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

Chapter 2: 1960
After five seasons of sometimes brilliant--but often erratic--driving for the MISS THRIFTWAY team, things started to pick up for Bill Muncey with the advent of the sixties.

Starting in 1960, his consistency of performance improved considerably. He began winning a lot of races. Prior to 1960, he had only once (in 1956) won more than one race during a given season.

It must be acknowledged that many of the top drivers of the fifties were no longer active. Danny Foster, Jack Regas, Bill Stead, and Lee Schoenith--all of whom were past National Champions--had retired. Russ Schleeh and Mira Slovak were semi-active. Bill Cantrell and Chuck Thompson had inferior equipment.

Still, Muncey had to contend with such top-notch chauffeurs as Ron Musson, Don Wilson, Bob Hayward, and Rex Manchester in the early sixties.

To start the decade, on February 15, 1960, Bill established a mile straightaway record of 192.001 miles per hour on Lake Washington's East Channel. This eclipsed the former mark of 187.627 set in 1957 by Jack Regas in HAWAII KAI III.

Muncey admitted years later that he had grave doubts about attempting the record run and regretted almost immediately having committed himself to it. "I'll do this for you once, but never again," he told MISS THRIFTWAY owner Willard Rhodes.

He honestly believed that he would be killed and put his will and other personal matters in order before stepping into the boat.

His intense anxiety notwithstanding, Bill stepped onto the dock after setting the record and did an on-the-spot TV interview, acting as non-chalant as ever.

Fresh from the straightaway triumph, Bill and Crew Chief Jack Ramsey focused their attentions on the upcoming season, which started May 8 at Chelan. For a team that hadn't scored a victory since their sloppy win at the 1958 Detroit Memorial Regatta, the pressure to perform must have been considerable.

Muncey clearly needed a successful 1960 campaign. The team had Russ Schleeh waiting in the wings, penciled in as pilot of THRIFTWAY TOO and as a possible replacement driver for MISS THRIFTWAY.

The MAVERICK organization had retired but all of the other teams from 1959 remained active. Three new hulls appeared in 1960: another MISS BURIEN, replacing the boat that had been destroyed at Coeur d'Alene; NITROGEN TOO, a teammate for Sam DuPont's two-year-old NITROGEN; and KOLroy I, another in a series of Bob Gilliam-crafted hulls under the aegis of Seattle Radio Station KOL. All three used essentially stock Allison V-1710 power.

For its second season, the third MISS THRIFTWAY underwent several mechanical changes. The sponsons were redesigned as was the rudder assembly.

Ten years had now elapsed since Muncey's entry into the Unlimited ranks as the rookie pilot of Albin Fallon's MISS GREAT LAKES. A decade earlier, the sport had been almost strictly amateurish in nature, looking and acting as such. The fifties had seen the world of business begin serious speculation with regard to the advertising and promotional potential inherent in Unlimited racing.

The sport, destined as it was for professional stature, had experienced growing pains where rules and procedures more applicable to non-commercial ventures were concerned. The Unlimited Class had chaffed within the administrative confines of the APBA's Inboard Racing Commission and had yearned for the day when it could finally govern its own affairs independent of the American Power Boat Association. That day arrived with the formation of the Unlimited Racing Commission (URC) in 1957.

The late fifties and early sixties were characterized by early attempts--not all of them adequate--at self-administration by the Unlimited participants.

The roots of commercialism--out of economic necessity--were now firmly embedded, although the old amateur element was likewise solidly ensconced. Unfortunately, the inevitable disputes between the two factions were all too often distorted out of all proportion by the sensation-seeking news media. The generally excellent competitive record of the races themselves frequently took an undeserved second billing to the on-shore wrangling.

If one can lay aside the rash of fatalities still a few years in the future and the dishearteningly low level of competitive action that characterized much of the late 1970s, the 1960 season in particular ranks as the one above all others that is best forgotten.

The forces of new and old met in their inevitable showdown that had been pre-destined nearly a decade before. From the first race of the year to the last, disharmony was an ever-present irritant. This was especially true at the infamous Lake Mead Gold Cup in Las Vegas where the Unlimited pastime surely reached its all-time low water mark. The "No Contest" result recorded in the history books for November 13, 1960, is indicative as the day when big-time boat racing lost its amateur innocence.

