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BILL MUNCEY: THE FIRST GOLDEN AGE
By Fred Farley - APBA/HYDRO-PROP Unlimited Historian

Chapter 1: 1959
The year 1959 marked the beginning of one of the most illustrious associations in motor sports history. It was then that William Edward Muncey, age 30, the transplanted former Detroiter, began driving the famous third MISS THRIFTWAY from Seattle, the last of the line and a superboat if ever there was one in the Unlimited hydroplane ranks.

Not to be outdone by two major mishaps in as many years during 1957 and 1958, Muncey re-affirmed his ties with the same Associated Grocers organization, headed by Willard Rhodes, that had plucked him from obscurity to the "Big Time" in 1955.

The new Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered hull, one foot shorter than its immediate predecessor at 30 feet 9 inches, was designed by Ted Jones and built this time by the MISS THRIFTWAY crew, headed by Crew Chief Jack Ramsey.

Twenty-six boats would constitute the 1959 APBA Unlimited Class contingent. Other new boats, in addition to MISS THRIFTWAY, were Bill Waggoner's second MAVERICK, J. Gordon Thompson's MISS SUPERTEST III, Bob Schroeder's MISS BUFFALO, Joe Schoenith's twin-Allison-powered GALE VI, and Bill Schuyler's eccentric-looking $ BILL.

Returning to the fray was the defending National Champion MISS BARDAHL, driven this year by Jack Regas of HAWAII KAI III fame. The KAI would also return to the racing wars with a new owner in Joe Mascari of Huntington, New York, and driven by former THRIFTWAY TOO pilot Brien Wygle. Also back, after a one-year hiatus, was Bill Boeing, Jr.'s WAHOO with Mira Slovak at the helm.

As the racing season dawned, Muncey was observed with a pink scarf attached to his crash helmet in the hope that his first wife Kit's expected third child would prove to be a girl. In response, fellow competitor Slovak, at one point, affixed a black sock to HIS helmet so as to jokingly "jinx" the Muncey family's hopes. Lady Luck ruled in Mira's favor and another son--Kenton--was born to Bill and Kit in September of 1959.

Lady Luck proved to be less than lady-like in more ways than one as the first season with the third MISS THRIFTWAY progressed, despite a strong debut at Chelan, Washington, on May 10.

Muncey showed no ill effects whatsoever from his accident of the previous August when the second MISS THRIFTWAY, out of control (after losing a rudder) had struck a U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat on Lake Washington. (Bill had been pronounced "dead" at the scene when a rescue worker could find no pulse.) He claimed first-place in Heat 1-A of the Lake Chelan Apple Cup, averaging 101.656 and demonstrating his craft's winning potential by outrunning Don Wilson in MISS U.S. I, Bill Stead in MAVERICK, and Slovak in WAHOO. During Heat 2-B, however, MISS THRIFTWAY was beaten decisively by MISS BARDAHL, 107 miles per hour to 104.

High winds necessitated cancellation of the final Apple Cup heat and Muncey was awarded an overall third in his comeback appearance. The victory that day went to Bill's long time friend Chuck Hickling in the MISS PAY 'n SAVE. But even in defeat, the new MISS THRIFTWAY demonstrably had what it took to be a winner by impressing favorably as a strong contender right from the start.

The Detroit Memorial Regatta, on July 4, proved to be a letdown after the MISS THRIFTWAY team's strong performance at Chelan. The new boat rode awfully rough on the choppy Detroit River. Defending champion Muncey was outrun in Heat 1-A by Bob Hayward in MISS SUPERTEST III, the Rolls-Royce Griffon-powered Canadian entry that never lost a race during its brief but illustrious career. In Heat 2-B, Bill finished an unfamiliar fourth behind BARDAHL, SUPERTEST, and Don Dunnington in NITROGEN and didn't earn enough points to qualify for the Final.

