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

Chapter 5: 1963
After eight years in the sport, the U-60 organization stood at the very top of the racing world with Bill Muncey as the reigning momarch, the most victorious driver of all time.

The team's flagship was the most successful Unlimited hydroplane in history and could only be described with superlatives. It had won three straight season championships--an unprecedented feat. (Not until 1976 would any hull--the "Winged Wonder" PAY 'n PAK/ATLAS VAN LINES--win four championships.)

Muncey deserved a lot of the credit for his team's success with his amazing consistency and burning desire to win. The same applied to Crew Chief Jack Ramsey, the soft-spoken, taciturn former sheepherder who seemingly smiled only on the occasion of a race victory.

Ramsey was the first of several top-echelon crew chiefs whose mechanical careers would coincide over the years with the driving exploits of Bill Muncey. (The others would include Dave Seefeldt, Jim Kerth, and Jim Lucero.)

But no human condition is ever permanent. And the end of an era was just around the corner. Lean years rather than affluent ones were in store for Muncey. The 1963 season would be the last time for the persimmon-and-white U-60, which was named MISS THRIFTWAY again. Not until 1972 would Bill again experience such an all-around excellent season as he had in 1962.

The opposition, after having been caught napping the year before, had one objective in mind for 1963. And that was to stop Bill Muncey's domination.

Toward that end, Bill Harrah ordered a new TAHOE MISS and retained the cockpit services of Chuck Thompson. The craft was designed by Ted Jones and built by the TAHOE MISS mechanical crew.

Another new Jones hull that year was the MISS EXIDE, which was built by Ed Karelsen for the Stoen brothers as a replacement for the destroyed MISS SEATTLE TOO. Ending a three-year retirement to replace Dallas Sartz as the Stoens' driver was Muncey's old nemesis Mira Slovak.

Ole Bardahl, meanwhile, was having his one-year-old "Green Dragon" fine-tuned. He hired Ron Jones, Ted's son, to redesign the sponsons for MISS BARDAHL and change the length of the afterplane among other things.

Ironically, both Ted and Ron Jones had been closely associated with--but then departed from--the MISS THRIFTWAY effort in 1959 with Ted as the boat manager and Ron as a crew member.

As pre-season testing got underway, the Associated Grocers team maintained a distinctly lower profile than usual and attempted no major changes in their proven formula. This was sharply in contrast with previous practice. In the past, MISS THRIFTWAY had always tested extensively. But this time, she stayed pretty much under wraps. This caught many fans by surprise.

When the starting gun fired for the first race of the season at Guntersville, Alabama, the defending National Champion was conspicuously absent. For this their last season together, Muncey and the U-60 would postpone their debut until the Gold Cup in Detroit, two weeks later.

For the rest of the fleet, Guntersville proved a rousing lid-lifter. Speeds were impressively high, considering that they were turned on a 2.5-mile course with shorter straightaways and less distance to accelerate than the standard 3-mile track.

Ron Musson and MISS BARDAHL won all three heats with an average speed of 106.267 in Heat 2-B, which translated to approximately 111 miles per hour on a 3-mile course. Clearly, the "Green Dragon" was over its case of the new boat blahs and in the speed range of MISS THRIFTWAY.

Bill Cantrell took second at Guntersville with GALE V and finished all three heats, thus indicating that the team's reliability problem of the year before was a thing of the past. Cantrell posted the second fastest heat of the day at 104.046 in Heat 2-B. This put the GALE--as well as the BARDAHL--in close speed proximity to the absent MISS THRIFTWAY.

Bill Muncey would have to do without the sharpening of a recent race competition at the upcoming Gold Cup event.

Seventeen Thunderboats appeared for the 1963 Motor City classic. The Spirit Of Detroit Association, less than a year old, had emerged as the highest bidder to host the race of races for the first time in Detroit since 1956.