Despite the chaos that was going on around him in the sport at large, Bill Muncey acquitted himself quite professionally during 1960, aside from an angry flap that occurred in the first heat of the season at Lake Chelan.

Muncey accused WAHOO pilot Mira Slovak of "cutting him off" while entering the initial turn. (MISS THRIFTWAY had encountered Mira's roostertail, stalled, re-started, and taken a distant third in the heat.) The officials ruled that no foul had occurred and the WAHOO's first-place finish in Heat 1-A was allowed to stand.

The news media quickly capitalized on the dispute between the two popular drivers who had professed on television to be friends just moments before the start of the race.

Slovak tended to shrug off Muncey's verbal vollies. He pointed out that Bill had done exactly the same thing to him two years earlier on the same race course when Mira was handling the first MISS BURIEN. In that previous incident, Slovak said that he thought nothing of it and dismissed it as part of racing.

Time eventually dimmed the intensity of the Muncey-Slovak feud at Lake Chelan. Neither man held a lasting grudge over the heated exchange. Bill and Mira in fact enjoyed a cordial relationship with each other that lasted for the next 21 years.

Still, the incident unfortunately added fuel to the fire of those who would demean the sport for its so-called "prima donna image."

MISS THRIFTWAY and WAHOO dueled closely in the second Apple Cup heat until the Bill Boeing entry went dead in the water. Muncey took first-place in both Heats Two and Three to gain his first overall race victory in 23 months. Norm Evans and NITROGEN finished second, Chuck Hickling and MISS BURIEN were third, and MISS BARDAHL, handled by rookie Jim McGuire, took fourth.

Race day, June 26, 1960, at the Detroit Memorial Regatta, was a perfect day for Bill Muncey. The victory was the sixth of his career and the first that boasted first-place finishes in all three heats.

Muncey and MISS THRIFTWAY fought off a stiff challenge from Chuck Thompson and MISS DETROIT in the opening stanza, 99.741 to 99.101. Bill then won the next two heats decisively and demonstrated his skill by deftly sprinting through a narrow opening as the rest of the field charged en masse over the starting line in the final go-around.

After having so much trouble finishing the year before, the THRIFTWAY people seemed to have found the combination with reliability no longer being a problem. The boat was also riding much better in rough water than it had during 1959.

The Diamond Cup at Coeur d'Alene proved once again that there were faster boats on the circuit than MISS THRIFTWAY with the U-60's durability not proving decisive.

In Heat 1-B, Muncey squared off against his old nemesis HAWAII KAI III and took the lead while maintaining the inside lane. Bill seemed enroute to his sixth straight heat win until "Pink Lady" pilot Ron Musson slipped past and accelerated away to a comfortable lead and a first-place finish with the fastest lap of the race at 112.500.

"I let him off my hip," declared a dejected Muncey. The THRIFTWAY averaged 105.017 for the 15 miles to HAWAII KAI's 106.761, which called into question the validity of Bill's frequent claim that the KAI "wasn't much of a boat."

MISS THRIFTWAY managed to rebound with a vengeance and dominate Heat 2-B over mediocre opposition at a speed of 107.398, the fastest heat of the year thus far. Muncey also succeeded in avoiding a hair-raising near-collision with Chuck Hickling and MISS BURIEN, which speared the guywire on the THRIFTWAY's tailfin but inflicted no other damage.

Bill's luck ran out in the Diamond Cup finale. He had starting and stopping problems and finished a poor fourth. HAWAII KAI III also fell by the wayside and the overall victory went to the combination of Norm Evans and Dallas Sartz, co-drivers of MISS SEATTLE TOO, owned by Milo and Glen Stoen.

The less said about the next race on the tour, the Seattle Seafair Regatta, the better. Despite an abundance of action-filled drama out on the race course, seldom has any event in history borne the brunt of a more hostile news media reaction, precipitated by a plethora of protests and accidents.

The Seattle area sports writers and broadcasters, after years of being generally supportive, showed the sport no mercy in 1960 and plumbed the depths of journalistic one-sidedness. THE SEATTLE TIMES went so far as to lambaste the race as a "hydro-pain in the neck."

