Since his start in Miss Thriftway, Muncey has spent more than 30 weeks in hospitals, recovering from injuries and being treated for ailments aggravated by his racing. In the course of his career he has been burned, badly bent, internally disarranged, knocked silly and cast from his hull like a pebble from a sling.
He also has been plagued by some freakish twists of fate. Muncey perhaps came closest to his final moment in 1957 when the first Miss Thriftway broke up at 165 mph, throwing him 50 feet across the Ohio River. Once, when his hull was ablaze in 1964, he shouted to a rescue boat to throw him a line. The rescuers did so, instantly and too literally. They threw him the whole line, the middle and both ends. In the first heat of the 1959 Gold Cup Race in Seattle, Muncey's chances pretty much went by the board when a camera recording gauge readings in his cockpit broke open and the film entwined around his neck and head.
Muncey is also the only unlimited hydroplaner—and this record will surely be his forever—who has sunk a 40-foot steel boat and also had his own boat run over by another 40-footer. In the 1958 Gold Cup, on the first turn of a heat, his steering linkage failed and, traveling 100 mph, he ran smack-dab into a steel Coast Guard picket boat, sending it to the bottom. In 1967, after winning his first heat in the Governors Cup on the Ohio River, he was standing just off the pit dock, waiting for a crane to lift his hull out, when a houseboat loaded with drunks ran right over him.
Despite the brutal impact of the game he plays, Muncey refuses to disintegrate. If, in the prime of middle age, he is in fact decaying, it is at a far slower rate than Ted Jones predicted for the breed. In his early years the press, with some license, described Muncey as boyish, wavy-haired and cherub-faced. His hair is sparser now; his face is creased, but he still has big baby-blue eyes and a wide grin. He does not need specs to race, and when spectators seem blurry on race weekends it is usually just a swirl of kids hounding him for autographs. (At San Diego, not too far from Muncey's present home in La Mesa, Calif., one 10-year-old, name of Archie Smith, got three autographs from him in a matter of two hours, intending to sell them for 50�.)
If Muncey's timing is sometimes off these days it is usually because it has been thrown out of whack by well-wishers and charity promoters who approach him asking him to play his saxophone, clarinet or flute at a benefit, or to give a talk for some worthy cause. As he strides by the pits there is always somebody who wants to shake his hand—an old friend, or a friend of an old friend, or an old friend who wants him to meet a close personal friend.
The reason Muncey has confounded Jones' appraisal and is still on top in Thunderboat racing after two decades in the sport lies not so much in the durability of his body tissue as in the makeup of his psyche. He is in essence a genius with a woodwind on his knee, a profound man who loves to flirt with the ridiculous. He shucks off a great deal of tension during a race meeting by lightly ribbing his rivals and destroying his own reputation in fine detail. But in pensive moods he has often muttered doubts about the life he has spent brawling on the water.
"The money isn't worth the risk," he has said. "Racing an unlimited hydroplane is not an especially brainy business and there are a hundred easier ways to gain fame. I'm concerned about my 5-year-old son. When they ask him at school what his father does, he tells them I'm a race driver. At my age, I guess that sounds a little irresponsible."
Analyzing himself recently in a lighter mood, Muncey said, "I do not drink. I do not chase broads. I am basically a dull person." Fortunately for Thunderboating, Muncey usually is in one of his happier moods when he meets the press. When a reporter put a heady question to him last summer he paused, then said, "I am groping for a solid answer that will bore everybody." Another time, when a reporter asked him his height, Muncey replied, "If I'm happy I'm about 6'4", if I'm miserable I'm about 5'4". Actually I'm a soft 5'9". God intended to make me a big man but he ran out of parts."
After racing for a variety of owners and sponsors, Muncey last year bought out the three-time national champion racing team campaigned previously as Pay 'n Pak, and this year has operated it under the sponsorship of Atlas Van Lines. Before taking this costly plunge, Muncey reckoned he would have to average at least third place through the season to stand a chance of breaking even. Because his score for the season is five wins, two seconds, one third and a DNF, it is reasonable to conclude that he wound up in the black.
Despite his continued success, Muncey cannot help coloring it with his usual deprecation. At a banquet after he placed second in the 1976 Gold Cup at Detroit he said, "To think that I would own a racing team and also drive the boat is the craziest thing I have done yet. Now after a race I have no one to bitch to except myself." At the rate he's going, he may not need anyone for another decade.