In addition to the new emphasis on financial bidding, the Gold Cup also departed from its time-honored format of three 30-mile heats. Beginning in 1963, the event would be reduced from 90 to 60 miles and characterized more as a sprint race than as an endurance test. As opposed to previous practice, each boat would run in as many as four heats of 15 miles in length. The format change was intended to make the race more appealing to the spectators.

Muncey and MISS THRIFTWAY quickly demonstrated that they were still a force with which to be reckoned. They reeled of three nearly identical laps for a qualifying average of 116.463, the fastest time of the week.

Musson and MISS BARDAHL were next at 113.849, followed by Roy Duby at 113.600 with MISS U.S. I, Don Wilson at 113.326 with MISS U.S. 5 (former HAWAII KAI III), Chuck Thompson at 111.300 with TAHOE MISS, and Cantrell at 108.600 with GALE V.

The qualifying period was not without its "down" moments. MISS MADISON, the community-owned entry from Indiana, was completely destroyed when it struck a log during a test run. Driver Morlan Visel was badly injured. GALE VII also ended up at the bottom of the Detroit River when it sank out from under Danny Foster, who fortunately escaped unscathed.

The MISS MADISON people, thankfully, had another hull (the former NITROGEN TOO) waiting in the wings that would enable the Ohio River town to remain active in racing. The GALE VII was retrieved but never appeared at another race.

As Gold Cup day dawned, Bill Muncey found himself in Heat 1-A opposite the two highly touted new boats, TAHOE MISS and MISS EXIDE, while MISS BARDAHL and GALE V faced each other in 1-B.

MISS THRIFTWAY showed Thompson and Slovak the short way around the buoys in 1-A. Muncey maintained a conservative edge over TAHOE MISS and averaged 102.428 to Thompson's 101.199 with MISS EXIDE a distant third.

So far, so good. The nifty THRIFTY was still following its familiar script. Now it was MISS BARDAHL's turn to run the gauntlet.

Musson took Heat 1-B but had to fight off a determined Bill Cantrell who had been driving in Detroit River races since 1937 and had been a Gold Cup winner there in 1949. When the checkered flag dropped, MISS BARDAHL had won and GALE V was second with both running the 15 miles faster than MISS THRIFTWAY. Musson had done 104.936 and Cantrell 102.622.

With one down and three heats to go, the four top boats had asserted themselves and demonstrated their capacity to run fast. At long last, competition had returned to the Unlimited Class.

The racing world held its collective breath as the boat names were drawn by lot to determine the starting fields for Heats 2-A and 2-B. Luck of the draw placed three of the top four--THRIFTWAY, BARDAHL, and TAHOE--in section A, while GALE went into section B.

As the seconds ticked away before the start, Muncey, Musson, and Thompson entered the race course and started working into position. Along for the ride were two lesser lights--NOTRE DAME with Warner Gardner and ST. REGIS with Jimmy Fyle.

At the one-minute gun, the field converged on the "Roostertail Turn" with MISS THRIFTWAY trailing slightly. The boats rounded the tricky hairpin corner and started a cavalry charge downriver toward the Gar Wood Judges' Stand and the starting line.

Bang! The gun fired and the race was on. Bill Muncey tried to duck in between boats in search of an opening...but didn't find one.

Wham! MISS THRIFTWAY encountered a wall of water. The bombardment of roostertails subsided. And there sat the defending champion dead in the water in front of the Judges' Stand.

It was an incredible sight. As the other four boats ripped around the Belle Isle turn and thundered down the backstretch, Muncey frantically tried to re-start...and finally managed to do so. But pursuit was out of the question. He completed the five laps, picked up 127 last-place points, and returned to the Burns pit area a broken man with tears in his eyes. ("I let my team down.") There would be no fifth Gold Cup for the MISS THRIFTWAY crew on this day or ever.

What happened to Bill Muncey in Heat 2-A of the 1963 Gold Cup has an eerie parallel to Heat 1-B of the 1981 Gold Cup at Seattle. There, too, Muncey was back at the start (with ATLAS VAN LINES) and tried to squeeze in between boats...only to be drowned out. The 1981 race proved to be Bill's Gold Cup swan song. Two months later, he was killed at Acapulco.

