) Muncey has placed third or better 75 times and has won 38.
All the foregoing figures are records that, in a sport noted for short-term successes and unexpected disasters, are not likely to be broken by anyone else, ever. No other driver in the game has won more than 20 races. Only 21 other drivers have won more than four races. Of that number five died racing, and only two are still competing.
Since his start in Miss Thriftway, Muncey has spent more than 30 weeks in hospitals, recovering from injuries and being treated for ailments aggravated by his racing. In the course of his career he has been burned, badly bent, internally disarranged, knocked silly and cast from his hull like a pebble from a sling.
He also has been plagued by some freakish twists of fate. Muncey perhaps came closest to his final moment in 1957 when the first Miss Thriftway broke up at 165 mph, throwing him 50 feet across the Ohio River. Once, when his hull was ablaze in 1964, he shouted to a rescue boat to throw him a line. The rescuers did so, instantly and too literally. They threw him the whole line, the middle and both ends. In the first heat of the 1959 Gold Cup Race in Seattle, Muncey's chances pretty much went by the board when a camera recording gauge readings in his cockpit broke open and the film entwined around his neck and head.
Muncey is also the only unlimited hydroplaner—and this record will surely be his forever—who has sunk a 40-foot steel boat and also had his own boat run over by another 40-footer. In the 1958 Gold Cup, on the first turn of a heat, his steering linkage failed and, traveling 100 mph, he ran smack-dab into a steel Coast Guard picket boat, sending it to the bottom. In 1967, after winning his first heat in the Governors Cup on the Ohio River, he was standing just off the pit dock, waiting for a crane to lift his hull out, when a houseboat loaded with drunks ran right over him.
Despite the brutal impact of the game he plays, Muncey refuses to disintegrate. If, in the prime of middle age, he is in fact decaying, it is at a far slower rate than Ted Jones predicted for the breed. In his early years the press, with some license, described Muncey as boyish, wavy-haired and cherub-faced. His hair is sparser now; his face is creased, but he still has big baby-blue eyes and a wide grin. He does not need specs to race, and when spectators seem blurry on race weekends it is usually just a swirl of kids hounding him for autographs. (At San Diego, not too far from Muncey's present home in La Mesa, Calif., one 10-year-old, name of Archie Smith, got three autographs from him in a matter of two hours, intending to sell them for 50¢.)
If Muncey's timing is sometimes off these days it is usually because it has been thrown out of whack by well-wishers and charity promoters who approach him asking him to play his saxophone, clarinet or flute at a benefit, or to give a talk for some worthy cause. As he strides by the pits there is always somebody who wants to shake his hand—an old friend, or a friend of an old friend, or an old friend who wants him to meet a close personal friend.
The reason Muncey has confounded Jones' appraisal and is still on top in Thunderboat racing after two decades in the sport lies not so much in the durability of his body tissue as in the makeup of his psyche. He is in essence a genius with a woodwind on his knee, a profound man who loves to flirt with the ridiculous. He shucks off a great deal of tension during a race meeting by lightly ribbing his rivals and destroying his own reputation in fine detail. But in pensive moods he has often muttered doubts about the life he has spent brawling on the water.
"The money isn't worth the risk," he has said. "Racing an unlimited hydroplane is not an especially brainy business and there are a hundred easier ways to gain fame. I'm concerned about my 5-year-old son. When they ask him at school what his father does, he tells them I'm a race driver. At my age, I guess that sounds a little irresponsible."
Analyzing himself recently in a lighter mood, Muncey said, "I do not drink. I do not chase broads. I am basically a dull person." Fortunately for Thunderboating, Muncey usually is in one of his happier moods when he meets the press. When a reporter put a heady question to him last summer he paused, then said, "I am groping for a solid answer that will bore everybody." Another time, when a reporter asked him his height, Muncey replied, "If I'm happy I'm about 6'4", if I'm miserable I'm about 5'4". Actually I'm a soft 5'9". God intended to make me a big man but he ran out of parts."
After racing for a variety of owners and sponsors, Muncey last year bought out the three-time national champion racing team campaigned previously as Pay 'n Pak, and this year has operated it under the sponsorship of Atlas Van Lines. Before taking this costly plunge, Muncey reckoned he would have to average at least third place through the season to stand a chance of breaking even. Because his score for the season is five wins, two seconds, one third and a DNF, it is reasonable to conclude that he wound up in the black.
Despite his continued success, Muncey cannot help coloring it with his usual deprecation. At a banquet after he placed second in the 1976 Gold Cup at Detroit he said, "To think that I would own a racing team and also drive the boat is the craziest thing I have done yet. Now after a race I have no one to bitch to except myself." At the rate he's going, he may not need anyone for another decade.