Back on the smoother West Coast courses, Muncey and MISS THRIFTWAY regained their commendable Apple Cup form. They nearly won the Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, Diamond Cup. THRIFTWAY and BARDAHL staged an incredible side-by-side shoot-out in Heat 1-A that brought the crowd to its feet. In a down-to-the-wire example of Unlimited racing at its best, Bill outdistanced his rival over the finish line, 108.895 to 108.813, a screamer all the way. The white-and-persimmon U-60 had definitely "arrived."

Muncey took a second to HAWAII KAI III, driven by his former teammate, in Heat 2-B and then won the Final, beating MAVERICK, 105 miles per hour to 103. At day's end, THRIFTWAY and MAVERICK were tied with 1100 points each for two firsts and a second. As per the existing rules, Bill Stead received the victory nod for having an elapsed time edge of 1.8 seconds over the frustrated Muncey.

In other developments at Coeur d'Alene, Jack Regas suffered critical injuries when MISS BARDAHL slammed into the roostertail of another boat during Heat 2-A. He would remain in a coma for weeks and would not appear in competition again until 1967. Muncey spent the entire night after the race at the local hospital waiting for updated news on Jack's condition.

The 1959 Diamond Cup was indeed a grisly boat racing weekend. In addition to Regas, Bill Brow of MISS BURIEN (which was destroyed) and Chuck Hickling of MISS PAY 'n SAVE also sustained injuries and required hospitalization. Norm Evans was pitched out of MISS SPOKANE and suffered facial cuts.

And in another hydroplane accident, Bob Doros, the relief driver for Mira Slovak in the 280 Cubic Inch Class WEE WAHOO, lost an arm when he was run over by another boat during a Limited Inboard race at the Pasco Water Follies on the Columbia River in southeastern Washington.

Although despondent over the injuries, the racing fraternity as a whole proceeded with business as usual, three weeks later, when qualifying for the Gold Cup--the biggest event of the year--got underway at Seattle. MISS BARDAHL, however, was not in attendance, having been temporarily withdrawn from competition by owner Ole Bardahl.

The weekend prior to the Gold Cup, Muncey had planned to drive his 7-Litre Class BEST WISHES in the Seafair Regatta race for Limiteds on Seattle's Green Lake. But he was "beached" by THRIFTWAY owner Rhodes who insisted that Bill "save" himself for the upcoming Unlimited event. So Muncey put his friend Don Dunnington in the BEST WISHES at Green Lake.

For the Gold Cup, Bill found himself driving the cabover THRIFTWAY TOO as well as his regular mount. Muncey qualified the TOO at 102.897 for the 9-mile distance and the MISS at 111.111. In the race, THRIFTWAY TOO expired in the first turn of the first heat and was through for the day. Not until 1977 would Bill make another competitive appearance in a forward-cockpit Unlimited hull.

Gold Cup day, August 9, went down in history for being as keenly competitive as it was controversial. The late fifties signalled a last stand--a glorious one--for the amateur sportsman tradition of racing. These were the days when boats with nicknames were more popular than those with commercial titles. And the Gold Cup's location was still determined by the yacht club of the winning boat, thereby giving the local fans a personal stake in the race's outcome.

The Seattle Yacht Club had won the Gold Cup in eight of the previous nine years. The 1959 SYC defense team comprised the two THRIFTWAYs, WAHOO, MISS PAY 'n SAVE, and MISS SEATTLE.

Drawn into Heat 1-A, MISS THRIFTWAY had to contend with the likes of MAVERICK, WAHOO, MISS SPOKANE, and NITROGEN. The THRIFTWAY started up, entered the course, and seemed to be running well. Then the photorecorder, a device for observing engine performance, exploded. Almost instantly, Muncey found himself wrapped up in yards and yards of photographic recording tape. This interfered with his concentration and cost him precious seconds in the moments just prior to the start.

