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6: The Lean Years (1964-1969)
The THRIFTWAY years--from 1955 to 1963--had been good years. Bill had established himself as a bona fide superstar. Almost no one doubted that Muncey would very soon land another competitive "ride" and make a quick return to the winner's circle.
When Bill started Thunderboat driving thirteen years earlier with the MISS GREAT LAKES, his fellow drivers included the likes of Danny Foster, Bill Cantrell, Chuck Thompson, Guy Lombardo, Dan Arena, and Lee Schoenith.
By 1963, Cantrell and Thompson remained active as competitors. Schoenith, retired from driving, served as the self-styled "Czar" of the newly formed (in 1957) Unlimited Racing Commission of APBA. The new crop of Unlimited drivers in the early sixties included Ron Musson, Rex Manchester, Warner Gardner, Billy Schumacher, and Buddy Byers.
Unlimited racing had entered its long-awaited professional era in 1963. Significantly, that was the year of George Simon's landmark tax case. The Internal Revenue Service upheld Simon's contention that big-time boat racing was indeed a legitimate business expense within specified guidelines and thereby tax deductible.
This ruling by the IRS opened the door to major corporate involvement in Unlimited racing on a much larger scale than in the past. One of the first companies to climb on the Unlimited sponsorship bandwagon was Anheuser-Busch, which unveiled its first in a long series of MISS BUDWEISER hydroplanes in 1964.
Curiously enough, the middle and late sixties represent a time period seldom touched upon in the official Bill Muncey biographies. True, he still would come through with an occasional race victory. But these were lean years indeed. Bill would encounter health and marital problems during that troubled decade.
He seemed to have great difficulty in defining himself apart from Unlimited racing and experienced frustration through a puzzling series of unsuccessful business ventures.
During 1964, Muncey was briefly associated with Shirley Mendelson McDonald's new NOTRE DAME. Designed and built by Les Staudacher, NOTRE DAME was fast. But it was no MISS THRIFTWAY. From Day One, NOTRE DAME was a rough rider. In fact both sponsons had to be replaced before the start of the season.
Bill nevertheless managed to claim his first non-THRIFTWAY win in the Dixie Cup at Guntersville, Alabama, where he scored a stunning upset victory over the defending National Championship team of Musson and MISS BARDAHL.
The boat's flaws not withstanding, Muncey managed to elevate the NOTRE DAME team from also-ran to front-runner status.
He did 115 miles per hour in qualifying at Detroit. In four races entered, Bill demonstrated heat capability in the 106-107 mile an hour range to keep NOTRE DAME in the thick of things.
Unfortunately for Shirley McDonald, her association with Muncey lasted only half a season. The crew chief, Bud Meldrum, reached an impasse with Bill and fired him without consulting Shirley. Meldrum replaced Muncey at Madison, Indiana, with Rex Manchester who had previously substituted in the NOTRE DAME at Coeur dAlene when Muncey was ill.
It is interesting to compare the performances of Bill and Rex, both of whom completed nine heats in the same boat during the 1964 season.
Munceys fastest heat was 107.620 (at Seattle); Manchesters fastest was 102.350 (at Lake Tahoe). Bill had five heats over 100; Rex had one. Muncey won one race; Manchester won none.
Letting Muncey get away from her was clearly Shirley McDonalds biggest mistake in racing. She continued as an Unlimited owner for another nine years but only won one other race.
There was a single instance in 1964 when Bill was cited for unsportsmanlike conduct. After finishing in Heat One at Coeur d'Alene, Muncey washed down an already dead-in-the-water Chuck Thompson in the "Gray Ghost" TAHOE MISS. This grew out of an unspecified disagreement between Bill and Chuck, who had never been the best of friends. Muncey was assessed a monetary fine by Chief Referee Bill Newton.
If Bill had any consolation over the split with NOTRE DAME, it was probably the knowledge that he wasn't alone. Indeed, the list of quality personnel discharged from the "Shamrock Lady" organization over the years reads as a veritable "Who's Who" of Unlimited racing.
After finding himself back in the fraternity of unemployed boat racers, Muncey concentrated on Limited hydroplane competition for the balance of 1964. He also managed a small neighborhood grocery story--a franchise of Associated Grocers--on Mercer Island, Washington, at this time. But this venture went bankrupt rather quickly.
