Bill Muncey Remembered
By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
In the long history of Unlimited hydroplane racing, no individual defined the sport more convincingly than William Edward Muncey. From 1955 until his death at Acapulco in 1981, Bill was the unchallenged superstar.
When the definitive history of 20th Century power boat competition is written, the two titans of the racing world will be the "Gray Fox" Gar Wood for the pre-World War II years and Bill Muncey for the post-war era.
At the time of his death in a "blow-over" accident at the World Championship Race on Laguna de Coyucca, Bill had won 62 victories in the Unlimited Class--more than anyone else--including eight Gold Cups. He died while maintaining his familiar first-place.
William Edward Muncey was an obscure 225 Cubic Inch Class hydroplane driver in the Mid-West during the late 1940s. In 1950, he had a chance to drive Albin Fallon's MISS GREAT LAKES in the Harmsworth trials on the Detroit River. He was trying out for one of three spots on the U.S. Defense Team. The 21-year-old Muncey failed to make the final "cut" but he was still able to pull an incredible 97 miles per hour out of the obsolete MISS GREAT LAKES on a 5-nautical mile course. This was nothing short of amazing.
Bill reportedly had to be coached on the fine points of starting the huge Allison engine. But once out on the race course, there could be no doubt that a major new talent had arrived on the Unlimited scene.
Ted Jones was attending the same race with the SLO-MO-SHUN IV team. He happened to observe and was impressed by Muncey's performance in the MISS GREAT LAKES. A few years later, when Jones was putting the MISS THRIFTWAY team together for Willard Rhodes, Ted remembered Bill and offered him the driver's job.
Muncey had some great years between 1955 and 1963 with MISS THRIFTWAY (also known as MISS CENTURY 21), winning four Gold Cups and three National Championships. But he experienced some lean years in the middle and late 1960s seasons with Shirley Mendelson’s NOTRE DAME and George Simon’s MISS U.S. Race victories were few and far between.
It is a testament to the man's character that he was able to rebound from those "off" years and get his career back on track in the 1970s and ‘80s. After all, many a driver in many a class has ridden the crest of the victory wave when a well-financed boat was available. But rebounding from a career low spot is another matter entirely.
He became his own owner in 1976, after a quarter century of driving for others. In partnership with crew chief Jim Lucero and sponsor O.H. Frisbie, Bill went on to achieve another Muncey golden age. He won 24 out of 34 races entered between 1976 and 1979 under the aegis of ATLAS VAN LINES.
Bill finally reached the end of the Thunderboat trail at Acapulco, Mexico, in 1981. By this time, he had won 62 victories in the Unlimited Class--more than anyone else--including eight Gold Cups. Muncey died in a "blow-over" accident during the Final Heat of the World Championship Race on Laguna de Coyucca, while maintaining his familiar first-place.
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.
The day was hot, the humidity was fierce, and the aging ATLAS VAN LINES "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 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. The sun had set on an era.
The team that he founded in 1976 continued in racing for another seven years under the leadership of Fran Muncey, Bill's widow. Atlas Van Lines, Inc., remained as corporate sponsor through 1984. In later years, Miller Brewing and Circus Circus Casinos bankrolled the team.
Fran hired Bill's hand-picked successor--Chip Hanauer--to replace her late husband in the cockpit. Bill had always told Fran, "If anything ever happens to me, be sure to get the boat to the next race and put a driver in it."
Hanauer picked up right where Bill had left off. Between 1982 and 1988, he won 24 races for the Bill Muncey Industries team, including an incredible seven consecutive Gold Cups. Chip was also National High Point Champion in 1982, 1983, and 1985.
It is interesting to speculate as to what kind of a post-Acapulco career Bill might have had. He most certainly would have continued as a boat owner and as the sport's most eloquent ambassador of good will.
The ATLAS VAN LINES "Blue Blaster" would have been retired anyway at the end
of 1981, since a new boat was already in the planning stages--even before Muncey's death. The "Blaster” was eventually donated to the Hydroplane And Raceboat Museum in Seattle.
It is questionable whether Bill would have continued as a driver. At the time of his death, he was just a few weeks shy of his 53rd birthday.
Kenton Muncey, Bill's son and an ATLAS VAN LINES crew member at the first few races of 1981, is convinced that the Final Heat at Acapulco would have been the last heat that his father would have ever driven.
But Kenton's older brother, Wil Muncey, Jr., tends to discount this theory. In Wil's words, "It's always easy to talk about the one that got away."
The sport in which Bill Muncey played such a vital role for so long will most certainly continue. His legacy is a standard of excellence that will be difficult to surpass.
And it's possible, in the mind's eye, to visualize Bill standing up there on the clouds, wearing that cowboy hat and those white-with-blue-trim coveralls, looking down on "his" sport.
He's saying, "Okay, guys. I served my time. Now, it's your turn. The potential of boat racing is still unlimited. The future is in your hands. So, let's shake a leg and get moving. The 5-minute gun has just fired."