Bill managed to salvage a third-place finish behind WAHOO and MAVERICK. But he was already at a disadvantage in respect to total elapsed time. Clearly, Muncey and MISS THRIFTWAY had their work cut out for them in the remaining 60 miles of racing.

Unlike 1-A, Heat 2-A went according to plan with THRIFTWAY winning it decisively over MISS SPOKANE. Heat 2-B went to MAVERICK's Bill Stead who turned in the day's fastest 30-mile heat at 106.287, compared to Muncey's 105.820 speed in 2-A. Although nearly equal in accumulated points, MAVERICK possessed a considerable elapsed time edge over MISS THRIFTWAY at the outset of Heat Three.

In the final showdown, Muncey and Stead ran close together with Muncey ahead and Stead electing to run conservatively, being content to maintain his elapsed time edge for all three heats combined. Then, abruptly, MAVERICK spun out in the lower turn and missed a buoy.

Stead circled back to correct his error while MISS THRIFTWAY rocketed away and moved up on the front-running Mira Slovak in WAHOO. Slovak, not having scored in the Second Heat, had no chance of winning and "opened the door" for Muncey, voluntarily relinquishing the lead to his fellow SYC defender.

MISS THRIFTWAY took the checkered flag with WAHOO close behind. MISS SPOKANE followed and MAVERICK crossed the finish line in fourth. Stead stil had an 8.3-second advantage over THRIFTWAY for the 90 miles, but had fallen behind Muncey on total points, 1269 to 1325.

The Seattle Yacht Club team's strategy had apparently worked. Bill Muncey and MISS THRIFTWAY had seemingly done it again for the third time in five years of Gold Cup participation.

But such was not to be.

Third-place MISS SPOKANE, it was later determined, had jumped the gun and had to be assesed a one-lap penalty. This dropped the Norm Evans-chauffeured craft to fifth and moved Bill Stead from fourth-place to third.

In the corrected order of finish, MAVERICK and MISS THRIFTWAY ended in a tie in points, which paved the way for a replay of their 1959 Diamond Cup scenario. In both instances, Muncey had outrun his rival from Las Vegas in the Final Heat only to lose the overall race on total elapsed time. This was before the days when the winner of the Final Heat was automatically the winner of the race in an Unlimited event.

MISS SPOKANE's blunder cost Seattle the Gold Cup, which was whisked off to Lake Mead, Nevada, for 1960. A heavy cloud of despondency descended on the crestfallen Muncey as officials declared MAVERICK the winner and MISS THRIFTWAY the loser. A jubilant Stead declared, "I can't thank Norm Evans enough!" as the Bill Waggoner team took possession of power boat racing's Holy Grail.

Ironically, Waggoner had affiliated with the SYC during 1956 and 1957 before transferring to the Lake Mead Yacht Club in 1958.

As the winner savored his victory, Bill Muncey didn't try to conceal his intense disappointment. He was truly heartbroken and didn't care if the world knew about it.

A third Muncey victory in the Gold Cup would have to wait for another day in another season. The 1959 event marked the second time that Bill had physically won the big race out on the race course but had been prevented from taking the trophy home because of the official fine print.

A case could undeniably be made that the 1955 Gold Cup loss was brought about by Muncey's own inexcuseable ignorance of the rules regarding Bonus Points and total elapsed time--but not so in 1959 when he did everything according to Hoyle.

As it was, Norm Evans made a mistake. But it was Muncey, the Seattle Yacht Club, and the entire Pacific Northwest that wound up having to pay for it--with the Gold Cup.

Definitely a snake-bitten year, the balance of 1959 proved to be a huge disappointment for the MISS THRIFTWAY team. In the Detroit Silver Cup, Muncey's boat lost its entire tailfin assembly when the craft impacted with a buoy--at the cost of disqualification--in the First Heat. Bad luck cointinued in the second stanza when MISS THRIFTWAY failed to finish and earned a zero result for the day.