A back ailment (which eventually required surgery) prevented Bill from accepting a full-time assignment in 1965. He did try unsuccessfully to persuade the MISS THRIFTWAY people to "unretire" for one last try at the Gold Cup.
Loath to remain on shore, Bill participated at Seattle and Detroit with the huge twin-Allison-powered SUCH CRUST IV as a favor to the owner, Jack Schafer, an old friend.
When Muncey took the wheel of SUCH CRUST IV at Seattle, he had not settled himself into an Unlimited cockpit in a full twelve months--his longest period of inactivity ever between 1955 and 1981.
In September of 1965, George Simon of the MISS U.S. from Detroit offered Bill a five-year contract as both driver and manager, starting with the 1965 San Diego Cup on Mission Bay. Muncey accepted and moved the team, which had headquartered in the Motor City since 1953, to Seattle.
Working for Simon proved to be a mixed blessing. George was an old-style "sportsman" variety of owner. His boats obviously were advertising vehicles for his U.S. Equipment Co. But at heart, Simon epitomized the graciousness of the sport's amateur era.
George liked to win races. But he had been unable to do so since 1958. He lacked Bill's insatiable thirst for winning. To Muncey, the thrill of victory was perishable; it had to be renewed all the time. And that meant doing everything first-class--MISS THRIFTWAY-style--with no expense spared.
It therefore irked Bill to be denied operating funds that he considered necessary to field a more competitive entry. Years later, Muncey complained to a newspaper reporter, "Simon wouldn't give me enough money for the boat. Then he would turn right around and spend untold thousands flying in relatives from all over the country to see the races."
The MISS U.S. hull of 1966 was a 1964 Les Staudacher craft built of Titanium that resembled the highly successful HAWAII KAI III. But that's where the similarity with the "Pink Lady" ended. From the beginning, MISS U.S. had ridden like a bucking bronco and defied the efforts of Don Wilson and Roy Duby, her two previous drivers.
In the season-opener at Tampa, Florida, Muncey had his clumsy craft on the ragged edge in extremely rough water. He trailed Rex Manchester and NOTRE DAME over the finish line in the Final Heat but tied his former mount on total points. He won the overall victory on the basis of a faster total elapsed time for all three heats.
The 1966 Tampa Suncoast Cup marked Bill's twentieth career victory and George Simon's first visit to the winner's circle in eight years. But the price was high.
The boat had suffered extensive damage in the ocean-like chop of Tampa Bay. The team, headed by Crew Chief Dave Seefeldt (a MISS THRIFTWAY alumnus), had to cancel its plans for the President's Cup in Washington, D.C., the following weekend. They would concentrate instead on the Detroit Gold Cup, three weeks away.
Closer examination of the MISS U.S.'s hull revealed considerably more damage than first thought. There were those who considered the boat to be beyond repair, including the original builder Staudacher who refused to even touch it.
Muncey was frantic. In desperation, he and his crew went to work on the stricken craft themselves, hoping that they could still pass inspection at Detroit.
It was while repairs to the MISS U.S. were underway on Sunday, June 19, that word was received from Washington, D.C., that shook the racing world to its foundation.
Three drivers--Ron Musson of MISS BARDAHL, Rex Manchester of NOTRE DAME, and Don Wilson of MISS BUDWEISER--were tragically lost in two separate accidents on the Potomac.
Musson perished when his radical-designed cabover craft, running in only its second heat of competition, became airborne and crashed to the bottom of the Potomac River, while battling for the lead in Heat 2-B.
Manchester and Wilson were killed when their boats collided while contending for first-place in the Final Heat.
All three had been close friends of Bill Muncey. It was Bill who had recommended that Musson be hired to drive for Ole Bardahl in 1961. Wilson had been Muncey's roommate in college.
In the dark days that followed "Black Sunday," Bill pondered the possibility of retirement from racing.
His oldest son, Wil Muncey, Jr., who was 13 at the time, remembers those days vividly: "He realized that to quit now would be like cutting slack when he was needed most. Quitting would have meant debasing the sport that his friends had died enjoying, promoting, supporting, and participating in. He was compelled to make a contribution and to help keep things rolling.
"The sport had suffered a lethal wound and needed to fire back just as hard as before. It was necessary to grieve the loss but to still perform."