Three drivers made hospital visits during Seafair '60: Mira Slovak, who barrel-rolled the WAHOO; Don Wilson, who suffered serious burns when MISS U.S. I caught fire; and Russ Schleeh, who parted company with THRIFTWAY TOO and took an unscheduled swim. Thankfully, all three men--and their boats--mended quickly and returned to action before the end of the year.

Lady Luck smiled on Bill Muncey at Seafair. Fledgling pilot Rex Manchester of MISS SPOKANE was the apparent race winner. Unfortunately for Rex, the accident to MISS U.S. I stopped down the Final Heat with Manchester leading Muncey and being just seconds away from the checkered flag. The race had to be completed on Monday with MISS THRIFTWAY winning it decisively and MISS SPOKANE finishing a distant second.

Many persons were quick to sympathize with the crestfallen Manchester who had come so close to victory. The situation was almost a replay of the 1955 Gold Cup controversy wherein Bill Muncey had just missed winning the big race.

This time, incredibly, Bill was unjustly cast as the "villain." The stoppage and re-run were entirely in accordance with APBA Unlimited rules, which stated that a Final Heat must be re-run regardless of when it was stopped.

One of the human ironies is the way in which the world rolls out the red carpet for the underdog. The opposite side of the coin is the puzzling manner in which the consistent champion is scorned for the "sin" of winning too much.

This describes the Manchester-Muncey situation at the 1960 Seafair race precisely. It mattered not that Rex and Bill were personal friends and harbored no enmity over the incident. To them, it was just the breaks of racing.

The Seattle fans opened their hearts to the personable MISS SPOKANE driver and closed them to the victorious pilot of MISS THRIFTWAY. Hence, for the rest of his days, Muncey would remain a popular lightning rod for criticism, justified or otherwise, as the price of his fame. An example of this criticism occurred one time when Bill was loudly booed when he threw out the first ball at a Seattle Mariners baseball game.

As if all of this wasn't enough, the results of the 1960 Seafair Trophy race could not be officially announced for several weeks. MISS U.S. I owner George Simon had filed a protest, which claimed that the heat run on Monday was not allowed by the rules and was thereby invalid. The Unlimited Racing Commission didn't see it that way and disallowed Simon's protest. The Monday results were allowed to stand and MISS THRIFTWAY was officially declared the winner.

With the Seafair decision still up in the air, the THRIFTWAY team headed East for another try at the Silver Cup in Detroit. They were surprisingly defeated by Musson and the underpowered NITROGEN TOO.

Muncey found himself running third behind Musson and GALE V's Bill Cantrell in the opening stanza. MISS THRIFTWAY then took an impressive first in the Second Heat and outdistanced NITROGEN TOO 103 miles per hour to 99. Then, in the Final Heat, Musson led out of the first turn with his smooth-riding Allison-powered projectile and was never headed. The Merlin-powered Muncey craft was outrun by a margin of 103 to 102 with Ron Musson scoring the upset of the season.

NITROGEN TOO was the same hull that, eleven years later, would win the 1971 APBA Gold Cup as the second MISS MADISON with Jim McCormick driving.

At the Washington, D.C., President's Cup, MISS THRIFTWAY was the apparent victor until officials ruled that Muncey had jumped the gun in the Final Heat. The evidence was very flimsy and the THRIFTWAY people were quite upset by the decision that resulted in Chuck Thompson's MISS DETROIT being declared the winner.

After two official second-place finishes in a row, Muncey put it all together to win the Indiana Governor's Cup at Madison. This was his first appearance in the Ohio River town since the 1957 disintegration with the original MISS THRIFTWAY, Bill advanced to the Final Heat in an 800-point tie with the team of Musson and NITROGEN TOO, which likewise had two firsts in the preliminary action.

Muncey and THRIFTWAY sprinted on to a perfect 1200-point total with a 102.660 average for five laps around the narrow 3-mile oval with its tight turns and long straightaways. MISS BARDAHL's Bill Brow followed at 101.670 and NITROGEN TOO at 100.000 even.

In a season cursed by internal bickering and extraordinarily bad press, the Madison Regatta seemed to go off like clockwork. It served as a reminder to the haggard participants that, in the heartland of smalltown Americana, an Unlimited race could still be a fun weekend where a good time was had by all.