Moving on to Buffalo, New York, Muncey was beaten decisively in all three heats on the Niagara River by MAVERICK, which was well on its way toward the National Championship. Bill suffered the added humiliation of being outrun by Bob Gilliam's KOLroy, the homebuilt and under-financed "Cinderella" boat of Unlimited racing.

Muncey complained at Buffalo that MISS THRIFTWAY didn't have anymore of the speed needed to win. Team manager/designer Ted Jones disagreed. He took the boat out and--to Bill's embarrassment--turned a test lap faster than Muncey.

MISS THRIFTWAY hadn't averaged a heat over 100 miles per hour since Seattle. The team opted to forego the remainder of the Eastern tour and concentrate instead on the two Nevada races at Lake Pyramid and Lake Mead that would conclude the season.

At the Reno Regatta on Lake Pyramid, Muncey experienced his first Unlimited Class confrontation with Ron Musson of Akron, Ohio, an old friend from the Mid-West Limited Inboard circuit. Musson was the newly appointed rookie driver of HAWAII KAI III, the rival boat that Muncey liked perhaps the least during his long career.

In the years that followed, Musson would gain recognition as one of only a handful of other drivers truly considered in the same "class" as Bill Muncey.

The initial Muncey-Musson Thunderboat shoot-out saw Ron outpoint Bill in both preliminary heats at Reno. The "Pink Lady" overpowered MISS THRIFTWAY, 97 to 95 miles per hour in section 1-B and 106 to 104 in 2-A. Meanwhile, MAVERICK and Bill Stead, at the top of their form, outdid both the KAI and the THRIFTWAY with victorious speeds of 108 and 107 in Heats 1-A and 2-B.

In the Final, MAVERICK again would not be denied, her "miracle" aux-stage Allison engine nailing the Rolls-Royce Merlin opposition flat. Hometown driver Stead, the millionaire cattle rancher, posted a 106.077 heat speed and averaged an unprecedented 107.411 overall, a world record for the 45-mile distance that would stand until 1962.

Meanwhile, M & M--Muncey and Musson--both came acropper. They jumped the Final Heat starting gun and concluded the day with a DNF--Did Not Finish--for their efforts.

The Lake Mead Cup at Las Vegas brought down the competitive curtain on the fabulous fifties but was yet another long day at the races for Bill Muncey and MISS THRIFTWAY.

Mira Slovak won all three heats with the fast-moving WAHOO. Bill Stead, in his last race, jumped the gun in the Third Heat with MAVERICK and was out in front but officially took second, ahead of Dallas Sartz in MISS SEATTLE TOO (the former MISS PAY 'n SAVE), and George McKernan in MISS BARDAHL.

Muncey wasn't among the finalists. He had been unable to finish in either one of his two preliminary skirmishes.

Bill's season box score showed no victories for 1959 but indicated first places in five out of 21 heats entered, although none of these occurred during the second half of the season. Having scored DNF seven times, Muncey received the humorous Plumber's Helper Trophy from Bob Brinton's UNLIMITED HYDROPLANE NEWS for being the most unlucky driver of the year.

In spite of the team's various misfortunes and the boat's difficulty in rough water, Muncey nevertheless managed a second-place in Driver Points behind Bill Stead. The MISS THRIFTWAY took third behind MAVERICK and MISS BARDAHL in the national boat standings.

In contrast to her two predecessors, the third MISS THRIFTWAY's fastest heat of racing had been 105.820 (at Seattle) compared to 112.312 by the first boat (at Madison, Indiana) in 1957 and 108.259 by the second hull (at Seattle) in 1958.

Still, the third THRIFTWAY had turned nine heats at over the century mark and, when her equipment held together, could hold her own with the other top contenders of the day. This was proven by the boat's two near victories at Coeur d'Alene and Seattle.

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Copyright 2002 by Fred Farley.
For reprint rights to this book, contact the author at <fredf@hotmail.com>

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