Muncey decided to stay with it. He made good his commitment to appear at Detroit as scheduled. But for the rest of his life, not a week would go by that he wouldn't recall the sad memory of his three friends lost on the Potomac.
A stunned and decimated Unlimited contingent went through the motions of business as usual at the Gold Cup. From the standpoint of speed, MISS U.S. appeared to be none the worse for wear after its Tampa mishap. Bill brought her in at 115.138 for the 9-mile distance to claim the fastest qualifier trophy. But the race was not to be one of Muncey's better days.
In the first Gold Cup heat, MISS U.S. dropped into a "hole" on the treacherous Detroit River and disintegrated spectacularly. Although, by some miracle, Bill managed to stay with the boat, finish the heat despite being badly shaken, and return to the pits under his own power before collapsing in the cockpit. He credited a steel corset with saving his life.
In the words of Wil Muncey, Jr., "It was exceptionally rough. When he blew into that 'hole,' his right knee came up and hit the steering wheel which was made of steel and caved in one side of it. The fact that his bones didn't break is amazing. But what also happened is that the steel strap in the corset worked its way down in front and started digging a hole in the top of his thigh.
"He kept on racing and didn't have time to look down. Then, when he finally brought the boat back in, he looked down and discovered blood all over the place. The strap had dug a deep wide hole in his thigh. He had been concentrating so much on the race that the pain, which is a mental thing, was secondary."
Although racked with physical agony, Muncey, the eternal trooper, honored an earlier promise to provide color commentary for a delayed network television broadcast of the race for ABC WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS.
It was in this capacity as a TV announcer, later in the day, that he observed another veteran of the Thunderboat wars, Chuck Thompson, sustain fatal injuries at the wheel of SMIRNOFF.
While contending for high position in the run down to the first turn in Heat 3-A, SMIRNOFF became airborne and crashed. The Allison engine was ripped completely out of the boat. Chuck never regained consciousness.
The death count had now risen to four.
Distraught committee people cancelled the remainder of the race but then re-considered and re-scheduled the balance of the program for the following day. Muncey checked himself into a hospital for observation and, out on the race course, Mira Slovak won the Gold Cup with TAHOE MISS. But no one felt like celebrating.
This time, MISS U.S. was beyond saving. For the George Simon team, the season was over. They would retire for the time being and await delivery of a new Les Staudacher hull for 1967.
During the interim, Muncey replaced Ron Musson as a Deputy Unlimited Commissioner for the APBA. He also filled in as pilot for Bill Schuyler's $ BILL at three Northwest races. He gave that perennial tailender the ride of its long career with a solid second-place to TAHOE MISS in the 1966 British Columbia Cup at Kelowna, B.C.
The new "bobtailed" MISS U.S., truth to tell, wasn't much of an improvement on her predecessor. While undeniably fast during the first year, her riding characteristics were not the best. The boat had an alarming tendency to fall on its nose at high speeds. That she did as well as she did is a testimonial to the skill of her driver.
Nicknamed the "Red Baron," the new MISS U.S. turned the fastest heat at each of the 1967 Tampa Suncoast Cup, Indiana Governor's Cup, and British Columbia Cup regattas (99.962, 100.727, and 105.222) and ran the fastest lap of the Tri-Cities Atomic Cup, British Columbia Cup, and Sacramento Cup events (110.024, 108.696, and 108.434).
And yet, out of eight races entered, Muncey and the MISS U.S. finished only three. Most of the time, Bill would run well early in the race but tended to run out of steam later on.
In four races, MISS U.S. was maddeningly consistent in her inconsistency. The boat would (a) win the First Heat, (b) score a zero result in the Second Heat, and (c) not have enough points to qualify for the Final. This aggravating scenario was followed to the letter at each of the Tampa, Madison, Tri-Cities, and Kelowna races.
In his first full season of Unlimited racing since 1962, Muncey didn't win a race but managed to take second-place to MISS BARDAHL's Billy Schumacher in the 1967 National Driver Standings. His best race finishes were a pair of third-place performances at the Seattle Gold Cup and the San Diego Cup.
Most veteran observers tended to dismiss the MISS U.S. team's poor showing as simply an annoying case of new-boatitis. They compared the situation to that of the third MISS THRIFTWAY, which had likewise been fast (at least on smooth water courses) but winless during its first season (in 1959).
