In 1950 Designer Ted Jones of the boat-mad city of Seattle revolutionized unlimited hydroplane racing with a nimble three-point monster named Slo-Mo-Shun IV. Driving her himself, Jones wrested the Gold Cup away from the equally boat-mad city of Detroit. For the next four years Slo-Mo IV, and her sister Slo-Mo V, beat the best of Detroit consistently.
The inter-city rivalry was so bristling that in 1955 when Jones picked 27-year-old William Muncey, a Chevrolet salesman and saxophone player born and raised on the outskirts of Detroit, to drive his latest creation, Miss Thriftway, there was consternation and prolonged booing around the Northwest. To some skeptics, asking a Detroiter to drive a Seattle boat was at best like hiring Lizzie Borden as a baby-sitter. Others pointed out that Muncey's unlimited racing record was spectacularly inauspicious.
Bill Muncey had made his debut as an unlimited driver in his hometown at the 1950 trials for the Harmsworth Trophy where he drove an outdated hull called Miss Great Lakes. Although he had turned the second-fastest lap and had a better average speed than one of the boats finally chosen to defend the trophy against Canada, the selection committee passed him over because he was too new at the game and his hull too old.
Muncey did race Miss Great Lakes once that year against idols of his boyhood: Guy Lombardo, Chuck Thompson, Lou Fageol, Wild Bill Cantrell and the lord god of Thunderboats, Ted Jones himself. As Muncey now recalls, "I was the last of 14 boats over the starting line. When the leaders crossed I was still in the backstraight screwing around and waving to my mother." Before the race was half done, Muncey had brawled his way up through the pack, but just as he was passing Cantrell for third place, the bottom fell out of Miss Great Lakes and it ended up 25 feet down on the mud floor of the Detroit River.
After a two-year Army hitch as a band conductor, Muncey went to work in his father's Chevrolet agency, driving his own limited hydroplane spasmodically but generally keeping his racing fever at a low boil. Before the surprising offer from Jones of the rival city of Seattle in 1955, Muncey had only one more chance to drive an unlimited, an obsolete displacement hull called Dora My Sweetie, which sank under him before he reached the starting line in a local race.
At the time he chose little-known Muncey to drive Miss Thriftway, Jones confessed that he had been motivated in part by what he had seen of the Detroiter's driving, and in part by his age. He reminded the press that he himself had quit racing at 41, "because the people I used to be able to see on the shore look like so much blur now. A driver has to have good timing and this is my time to step out. It's a job for kids, say 28 to 35."
As the record book of the sport convincingly shows, Bill Muncey proved that Jones was right to pick him, although terribly wrong in one respect. Between 1956 and 1963, in three different Miss Thriftways (all designed by Jones), Muncey won three national titles, four Gold Cups and 14 lesser races. When he climbed out of his last Miss Thriftway Muncey was a few months shy of 35, the upper limit of what Jones considered the prime age for drivers. But since 1963—in his post-prime time, as it were—Muncey has maintained his original scoring pace, winning and losing spectacularly and keeping the record book in a constant state of unrest.
Last week 47-year-old Bill Muncey qualified for the final race of the 1976 unlimited season on Mission Bay in San Diego with a clocking of 128.023 mph. the fastest any Thunderboat pilot has ever qualified on any course. Two days later, on Sunday, Muncey set new competitive lap and heat records for the San Diego course, but in the final heat he was across the starting line one-fifth of a second early and had to run an extra lap. Nevertheless, he managed a third place behind the winner, his perennial rival, Billy Schumacher of Seattle, driving Olympia Beer. His record breaking and his third at San Diego were in a sense minor examples of his domination of the sport. As is his custom, Muncey had been overhauling the record book all season and, with five wins on the nine-race circuit, had already clinched his fifth national title (another record) six weeks earlier in Seattle at the next to the last race on the schedule.
The San Diego race was the 146th for Muncey in 21 years of serious campaigning. In a total of 147 races (to throw in his one disastrous sinking in 1950) Muncey has placed third or better 75 times and has won 38.
All the foregoing figures are records that, in a sport noted for short-term successes and unexpected disasters, are not likely to be broken by anyone else, ever. No other driver in the game has won more than 20 races. Only 21 other drivers have won more than four races. Of that number five died racing, and only two are still competing.