We're racing through history!
Reprinted from Skid Fin Magazine, 2003, Volume 1 Number 2
The off-season between 1981 and 1981 was full of tough choices for Fran Muncey. On Oct. 18, 1981, her husband Bill Muncey was killed when the Atlas Van Lines crashed while leading the final head of the World Championship at Acapulco, Mexico. No one would have blamed her had she walked away from racing. But Bill had devoted his life to the sport of unlimited racing, and Fran knew that she could find no more meaningful tribute to Bill’s legacy than to keep the Atlas team together.
Four months before the season began, Fran decided to build a new boat, hire a new driver, and go racing again. O.H. Frisbee of Atlas Van Lines returned as sponsor. Jim Harvey signed on as crew chief, Jim Lucero designed and built the new boat, and Chip Hanauer agreed to drive.
In one of the Herculean feats of modern racing, the new Atlas was built in just 100 days. The paint on the boat was still wet when the team pulled out of their Seattle shop and headed for the first race in Miami. The untested boat arrived in Miami amid a blizzard of speculation. Would the hastily built craft work? Would the new driver be able to fill the shoes left by the greatest racer in the sports history? Could any Merlin-powered boat keep up with the awesome speed and power of the Griffon Budweiser?
A respectful hush fell across the pits when the blue and white Atlas was lowered over the seawall into Biscayne Bay for its maiden run. The boat was fast, but very light. It qualified third, at 125.000, barely a mile an hour slower than the turbine Pay ‘N Pak and the Griffon Bud (tied at 126.050). Fans and racers alike were concerned about the boat’s frightening tendency to lift its right sponson on the straightaway. It reminded them of the way Bill Muncey’s Atlas lifted its sponson seconds before the devastating blow-over accident that killed him.
In the race, the Atlas scored a second place in its first head of racing when all of the boats but the Atlas and the Pay ‘N Pak failed to start. Mechanical woes sidelined the Atlas for the next heat, but she finished second in the final head to claim an overall second in her first race. Not bad, but doubts about the boat still lingered.
The third race of the ’82 season was the Gold Cup in Detroit, the premier event on the unlimited circuit. Not only had Bill Muncey won the race eight times, but he also had been born in Detroit, and won is first race on the Detroit River. The pressure on the young Atlas Team was tremendous. Hanauer and the Atlas responded by qualifying fastest at 136.406 mph and winning their first heat. In an aggressive move at the start of the final, Miss Budweiser drive Dean Chenoweth stole lane one from Hanauer and forced him outside. In what fans saw as a David vs. Goliath battle, Hanauer, in the smaller, lighter Atlas crossed the starting line several boat lengths behind the Bud. Hanauer, tracking down the Bud from the outside, eventually passed the Budweiser and won the Gold Cup in one of the most exciting races in unlimited’s colorful history. The Atlas went on to win four more races and claim the National Championship. The team repeated the feat in ’83, becoming the last piston-powered boat to win the Gold Cup.
The mighty Atlas ended her racing career as Ken Muscatel’s Tveten’s RV Mart when she lost a skid fin and slipped while attempting to qualify for the ’98 San Diego race. The mangled boat languished outside in the rain for several years until Seattle real-estate developer John Goodman recognized the boat’s significance. He bought the boat and hired the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum to restore it. Museum volunteers led by Don Mock worked with veteran boat racers Jim Harvey and Ron Brown to restore the Atlas to its original condition.