We're racing through history!
By Joanne A. Fishman
Reprinted from The New York Times, June 6, 1982.
The conditions were perfect. The lagoon was as smooth as a sheet of glass and there wasn't a whisper of wind. In the third heat of the world championships last fall, Bill Muncey, driving the thunderbolt Atlas Van Lines, shot into the lead. But while accelerating down the backstretch, his boat rose into the air, flipped and landed upside down, killing the man who had dominated the sport for 20 years.
A new Atlas Van Lines will make its debut when the unlimited hydroplane circuit opens today with the Championship Spark Plug Regatta in Miami. The name is the same. But that's all.
The boat features a new design concept intended to prevent it from becoming airborne and blowing over. Called a blowout, this is the nightmare drivers face when traveling in the upper reaches of speed - at 180 miles an hour and beyond - on the straightaways of the two- to three-mile oval courses. At the helm is Chip Hanauer, a 27-year-old driver from Seattle who grew up racing power boats and idolizing Muncey, who would have turned 54 this fall.
With air foils and stabilizer wings, the unlimiteds are the fastest craft afloat. The only restrictions are that the boats must be at least 28 feet long and propeller-driven. Traditionally, they skim the surface, riding only on the tips of two sponsons and half a propeller. They are usually powered by a single, massive airplane engine. However, the current fleet includes the turbine-powered Pay 'n Pak and the Aronow Unlimited, the first catamaran design powered by twin supercharged automotive engines.
To campaign a top boat on the circuit costs about $1 million a year, an investment impossible to recover in prize money, although total purses have doubled in two years to $900,000. But the appeal of seeing millions of dollars of equipment smoke around the course has made this the largest motor spectator sport, according to the American Power Boat Association, which sanctions the races.
The new Atlas Van Lines, which is owned by Muncey's widow, Frances, was finished in Seattle last Sunday, just in time to be trucked to Miami for the preliminary heats.
In explaining the new design, Hanauer said: ''If you take the sponsons off of hydroplane, basically what you have is the shape of a wing. We have moved the lift much farther back so the boat doesn't lift so much in the front but instead picks up in the center to get the boat to remain parallel to the water.''
With most unlimiteds, the lift starts below the driver's feet. With the new Atlas Van Lines, Hanauer sits in a pod between the two sponsons and the lift starts behind him.
The aerodynamics involved are opposite those of a race car. With the Indy-type cars, Hanauer said in a telephone interview, the ''aerodynamics are used to suck the car down on the race course, to make it stick. But we are looking for lift. Now we have to have lift with more control.''
In the five years he has been driving unlimiteds, Hanauer said speeds have increased dramatically because of better understanding of aerodynamics and lighter, stronger materials. The amount and the density of air going under the boat determines whether it becomes ''flighty.'' When they race 6,000 feet above sea level in Utah, he said, the boats were not a bit flighty because the air was so thin. In Miami, the air is dense. This should make the boats easily airborne, but because of the limitations of Marine Stadium, a shorter course than normal is used, inhibiting speeds and blowouts.
Atlas Van Lines is powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine capable of generating 3,000 horsepower. Built of honeycomb aluminum with a styrofoam deck, it is considerably lighter than its predecessor, and it weighs 5,600 pounds ready to race.
When asked whether he has thought twice about racing since Muncey's accident, Hanauer replied: ''You have to go into this with the realistic expectation that something very serious can happen to you. Any competitive driver, one who is ready to go out there and take the boat to its limit, has to come to that kind of understanding with himself. Bill Muncey was very much that way.''
The details of tuning a boat and the mental preparation fill his waking hours.
From Miami, the hydroplanes move to Sampson State Park on Seneca Lake in the Finger Lake region of central New York for the Thunder in the Park Regatta next Sunday, which carries a $75,000 purse. This will be the first time the unlimiteds have raced in the Northeast in some 30 years. A 10-boat field is expected with testing on Thursday and qualifying runs to be held Friday and Saturday.