As for 1963, the nonpareil MISS THRIFTWAY had been brought down to earth. After garnering most of the glory for three consecutive years, the tables had been turned against the incomparable U-60.

Ron Musson, who had spent much of the 1962 season in Muncey's shadow, now ruled the Unlimited roost.

MISS BARDAHL won Heat 2-A decisively at 109.489 miles per hour, the fastest time of the day. TAHOE MISS ran second at 101.427, followed by NOTRE DAME, ST. REGIS, and MISS THRIFTWAY in that order. And although 30 racing miles still remained, this was clearly to be the "Green Dragon's" day.

Muncey participated in the next two heats. But he was hardly the flawless driver who had amassed so many impressive victories in the recent past. His heart wasn't in it. And it showed in his performance, which was arguably the sloppiest of his career.

In Heat 3-A, Bill was beaten handily by MISS BARDAHL, TAHOE MISS and MISS EXIDE, all of which did over 100 miles per hour. Muncey did 99.631.

In the Final Heat, he again ran near the back of the pack. MISS THRIFTWAY finished fifth at a lackluster 95.205, while Bill Cantrell burned up the course at a solid 105.953. Ron Musson, meanwhile, took a safe second at 100.953 to insure the victory.

MISS THRIFTWAY, in her final Gold Cup appearance, finished an overall sixth behind MISS BARDAHL, GALE V, TAHOE MISS, NOTRE DAME, and MISS EXIDE, in that order.

With retirement just two races away, the U-60 team faced a formidable challenge. If vindication of such a dismal showing was to occur, it had to happen quickly, because time was running out.

As the field prepared for its upcoming Diamond Cup date at Coeur d'Alene, pre-race prognostication reached a fever pitch. Would MISS THRIFTWAY regain her championship form? Was MISS BARDAHL just a flash in the pan? Had GALE V finally come into her own? Would TAHOE MISS and MISS EXIDE continue to develop as contenders? Would the recently reactivated MISS EAGLE ELECTRIC (former MISS SPOKANE) be a factor?

Muncey and Musson found themselves facing each other once again in Heat 1-B. But when the roostertails subsided, the tables had dramatically turned once again--this time in MISS THRIFTWAY's favor.

The U-60 had won hands down at 109.267, a Diamond Cup record. MISS BARDAHL had come acropper with a DNF, her three-race victory string snapped decisively by the still viable MISS THRIFTWAY.

Diamond Cup Heat 2-A proved almost a repeat of 1-B. Muncey and THRIFTWAY did it again at a solid 103.686. Incredibly, Musson and BARDAHL scored another zero result. Also falling by the wayside were Cantrell's GALE V and Thompson's TAHOE MISS.

It was 1962 all over again. Muncey's craft was performing like the U-60 of old with no other boat clearing 100 miles per hour for a heat of racing all weekend. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of MISS THRIFTWAY's competitive "death" had been greatly exaggerated.

Only one obstacle stood in the way of Bill Muncey and a third straight Diamond Cup. And that obstacle was the "Flying Czech" Mira Slovak whose MISS EXIDE had won Heats 1-A and 2-B at speeds of 99 and 94 miles per hour.

The starting gun fired, and the field sprinted toward the first turn. EXIDE entered the initial backstretch in the lead and in the inside lane. THRIFTWAY was second and in lane-two. At the end of lap-one, Slovak and Muncey were side-by-side.

Then, as the leaders streaked toward the lower turn of lap-two, MISS EXIDE disintegrated spectacularly--just as its predecessor MISS SEATTLE TOO had done the year before.

Slovak was thrown clear of the boat and into the water. The race was immediately halted. Muncey managed to avoid the wreckage and pulled off the course.

After only two races, the new MISS EXIDE was completely destroyed. The boat literally exploded. Slovak was hospitalized and wouldn't drive in competition again until 1966. Designer Ted Jones, ironically, had disavowd the MISS EXIDE when he learned that builder Ed Karelsen was going to put the boat together with a staple gun.

