In the year since he won the hydroplane Gold Cup for the second successive year, it has never once occurred to Bill Muncey that he will not make it three in a row. If it did, he would probably go off somewhere to die quietly, because to Muncey the only reason for living is to win. Now, all the drivers entered in the big race August 10 at Seattle, especially the best ones like Freddie Alter and Mira Slovak (opposite), think they are going to win. But Muncey, who will be driving a new Miss Thriftway, doesn't think he is going to win. He knows he is going to win, and he is willing to tell anyone who happens to ask him.
"The Thriftway's running perfectly now," he said to a reporter who visited him in his home overlooking the Lake Washington Gold Cup course. "Our crew is the best. We're going to win the race."
In predicting the outcome so certainly, however, he gives precious little credit to Muncey the driver. "A man would be a damn fool to call himself a great driver," he said. "When you're in that boat, you're just part of a chain of elements which decide in the end whether you win, lose, flip, blow up or just go dead in the water. You're just nothing but a piece of protoplasm, subordinate to a mechanical being. I'm no more important to it than a carburetor or a quill shaft."
The other drivers cannot agree with this unflattering self-evaluation.
"Muncey is the greatest," says his bitter rival Mira Slovak, adding, "Nothing would please me more than to beat him."
Nor do the other drivers agree with Muncey's reasons for racing in the first place: "I don't think there's anybody wants to win worse than I do," Muncey said. "I expect no quarter from anybody and I don't expect anybody to give me any. I'm a great believer in knowing the rules, and I don't expect any deviation from the rules. Another boat alongside or up ahead isn't any particular boat or any particular driver. It's just a thing, and I've got to try to whip it."
While Muncey submitted to this agony of introspection, 2,500 miles away in Detroit, Freddy Alter, the marine engine distributor who pilots Miss U.S. I, happily sipped his beer, chomped a cheeseburger and offered a far more relaxed opinion of what Gold Cup racing is all about.
"Why do we do it?" he repeated the reporter's question. "Why, for the sense of satisfaction, I guess. Or competition. I don't get paid to race. I don't know why I race. I guess nobody who is in hydroplaning knows why he is doing it." While he was talking, Alter thumbed through a Gold Cup program and came upon a photograph of Muncey surrounded by pretty girls just after the 1957 Gold Cup. "Look at that Muncey," said Alter, an easygoing nomad who describes home as the place he washes his socks. "I'd battle him just to get in a picture like that."
Back in Seattle, Mira Slovak, the third man in the trio most experts feel will dominate the race, had entirely different ideas about the dangerous game of hurtling along at 180 mph with a 2,000-hp engine winding up to destruction speed in front, and nothing between you and the brick-hard surface of the water but a highly perishable plywood hull.
"It scares me," he said, "but it is the climax of living." This was quite a statement coming from Slovak, whose life seems to be a series of climaxes, all carried off with an artistic flourish. When, for example, as a young Czechoslovakian Airlines pilot in 1953 he decided to defect from his homeland, he took with him all the passengers—including a handful of howling-mad Communist officials—who happened to be aboard his aircraft at the time. There followed some marvelous cloak-and-dagger doings as the Air Force spirited him away for a year of questioning by the CIA. Once in the U.S., Slovak took a quick course in crop dusting and got a job spraying for Central Aircraft, Inc., a firm in Yakima, Wash.