We're racing through history!
Seattle's favorite grocery store manager wins new customers for Thriftway Supermarkets by winning races and prizes in a high-powered thunderboat.
By Rex Lardner
Reprinted from Sports Illustrated, July 8, 1963
Bill Muncey, an assured, chunky man of 34, with sandy hair, giant forearms, a handsome, round face and amiable spaces between his upper teeth, looks like what, in fact, he is: a young man on the way up in the grocery business. "The Associated Grocers are the finest people I've ever met," says Grocer Bill with his customary enthusiasm. "They've set me up in a supermarket here in Seattle and have given me a chance to learn the business. I'm in the store almost all the time, doing the bookkeeping and carrying packages out to cars. Someday I may own the whole thing."
Even if Muncey's store fails to pay off, however, it is unlikely that Associated Grocers, who run the Thriftway stores, will regard him with any less favor as long as he continues to perform another chore for them. That chore consists of driving a seemingly endless succession of Miss Thriftways to victory in U.S. hydroplane races.
Anytime a Miss Thriftway wins a race, the 74 supermarkets benefit from the victory, so it is likely that the grocers will be glad to excuse Bill from his check-out counter this weekend, even if the shopping is heavy in Seattle. Bill will be 2,000 miles away, trying for his fifth Gold Cup—symbol of world championship in unlimited hydro racing—on the Detroit River.
Muncey's four Gold Cups (no one but the famed Gar Wood ever won as many before) are not the only trifles on his trophy shelves. Last year, besides the Gold Cup, he won the President's Cup, the Diamond Cup, the Spirit of Detroit Trophy and the Governor's Cup. He holds a 15-mile-heat speed record of 112.312 mph and a world race record of 109.157 mph. In 1960 he set a world mile mark for propeller-driven boats of 192.001 mph, which stood until last year when Miss U.S. I, with Roy Duby at the wheel, pushed it up to 200.440. Muncey is a charter member of the Hydroplane Hall of Fame and has been elected to the Gulf Marine Racing Hall of Fame four times. Last year he won the unlimited hydro championship for the third time in a row and, to show what it thought of him, the city of Seattle resoundingly named him 1962's Man of the Year in Sport.
But the triumph Bill Muncey is proudest of carried no trophy or title—except maybe that of "survivingest." During one three-year span he raced 56 consecutive heats in an unlimited hydroplane at speeds upward of 100 mph without a single mechanical failure. In a sport—"the hairiest sport of all," say some—where shattered boats and sudden catastrophe are commonplaces, this record makes Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak and Lou Groza's point-after-touchdown mark downright spotty. "The only driver to come close," says Muncey, "completed about 12 heats without a failure."
It is not remarkable, under these circumstances, that most hydro drivers admit that they are afraid of the monstrous "thunderboats" they race in. "There's nothing pleasant about racing an unlimited," says Muncey. "The pleasure comes only after you win." Other racers have described the sensation of driving the 2,000 or more horses that are caged in the cylinders of an Allison or Rolls-Royce hydro engine as "like racing over railroad ties on a motorcycle with solid tires."
The boats built for unlimited racing cost upward of $20,000, weigh anywhere from 3,500 pounds to 10,000 and generally measure 25 feet or more. They are frequently known as three-point hydros because at about 60 mph they rise out of the water and ride on three surfaces: two forward sponsons (something like pontoons) and one blade of a two-bladed propeller aft. At about 130 mph, the boat rises even higher out of the water, supported by air rushing into the tunnel formed by the hull and the vertical edges of the sponsons. At this point the sponsons no longer carry weight, but merely balance the hull, their after ends bouncing from wave crest to wave crest in a kind of aquatic waltz, and the tail section rises free of the water. Sometimes the whole hydroplane rises. In 1955 the late Lou Fageol, driving Slo-Mo-Shun V, took off from the water and soared 60 feet into the air to do a backflip.
When an unlimited is roaring along at 160 mph or so, the surface of the water can act like a giant knife to shear off portions of the boat—or the driver. Even if a fire should break out in an unlimited, few drivers would dare jump out until the boat had slowed down. Getting hit by the rooster tail streaming up from an opponent's stern is like getting hit by a dozen fire hoses. A boat struck by a rooster tail between the sponsons can be thrown into all manner of gymnastic contortions.
To avoid these and other catastrophes, the hydro driver must keep his boat and his engine in delicate balance. If the engine is revved too high for the hull speed, it may blow up. If the propeller gets too far out of the water, the engine will race and may blow up.
Bill Muncey first took up with this temperamental sport when he was a boy in Royal Oak, Mich., the son of a Chevrolet dealer who loved boats. A high school halfback who managed to play for two seasons without scoring a single touchdown, Muncey made up for his lack of prowess on land by racing over the water. "The first time I took a run in a hydroplane," he says, "I recognized that here was a new way to express myself. I could feel the temper of the boat. It wasn't just noise and confusion. The whole sensation was a kind of uplifting series of cadences. I could feel it in the steering wheel, hear it in the motor and sense it in the boat's movements. It was the biggest kick I ever got." Muncey drove his first unlimited, Miss Great Lakes, when he was 20. She was considered a tired old boat, and Muncey, regarded as a tyro, was warned that she might come apart. He drove the old wreck to qualify at an average speed of 97 mph in a heat of the Harmsworth trials. But in another race soon afterward, exactly as predicted, the boat came apart, and Muncey, trapped in the cockpit, was nearly drowned.