With two races remaining on the Unlimited calender, MISS THRIFTWAY and Bill Muncey clinched their first National High Point Championship. It would not be their last. The team's total point accumulation was based upon four regatta firsts, two seconds, and one third. They had also finished 21 heats in a row without a single DNF.

At the Reno Regatta on Lake Pyramid, the newly crowned season champions drew mixed reviews. Muncey and THRIFTWAY stopped but managed to re-start in Heat 1-A and took a distant fourth. In Heat 2-A, Bill ran a frustrating third behind Rex Manchester in MISS SPOKANE and Norm Evans in NITROGEN. This gave MISS THRIFTWAY 394 total points, compared to the 800 markers accumulated in Heats 1-B and 2-B by Ron Musson, who was back driving his regular mount HAWAII KAI III.

Although mathmatically out of contention for the Mapes Trophy, Muncey entered the Final Heat anyway and vindicated himself by turning the fastest heat of the year at 110.087 miles per hour. In so doing, Bill climbed to an overall fourth in points for the day. Meanwhile, his rival Musson, nursing a damaged sponson, settled for a second in the heat and a first in the race with the aging "Pink Lady," which now had ten victories since 1956.

Perhaps the THRIFTWAY team's greatest accomplishment during 1960 was their 100 per cent reliability record of 24 heats started and 24 heats finished. In the words of Associate Unlimited Historian David Greene, "There had been faster boats than the third MISS THRIFTWAY. But none had ever combined their speed with such amazing consistency."

A season-concluding victory in the Gold Cup at Las Vegas would have been the crowning jewel in a stellar year for Bill Muncey, Jack Ramsey, and Willard Rhodes. But such was not to be. The 1960 Lake Mead fiasco proved to be the costliest debacle in the history of Unlimited racing.

Fifteen boats qualified for the race that never was. It was one of the strongest fields in Gold Cup history with seven boats checking in at better than 110 miles per hour. MISS U.S. I, WAHOO, and MISS THRIFTWAY were the three fastest at 114, 113, and 111 respectively.

Muncey was drawn into Heat 1-C and waited on the sidelines as MISS SEATTLE TOO took 1-A. Heat 1-B was stopped and not re-run when GALE V flipped, injuring Bill Cantrell.

On account of wind, there was no further activity out on the race course. But plenty happened in the pit area and in the smoke-filled rooms--much to the sport's detriment.

The wind, which had not been a factor during Heat 1-A, picked up in earnest soon afterwards. Conditions were marginal but not unraceable. But the teams drawn into Heats 1-B and 1-C saw themselves at a distinct disadvantage where the critical Bonus Point factor for the fastest race was concerned.

On the one hand, the sport's amateur element advocated an "on-with-the-show" approach, regardless of the elapsed time problem. The sport's professional faction, however, refused to run.

The race committee pointed out that a narrow window of opportunity was predicted for the following morning at around 6:00 AM when calm conditions were expected to prevail. The teams with commercial sponsors pointed out that spectators would be virtually non-existent at that early hour. And this was unacceptable.

So the event was cancelled and--for the first time in 56 years of Gold Cup history--declared "No Contest." It also brought down the curtain on Thunderboat racing in Las Vegas for many years to come. Not until 1986 would Unlimited hydroplanes again churn the waters of wind-swept Lake Mead.

Bill Muncey made no public comment on the 1960 Gold Cup fiasco, a press agent's nightmare if ever there was one. But his friend Chuck Hickling, driver of MISS BURIEN, openly doubted if the promised prize money package even existed.

The Unlimited participants were quick to criticize the competence of the sponsoring organization. The local committee had indeed drawn negative reviews in its handling of the Lake Mead Cup event in 1959. Their ability to stage a top-flight show such as the Gold Cup had been questioned by many.

In retrospect, hardly anyone involved with the 1960 Gold Cup emerged unscathed. The timing especially couldn't have been worse. All season long, the media had blackened the skies over the boat racing world with its journalistic artilleries.

The Unlimiteds desperately needed a strong positive show of strength at the end of that troubled year. But that didn't happen. Instead, many long time supporters of the sport walked away in disgust, never to return.

Thunderboat racing's amateur tradition died on that November 13 at Las Vegas in 1960. A crossroads had been reached. The days when the sport could truthfully be described as a rich man's hobby were gone forever. A new era--for better or for worse--was unavoidably at hand.

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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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