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

Chapter 7: The Second Golden Age (1970-1981)
After the golden years with the MISS THRIFTWAY and the lean years with the MISS U.S., Bill Muncey got his career back on track in the 1970s.

From 1970 to 1975, Bill drove for his old friend Lee Schoenith's Gale Enterprises team from Detroit. Under the sponsorship of MYR SHEET METAL in 1970, Muncey won three races and finished third in National High Points. This marked the first time that Bill had won more than one race in any one season since 1962.

A career turning point occurred in 1971 when Muncey was hired by O.H. Frisbie's Atlas Van Lines, Inc., as a corporate Vice-President. This was the equal of any deal that he had ever made with Associated Grocers. For the rest of his life, Bill would wear the white and blue colors of ATLAS VAN LINES as his corporate sponsor.

With a new sponsor and a new state-of-the-art boat (designed by Bill Cantrell) to drive, Muncey expected to win and win big in 1971. He did indeed manage to capture the Kentucky Governor's Cup at Owensboro and the President's Cup at Washington, D.C. But he was also nearly barred from racing for repeated violations of the right-of-way rule.

In mid-season 1971, Bill was put on probation by Chief Referee Bill Newton for three "chopping" incidents: at Seattle and San Diego in 1970 and at Madison in 1971. Muncey was warned that any repeat would result in suspension from APBA.

The most obvious violation of the three had occurred at San Diego, where Muncey and MYR SHEET METAL were battling Dean Chenoweth and MISS BUDWEISER. White paint from the MYR's transom was found on the BUDWEISER's bow.

Despite the tension between Muncey and Newton, which would flare up on a number of occasions in the years ahead, Muncey managed to keep his driving job and finished the 1971 season with a strong second-place finish to Billy Schumacher and PRIDE OF PAY 'n PAK at the last stop on the tour at Lake Dallas, Texas.

After the difficulties experienced in 1971, the 1972 campaign was a refreshing change for the better--and arguably the best season of Bill Muncey's career.

He won six out of seven races, which included his long-anticipated fifth Gold Cup after ten years of trying. This occurred at Detroit where Bill's Unlimited career had begun in 1950 and where he had won his first Gold Cup in 1956.

In winning all four 15-mile heats of the 1972 Gold Cup, Muncey tied the half-century-old record of Gar Wood who won five Gold Cups between 1917 and 1921.

The mechanical status of Muncey's Merlin-powered mount could hardly have been more impressive. In 1972, the ATLAS VAN LINES U-71 broke only one engine all year long--and even then, Muncey managed to finish the heat in second-place. (This occurred at the President's Cup where he was runner-up to Billy Sterett, Jr., in PRIDE OF PAY 'n PAK after a sensational side-by-side battle in the Final Heat.)

After eleven victories in three years with Gale Enterprises, everyone expected Bill's winning ways to continue into 1973. But that didn't happen. Instead, Muncey embarked on the most brutal losing streak of his career. Over the next three years, he lost an unprecedented thirty races in a row.

His engines were breaking a lot more often. And he had trouble running with boats that he had dominated the year before. Bill's best 1973 finish was a second-place in the Tri-Cities Gold Cup behind Chenoweth and MISS BUDWEISER.

A change of crew chiefs for 1974 did not turn things around for Muncey's team. A switch from Rolls-Royce Merlin to turbocharged Allison power did not help matters any. And a new boat in 1975 also failed to make the competitive grade.

During this particularly frustrating "down" period in his career, Bill's ATLAS may not have been in the same league with PAY 'n PAK and MISS BUDWEISER--a couple of Ron Jones-designed superboats that were the scourge of the racing world.

But many believed that Muncey could have been--and should have been--the best of the rest. But he wasn't. That honor went instead to Milner Irvin and the under-financed MISS MADISON, a turbo-Allison-powered hull copy of the U-71. The community-owned MISS M had a better 1974 season than ATLAS VAN LINES.

The new boat showed promise at the outset of 1975 but quickly deteriorated. Designed by Jon Staudacher, it kept wanting to swap ends in the turns.

But hope springs eternal. And just when things were looking their blackest in the bleak January of 1976, the "old man" wowed 'em once again.

He became his own owner after a quarter-century of driving for others and established a new racing team under the aegis of ATLAS VAN LINES. He bought out the entire equipment inventory of PAY 'n PAK owner Dave Heerensperger and hired nonpareil Crew Chief Jim Lucero.

Although initially reluctant to switch allegiance from Heerensperger to Muncey, Lucero quickly warmed to the idea. In no time at all, Jim and Bill were fast friends. Their agreement allowed Lucero to run the team from top to bottom with no interference from Muncey.

Bill then went on to confound the critics who considered him "all washed up" as a driver and entered another Muncey Golden Age.

Between 1976 and 1979, he won 24 out of 34 races, including three more Gold Cups in 1977, 1978, and 1979. He was National High Point Champion in 1976, 1978, and 1979.

Bill lost the 1977 High Points crown to Mickey Remund and MISS BUDWEISER but still managed to win six out of nine races that year. (The 1977 MISS BUDWEISER finished every heat entered, while ATLAS VAN LINES experienced mechanical difficulty at the Madison, Indiana, race and did not qualify for the Final Heat.)