Owners Milo and Glen Stoen rebounded quickly, however, and purchased the retired WAHOO hull from Bill Boeing, Jr., for the next race of the season in Seattle.

Karelsen would later vindicate himself as the designer/builder of three successful Unlimiteds: the MISS BARDAHL of 1967, the MISS BUDWEISER of 1968, and the NOTRE DAME of 1969.

With all of the top contenders out of commission for the day, the Final Heat re-run of the 1963 Diamond Cup was a mere formality. It didn't matter that MISS THRIFTWAY was nursing a twisted quill shaft, which drives the supercharger impeller. Muncey ran a conservative fifth-place and secured the victory with points to spare.

Meanwhile, Chuck Hickling in TEMPEST staged a thriller for first-place in the Final Heat and second-place overall. Hickling narrowly outran Norm Evans in $ BILL and Bob Schroeder in the four-seater TEMPO. (TEMPO was the first boat to be campaigned by future MISS BUDWEISER owner Bernie Little.)

Muncey and MISS THRIFTWAY were now back in their familiar first-place and had effectively dimmed the memory of their Detroit setback.

But now the curtain was about to be drawn. Willard Rhodes announced at a press conference that the August 11 Seafair Regatta on Lake Washington--where the Associated Grocers team had debuted eight years earlier--would be the U-60's final competitive appearance.

The September, 1963, issue of PROPELLER, the official publication of the American Power Boat Association, described the event in these words:

"The voluntary termination of an illustrious reign occurred quietly. Muncey and THRIFTWAY won the first heat setting a record of 112.500 mph, then went dead in the second, requiring a tow to the pits.

"Those decrying this 'humbled finish for a proud champion' are not boat racers. Racers accept the good breaks with the bad. They recognize that winning may be the goal of racing but competing is its major function.

"Compete the THRIFTWAY camp did, unsparingly, constantly, totally. And in compiling their three-boat, two-major-accident competitive history, the THRIFTWAY camp not only endured but prevailed to set records of speed and mechanical excellence that would be hard to beat."

On the last day of his boat's career, Bill Muncey re-affirmed his position as the world's fastest boat racer. His speed of 112.500 in Heat 1-A erased his own previous high of 112.312 set in 1957 at Madison, Indiana.

His first-place in Heat 1-A did not come easy. He had to beat Ron Musson and the MISS BARDAHL, which ran 110.474, and the "new" MISS EXIDE (former WAHOO) with Russ Schleeh who did 110.429. The 112.500 mark would stand until 1964.

Following the completion of the first set of preliminary heats, an unusual weather phenomenon for the Pacific Northwest--a line squall--appeared on the horizon. Heavy rains pelted the race area and put the rest of the day's schedule in doubt. If the remaining heats had been canceled and the race declared a contest on the basis of Heat One, MISS THRIFTWAY would have gone out a winner.

But this was not to be. The squall passed out of the area, the sun came out, and racing resumed.

In Seafair Trophy Heat 2-B, THRIFTWAY dueled briefly with BARDAHL but then slowed to a halt. Muncey stood up on the inert craft's deck and signalled for a tow.

He watched as Musson, his heir apparent, whipped the "Green Dragon" unopposed around the buoys and completed his remaining laps in solitary splendor, far ahead of the slow-ticking TEMPO with Bob Schroeder and MARINER TOO with Roy Duby.

The King was dead; long live the King!

From 1959 to 1963, Muncey had started in 85 heats with the third MISS THRIFTWAY and had finished 77 of them. He had been first 46 times, second 16 times, third seven times, fourth five times, fifth three times, had averaged 54 heats at better than 100 miles per hour, and won 14 out of 32 races entered.

To be sure, William Edward Muncey would some day again rule the Unlimited world. But for the moment, he was an unemployed hydroplane driver with an uncertain future, although his credentials were second to none.

Since landing his first Unlimited ride in 1950, Muncey had achieved the status of a boat racing immortal. He would always remain so, throughout the rich years--as well as the lean years--that were to follow.

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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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