After attending General Motors Institute of Technology, he went to Rollins College in Florida and majored in business administration, with an eye to becoming an automobile dealer. There he met his dark-haired Kit (now a competitive racing sailor under canvas), courted her on a motorcycle, married her, honeymooned on a cruiser and settled in Detroit, where he began working for his father.
During the Korean War, Muncey achieved the rating of corporal and led a 22-piece Army orchestra in the U.S. and Europe. On his discharge he went back to work for his father, but kept racing hydroplanes of all sizes. Then, to his surprise, he was summoned to Seattle by Wil-lard Rhodes, a big wheel in Associated Grocers, to drive the Ted Jones-designed Miss Thrift way in the Gold Cup race on Lake Washington.
Ted Jones, one of the world's foremost designers of three-point hydroplanes and one of Seattle's major heroes, began experimenting with hydros back in the '20s. In 1942 he introduced himself to Stanley Sayres, a well-to-do Chrysler dealer, and offered to design a hydroplane for nothing if Sayres would back him in competition. Slo-Mo-Shun IV was the result and, with Jones at the wheel, it revolutionized unlimited racing. Then Jones broke with Sayres and designed a boat for Rhodes, recommending that Muncey be the driver. Muncey, who talks almost as well as he drives, was signed on as a public relations man with Associated Grocers, Inc. and began making speeches (as many as 300 a year) before civic groups and clubs, winning races and friends for the supermarkets. "I talk about my experiences in racing and how anybody, with dedication, can be a good unlimited driver," Muncey says. "I don't peddle prunes. It's a soft sell."
In his first Gold Cup race Muncey was declared the winner, only to find out an hour later (after being chucked in the lake) that a recount of point scores put him in second place. The boat that won—Gale V, out of Detroit—finished second in the first two heats and third in the last one. Muncey had two firsts and a third, but Gale V picked up extra points for completing the fastest overall time for the three heats. Seattle fans, however, agreed solidly on two things: Detroit had won only a statistical victory, and Bill Muncey took corners better than any hydro racer alive.
In the 1956 race in Detroit an even bigger brouhaha took place. Muncey won, with Detroit's Miss Pepsi second. Then it was charged that Muncey had knocked over a buoy. Enraged, Muncey hollered that he had not knocked over a buoy. Rhodes claimed he had 200 witnesses to prove his driver had not hit the buoy. Detroit produced witnesses who said they had seen him hit the buoy. Films showed that Muncey was right, and his Seattle boosters gave up drinking Pepsi-Cola. Months later, when all the legal tangles were ironed out, Muncey was awarded his first Gold Cup. The following year he won his second Gold Cup without dispute, and ever since Seattle has increased its lead in unlimiteds over Detroit, with the Detroit slogan being a wistful "Beat Muncey."
Each year this becomes more difficult, and that is just the way Bill Muncey wants it.
"People tell me it's a mistake to expect to win every race," he says. "But I tell them if you accept the responsibility to put on a good performance, dedicate yourself and prepare yourself mentally—why, there's no reason you can't win every time out. "I didn't come here to lose,' I tell them."
Besides being an artist at turning corners and at hiding behind an opponent's rooster tail to cut inside him when he least expects it, Muncey wins races by psychology. He decides, after considerable study, how fast he must go to beat the best drivers and best boats in a race, and he does not exceed that speed. "If my estimate is accurate," says Muncey, who has a stopwatch brain, "the boats that try to stay ahead of me or try to catch me will blow."
Muncey, who smokes a lot but does not drink—"I just don't like booze"—would much rather race against experienced drivers than hot dogs. He feels that emotion has no place in unlimited racing. "When a driver gets emotional, he gets dangerous," he says.
Bill Muncey has had his share of danger over the years. In the 1956 President's Cup in Washington, D.C. he struck a wall of water, which instantly sheared 12 feet off the port side of Miss Thriftway. In 1957 his boat caught a swell in the Governor's Cup and, soaring 10 feet into the air, blew up like a clay pigeon hit by an expert shot. Muncey was thrown out of the boat and landed in the water 50 feet away. He suffered severe kidney injuries.
Once during a race on Lake Mead, Muncey's propeller broke off and slashed its way through the hull. The gearbox burst and bearings ricocheted around his legs like shrapnel.
In the workshop back of the three-level house where Bill, Kit and their three kids live, high on a Seattle hill, there is a jagged and terrifying piece of a Miss Thriftway that blew up with Muncey in it. Near by is a series of photographs showing the boat disintegrating on the Ohio River in one of hydro racing's most spectacular accidents. "Nevertheless," says Bill Muncey, "I don't believe in luck. It makes me sore if somebody says 'good luck' to me before a race. If you're adequately prepared, you don't need luck."
Muncey attributes his success and his survival to respect for his Rolls-Royce engines, to 20 years' experience as a hydro driver, to a gang of assistants he calls the "best and most dedicated pit crew in hydroplane racing" and to the knowledgeable supervision of Thriftway's Willard Rhodes, who gets up anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 annually to keep the various Miss Thriftways racing.
"I don't consider myself a colorful driver," Muncey admits. "Lou Fageol was colorful. Colonel Russ Schleeh is colorful. Miro Slovak is colorful. I'm not so interesting to watch. But when that checkered flag goes down, I try to see that I'm there. I consider it my responsibility to Thriftway stores."