Bill Muncey, an assured, chunky man of 34, with sandy hair, giant forearms, a handsome, round face and amiable spaces between his upper teeth, looks like what, in fact, he is: a young man on the way up in the grocery business. "The Associated Grocers are the finest people I've ever met," says Grocer Bill with his customary enthusiasm. "They've set me up in a supermarket here in Seattle and have given me a chance to learn the business. I'm in the store almost all the time, doing the bookkeeping and carrying packages out to cars. Someday I may own the whole thing."
Even if Muncey's store fails to pay off, however, it is unlikely that Associated Grocers, who run the Thriftway stores, will regard him with any less favor as long as he continues to perform another chore for them. That chore consists of driving a seemingly endless succession of Miss Thriftways to victory in U.S. hydroplane races.
Anytime a Miss Thriftway wins a race, the 74 supermarkets benefit from the victory, so it is likely that the grocers will be glad to excuse Bill from his check-out counter this weekend, even if the shopping is heavy in Seattle. Bill will be 2,000 miles away, trying for his fifth Gold Cup—symbol of world championship in unlimited hydro racing—on the Detroit River.
Muncey's four Gold Cups (no one but the famed Gar Wood ever won as many before) are not the only trifles on his trophy shelves. Last year, besides the Gold Cup, he won the President's Cup, the Diamond Cup, the Spirit of Detroit Trophy and the Governor's Cup. He holds a 15-mile-heat speed record of 112.312 mph and a world race record of 109.157 mph. In 1960 he set a world mile mark for propeller-driven boats of 192.001 mph, which stood until last year when Miss U.S. I, with Roy Duby at the wheel, pushed it up to 200.440. Muncey is a charter member of the Hydroplane Hall of Fame and has been elected to the Gulf Marine Racing Hall of Fame four times. Last year he won the unlimited hydro championship for the third time in a row and, to show what it thought of him, the city of Seattle resoundingly named him 1962's Man of the Year in Sport.
But the triumph Bill Muncey is proudest of carried no trophy or title—except maybe that of "survivingest." During one three-year span he raced 56 consecutive heats in an unlimited hydroplane at speeds upward of 100 mph without a single mechanical failure. In a sport—"the hairiest sport of all," say some—where shattered boats and sudden catastrophe are commonplaces, this record makes Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak and Lou Groza's point-after-touchdown mark downright spotty. "The only driver to come close," says Muncey, "completed about 12 heats without a failure."
It is not remarkable, under these circumstances, that most hydro drivers admit that they are afraid of the monstrous "thunderboats" they race in. "There's nothing pleasant about racing an unlimited," says Muncey. "The pleasure comes only after you win." Other racers have described the sensation of driving the 2,000 or more horses that are caged in the cylinders of an Allison or Rolls-Royce hydro engine as "like racing over railroad ties on a motorcycle with solid tires."
The boats built for unlimited racing cost upward of $20,000, weigh anywhere from 3,500 pounds to 10,000 and generally measure 25 feet or more. They are frequently known as three-point hydros because at about 60 mph they rise out of the water and ride on three surfaces: two forward sponsons (something like pontoons) and one blade of a two-bladed propeller aft. At about 130 mph, the boat rises even higher out of the water, supported by air rushing into the tunnel formed by the hull and the vertical edges of the sponsons. At this point the sponsons no longer carry weight, but merely balance the hull, their after ends bouncing from wave crest to wave crest in a kind of aquatic waltz, and the tail section rises free of the water. Sometimes the whole hydroplane rises. In 1955 the late Lou Fageol, driving Slo-Mo-Shun V, took off from the water and soared 60 feet into the air to do a backflip.
When an unlimited is roaring along at 160 mph or so, the surface of the water can act like a giant knife to shear off portions of the boat—or the driver. Even if a fire should break out in an unlimited, few drivers would dare jump out until the boat had slowed down. Getting hit by the rooster tail streaming up from an opponent's stern is like getting hit by a dozen fire hoses. A boat struck by a rooster tail between the sponsons can be thrown into all manner of gymnastic contortions.
To avoid these and other catastrophes, the hydro driver must keep his boat and his engine in delicate balance. If the engine is revved too high for the hull speed, it may blow up. If the propeller gets too far out of the water, the engine will race and may blow up.
Bill Muncey first took up with this temperamental sport when he was a boy in Royal Oak, Mich., the son of a Chevrolet dealer who loved boats. A high school halfback who managed to play for two seasons without scoring a single touchdown, Muncey made up for his lack of prowess on land by racing over the water. "The first time I took a run in a hydroplane," he says, "I recognized that here was a new way to express myself. I could feel the temper of the boat. It wasn't just noise and confusion. The whole sensation was a kind of uplifting series of cadences. I could feel it in the steering wheel, hear it in the motor and sense it in the boat's movements. It was the biggest kick I ever got." Muncey drove his first unlimited, Miss Great Lakes, when he was 20. She was considered a tired old boat, and Muncey, regarded as a tyro, was warned that she might come apart. He drove the old wreck to qualify at an average speed of 97 mph in a heat of the Harmsworth trials. But in another race soon afterward, exactly as predicted, the boat came apart, and Muncey, trapped in the cockpit, was nearly drowned.