Once the reliability problem was solved, MISS U.S. would be an enormously competitive--if somewhat erratic--machine, the experts confidently predicted.
The 1968 campaign was destined to be a banner year for Unlimited hydroplane racing. And so it was for the likes of MISS BARDAHL, MY GYPSY, MISS EAGLE ELECTRIC, and MISS BUDWEISER. But not for MISS U.S. and Bill Muncey.
After being unreliable and fast in 1967, the team was unreliable and slow in 1968.
A back-in victory at the Seattle World Championship Regatta not withstanding, Muncey's credibility eroded considerably in 1968.
He frankly won at Seattle only because five other boats--all of them faster than MISS U.S.--experienced mechanical difficulties that day: MISS BARDAHL, MISS BUDWEISER, NOTRE DAME, MISS EAGLE ELECTRIC, and HARRAH'S CLUB.
Muncey finished only three out of nine races and averaged only two heats at over 100 miles per hour. After a second-place finish in the first race of the season at Guntersville, Alabama, things went largely downhill and MISS U.S. seldom qualified for the Final Heat of the day. And in four of the last five races, he completed only one heat.
At season's end, there were those who wondered if Muncey had perhaps seen his better days. His 1968 performance had clearly not been very "Bill Muncey-ish."
All of this occurred at a time when his first marriage was ending in divorce. An attempted political career as a Republican candidate for Washington State Lieutenant Governor also failed.
Bill's bid for public office appears to have been largely a passing fancy. According to his first wife Kit, "He never even bothered to memorize the literature that the party sent him." And, on one occasion, when he had an opportunity to debate one of his opponents, Muncey chose instead to drive in an Offshore power boat race that day. Not surprisingly, his candidacy never made it past the primaries.
He did, however, accept an appointment to President Richard Nixon's Council On Physical Fitness, a few years later.
Bill's lackluster showing with the MISS U.S. mirrored to a degree, the problems of the sport as a whole during the late sixties and early seventies.
The traumatic nightmares of the 1966 season, coupled with similar tragic occurrences in 1967, 1968, and 1970, cast a dark cloud over the Unlimited horizon. In addition to Musson, Manchester, Wilson, and Thompson, three more drivers were lost during this time frame: Bill Brow in MISS BUDWEISER, Warner Gardner in MISS EAGLE ELECTRIC, and Tommy "Tucker" Fults in PAY 'n PAK'S 'LIL BUZZARD.
A decrease in the level of news media acceptance also contributed to Thunderboating's troubled outward appearance.
And the departure of such high-caliber owners as Ole Bardahl, Bill Harrah, and Jim Ranger likewise did little to enhance the sport's image. Indeed, by the end of the decade, Unlimited officials had their hands full just attempting to recruit representative fields of boats to meet the demands of race sponsors.
But in spite of the general bleakness of the 1966-1970 era, labeled by some historians as "The Doldrums," a number of plus factors helped keep Thunderboat racing pointed in a positive direction toward its next renaissance.
Regatta and boat safety rules were significantly upgraded. A more ambitious public relations program was initiated. And the traditional 3-mile course gave way in most instances to a 2.5-mile oval for the purpose of improving spectator viewing areas--the rationale being that, when the turns are closer together, the spectator can see more of the race.
From a competitive standpoint, the late sixties are best remembered for the dominance of the low-profile Ed Karelsen design of hull--notably the MISS BARDAHL of 1967, the MISS BUDWEISER of 1968, and the NOTRE DAME of 1969. Although, the traditional Ted Jones/Les Staudacher variety, which included the "Red Baron" MISS U.S., still continued to be at least a marginal factor.
Race speeds were generally undistinguished. But this is partly explained by the large-scale transition to the 2.5-mile course with its shorter straightaways.
As 1969 dawned, Bill Muncey faced a crucial test. And he knew it. After all, many a driver in many a class had ridden the crest of the victory wave when a well-financed boat (such as the MISS THRIFTWAY) was available. But rebounding from a career low point was another matter entirely.
Despite his team's financial limitations and the knowledge that his contract with George Simon's U.S. Equipment Co. was not going to be renewed at the end of 1969, Muncey turned his career dramatically around. He proved his mettle with a much improved season performance.
