Cutting through the cloying humidity along the Ohio River, the message blared over loudspeakers to the people in Owensboro, Ky. "Football has its Super Bowl. Hockey has its Stanley Cup. And unlimited hydroplaning has its Gold Cup. Stick around. Sweat a while."
Last Sunday the advice was heeded by some 70,000, which is pretty near a sellout for Owensboro. They stayed around and sweated and saw six thunderboats—all of which had qualified by averaging 100 mph over a 2½-mile oval course—compete for the American Power Boat Association's most coveted prize, the 74-year-old Gold Cup. The $110,000 purse was the richest in hydroplaning's history. And fittingly, when the rooster-tails had settled and the hydroplanes had returned the river to the plodding coal barges bound north for Pittsburgh, the oldest, winningest driver in thunder-boating, Bill Muncey, had taken the winner's share of the purse, about $35,000. It was his seventh Gold Cup. Only the legendary Gar Wood had won as many as five. Muncey did it after finishing first in two out of three heats leading up to the final, which he won despite having lost the horizontal tailwing on his Atlas Van Lines; it had been blown off in the third heat. "It was like driving along with no air in your tires," said Muncey.
But with or without a stabilizing tail, the victory was about as predictable as Muncey is reliable. The five-time champion, who was upset in 1977, was out to get his title back, and ready to roll.
If it is generally true that most athletes do not age as well as, say, a side of beef or a cask of wine, Bill Muncey endures as the exception. One would think that a 49-year-old grandfather might have his hands full controlling an unlimited hydroplane, which can attain a speed of nearly 170 mph on the straightaways, to say nothing of winning races in one. At that speed, if a boat hits a floating beer can, it can flip. And for those curious to know what it feels like to be tossed out going 170 mph—a mishap not uncommon in the sport—experts say that a man can roller-skate on water at 65 mph.
July 9, 1978
But Grandpa Muncey is anything but a doddering veteran. Last week, he was fit, he was the favorite, and he was saying engaging things like "My wife always wanted to marry an older man. Now that she's got one, I'm not sure she likes it."
The Gold Cup was the third big unlimited race of the season. Muncey had won the first two with such ease that his competitors were less curious about what it took to roller-skate on water than what it took to walk on it. Muncey had been seriously challenged only once. In fact, at the opening race in Miami in early June, he was positively charmed: four boats lined up for the final and three of them failed to start. Muncey drove the 2½-mile course in lonely splendor. Three weeks later in the Gar Wood Trophy on the Detroit River, with some 400,000 people watching, Muncey's main rival and the defending national champion, Miss Budweiser, buried a sponson in the water and nearly sank.
In truth, Muncey and his Atlas Van Lines don't need the luck they are getting. Atlas Van Lines was designed two years ago by Jim Lucero, Muncey's crew chief, and it has proved to be the fastest, most maneuverable and most adaptable unlimited in history. Lucero used advanced aerodynamics and a honeycombed aluminum shell to make the boat both stable and light—at 6,000 pounds, some 400 or 500 pounds lighter than Miss Budweiser and the other eight unlimiteds on the circuit. "That's not a boat," says Ron Snyder, who drives Miss Budweiser. "Muncey's got an airplane."
Disturbingly, at least for the other drivers, Muncey also is getting used to his boat—this, despite having won eight of 11 races since Atlas Van Lines made its debut in 1977. The only times the boat has been beaten were when it was either disabled or disqualified. What took getting used to is the cab-over design, meaning that the cockpit is out in front of the engine. In conventional unlimiteds, which Muncey had driven throughout his 25-year career, the cockpit is directly behind the engine, which exposes the driver to 200° heat in which to enjoy the noise and fumes. Up front, the driver's visibility is better and the ride not so jarring, but it took all of last year for Muncey to get the feel of the boat from that position. "It was a muscling experience," he says. "There was nothing very esthetic about it. This year I hope to be a little more artistic. Something along the lines of a Rembrandt in the Gold Cup."
A Rembrandt? In a thunderboat? Well, maybe a Warhol. But make no mistake, in the art of driving unlimiteds, Bill Muncey is unequaled. As a member of arch rival Budweiser's crew said after Muncey turned a Gold Cup record-tying 128.338 mph in qualifying, "He's not perfect. He's got weaknesses just like everyone else. It's just that nobody's happened to find one yet." Well, maybe one small one. Miss Bud then went out and qualified fractionally faster.
Thus, Atlas Van Lines' stiffest competition for the Gold Cup was expected to come from Miss Budweiser. Last season pretty much belonged to the two boats—not coincidentally, the two with the heaviest sponsorship money. With 10 teams qualifying consistently, Miss Budweiser and Atlas Van Lines won every race in 1977—Miss Bud taking three and Atlas six. Miss Budweiser won the national championship on the basis of total points, however, having finished every heat it started—a thundering first for the sport. The rivalry between the two boats is all the more intriguing because of the principals involved—Muncey, and Miss Bud's owner, Bernie Little.
Muncey may be the sport's winningest driver, but Little is the winningest owner, his boats having collected 28 trophies in 16 years, including three Gold Cups and four national titles. "Bernie is a professional hustler," Muncey says, "but he's done more for this sport in the way of promotion than anyone, including me."
Little's motto is "If you're going to do it, do it right," but to his acute dismay, Miss Budweiser hasn't been doing much of anything right in 1978. She was fourth in Miami and was one of the hapless boats that sat dead in the water while Muncey completed the course alone. Then in Detroit, after one close loss to Atlas Van Lines, Miss Bud sat on her trailer for the finals with the broken sponson. Things were so dismal that even before the Gold Cup, Little had contracted for the building of a boat like the one Lucero designed for Muncey, but only after offering to buy Muncey's. "Bernie's a great one to jump on a winner," Muncey says.
But his only hope for a glimpse of the 1978 Gold Cup was if Muncey had offered to take him piggyback. In Sunday's third heat, Miss Budweiser was leading—until she hit a submerged log and broke the same sponson she had shattered in Detroit. Muncey then cruised to an easy victory in the finals, averaging 104.68 mph, while Miss Bud sat out another race on her trailer. A game, if disheartened, Little allowed, "We haven't had bad luck. We haven't had any luck at all." But even if Miss Bud had been running full blast, it would have taken a brewery full of luck to defeat Muncey this time around.