The last Unlimited hydroplane driven in competition by Bill Muncey was the famed Lucero-designed ATLAS VAN LINES "Blue Blaster," which debuted in 1977. The "Blaster" was an unusual mount for Bill in that it was a cabover.

For years, Muncey had protested that, in a forward-cockpit configuration, a driver was "the first to the scene of the accident." But Bill evidently decided that he also wanted to be "the first to the scene of the trophy presentation."

With the ATLAS VAN LINES "Blue Blaster," he became the first driver to ever do a lap of 140 miles per hour on a 2.5-mile course (at San Diego in 1980).

One of Muncey's most amazing performances of all time occurred at Detroit in 1977. On race day morning, Bill tripped and fractured his right ankle. Although in considerable pain, Muncey decided against putting a relief driver in the boat. And he won the race!--although crew members had to carry him to and lift him out of the cockpit for every heat.

The Unlimited Class as a whole experienced hard times in the late 1970s, although for Bill it was the best of times. After forty years of dependency on an ever-dwindling supply of World War II fighter plane engines, there simply wasn't enough good WWII equipment left to justify a class. The level of competitiveness in the Thunderboat sport dropped sharply after 1975. Not until the Turbine Revolution of 1984 would the Unlimiteds have a renaissance.

Many of the top drivers of decades past were either dead or retired by the late 1970s. At the outset of 1978, Muncey was the only active Unlimited driver who had ever won a race.

But that situation changed in 1979 with the return--after a five-year absence--of MISS BUDWEISER pilot Dean Chenoweth to the Thunderboat wars. A two-time National Champion (in 1970 and 1971), Dean was clearly Bill's equal out on the race course.

With the return of Chenoweth, Muncey's star status began to diminish. In 1980, "Dapper Dean" had a new Rolls-Royce Griffon-powered MISS BUDWEISER from the drawing board of Ron Jones. Chenoweth was the new king of the Unlimited hill. Bill was reduced to also-ran status.

Muncey could run with the Griffon BUDWEISER but had to drive on the really ragged edge to do it. Bill also had to worry about an up and coming youngster named Lee "Chip" Hanauer. Chip was making quite a name for himself as driver of Bob Steil's THE SQUIRE SHOP.

An incident between the ATLAS VAN LINES and the MISS BUDWEISER at Ogden, Utah, in 1979 had a profound influence on the driving style of Bill Muncey. While jockeying for a starting position in the Final Heat, Muncey, occupying the inside lane, slid into Chenoweth's roostertail and nearly capsized.

Bill angrily accused Dean of "cutting him off" but the officials didn't see it that way. Chenoweth had indeed left Muncey a lane, but Bill couldn't maintain it.

From then on, the ATLAS never again challenged the BUDWEISER for the inside lane. Muncey would sneak in and take it away from Dean a few times. But Chenoweth was too good of a driver for that to happen very often. In fact, it only happened three times: in the Final Heat at the Tri-Cities in 1980, the Final Heat at the Tri-Cities in 1981, and then the last heat at Acapulco.

Only by trying for the inside lane could Bill hope to achieve parity with the more-powerful Griffon engine. Muncey, in essence, conceded the next two seasons to MISS BUDWEISER. Bill Muncey the owner should have fired Bill Muncey the driver.

Muncey's last season was a nightmare. He ran into a wall of water at the start of the 1981 Gold Cup in Seattle and had to withdraw on account of equipment damage. He was bested in race after race by Chenoweth and the MISS BUDWEISER. And Hanauer steered THE SQUIRE SHOP to a down-to-the-wire/come-from-behind victory at the Tri-Cities Columbia Cup.

For the first time, rumors were heard of Bill's possible retirement. But the "old man" still had one win left in him.

The 62nd and last victory of Muncey's career occurred on a sunny afternoon in Evansville, Indiana, the city which was the world headquarters of Atlas Van Lines, Inc. Evansville's "Thunder On The Ohio" was a race that Bill had helped to establish on the Unlimited schedule two years earlier.

MISS BUDWEISER broke down and ATLAS VAN LINES showed the rest of the field the short way around the 2-mile tri-oval course.

The day was hot, the humidity was fierce, and the aging "Blue Blaster" brought home the bacon one more time.

It was a happy day for Muncey. From the pit area, he telephoned his elderly father, Edward L. Muncey, to share the excitement of winning.

Bill had won his first Unlimited race 25 years earlier in 1956 with the original MISS THRIFTWAY. How many drivers that won races in the 1950s were still winning races in the 1980s? Only Muncey.

The thousands of spectators lining the Ohio River at Evansville in 1981 could not have known it at the time, but to them was accorded a rare privilege--one that sports fans fans dream about. It was something akin to watching Babe Ruth--the immortal Sultan of Swat--hit his record 60th home run on the final day of the 1927 baseball season.

Three months later, Bill Muncey was gone. And less than a year later, Dean Chenoweth would join Muncey in death. The sun had set on an era.

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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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