He took a third at both Guntersville, Alabama, and Owensboro, Kentucky. Bill then scored a decisive victory in the Detroit World Championship Regatta by defeating two top-notch Joe Schoenith boats--the MYR'S SPECIAL with Dean Chenoweth and the MISS SCHWEPPES with Fred Alter.
The Final Heat was a battle royal. At the outset, MISS U.S. had 700 points for a first and a second and trailed the two Schoenith entries, both of which had 800 points for two firsts in the preliminary action.
For three laps, the trio battled for the lead with the knowledge that the race winner would be determined by the order of finish in that heat in the event of a tie in points. With Muncey maintaining a slight edge, the onlooking spectators were astounded to see both Schoenith boats cough and lose power at almost the same exact instant!
Later examination revealed combustion failure in the MYR'S SPECIAL and a cracked supercharger in the MISS SCHWEPPES.
From there, MISS U.S. pulled away and sprinted on to victory with a heat average of 99.410, while Chenoweth and Alter limped home with heat times of 93.750 and 79.132 respectively.
Bill had now won two successive World Championship events, sanctioned by the Union of International Motorboating in Brussells, Belgium. He would win two more--in 1972 at Madison, Indiana, and in 1980 at Seattle with ATLAS VAN LINES. He would lose his life in another UIM-sanctioned race at Acapulco, Mexico, in 1981.
In rounding out his final year with the "Red Baron," Muncey took second-place at Madison and stayed in the National Points chase right down to the last day of the season. He finished a respectable third in a field of eighteen active boats behind Bill Sterett, Sr., in MISS BUDWEISER and Chenoweth in MYR'S SPECIAL.
Much of the credit for the MISS U.S. team's mechanical success during 1969 belongs to Dave Seefeldt, the Crew Chief. Muncey had helped put Seefeldt through college. Dave had formerly assisted not only with the MISS THRIFTWAY but also with some of the various Muncey-owned Limited hydroplanes. Seefeldt would return a decade later as Bill's lead mechanic on ATLAS VAN LINES during 1980 and 1981.
The single most hair-raising moment of the year occurred at the start of the Final Heat at Seattle.
The alternate boat, PARCO'S O-RING MISS with Norm Evans, pulled back into the pit area at a right angle to the race course just after the one-minute gun. Moments later, the six finalists thundered by, streaking toward the first turn, and encountered the PARCO'S wake.
The entire field nearly wiped out. Fred Alter and MISS BARDAHL bounced crazily. And only expert driving on the part of Bill Muncey avoided a probable collision with Jim McCormick in ATLAS VAN LINES U-19.
Miraculously, no one crashed. MISS U.S. sustained incidental bow damage but kept on racing to take a third in the heat and a fourth overall.
Muncey's only truly disappointing performance of 1969 was at season's end in the race that Bill most wanted to win: the Gold Cup in San Diego.
The day--and his tenure with George Simon--concluded at the end of a tow rope. Mechanical difficuties, which had been virtually non-existent for much of the year, dropped Muncey to tenth place in an eleven-boat field. His record sixth Gold Cup win would have to wait for another season with another team.
Nevertheless, it was at San Diego in 1969 where Bill met a woman named Fran Norman who, like himself, was no longer married. After a whirlwind courtship, Bill would make Fran his second wife.
After the 1969 campaign, Simon embarked on a severely reduced schedule of races and did not return to full-time participation for several years. And Muncey went hunting for another ride.
The 1964 to 1969 seasons had not been vintage years for Bill. During those six campaigns, he had only won four races. And he never scored more than one victory in any one season.
But he had vindicated himself. He proved in 1969 that he still had what it took to be a winner. Indeed, the next Muncey Golden Age was not far away. For 1970, he signed with Joe and Lee Schoenith's Gale Enterprises team. And in 1971, Bill made racing history by affiliating with O.H. Frisbie's Atlas Van Lines, Inc.
Muncey's lean years are proof that Bill's singular most significant attribute was his ability to rebound from adversity. He had the maturity to recognize that a bad race--or a bad season--will happen to anybody.
To Muncey, a bad performance was an important contrast to help in better appreciating a good one. Defeat did not down him, but rather made him all the more determined to come bouncing back on top the next time.
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