The Unlimiteds - 1961 in Review
By Fred Farley - ABRA Unlimited Historian
By 1961, the era of the millionaire sportsman variety of owner had passed. Gone in the ensuing years were the Bill Waggoners, the Edgar Kaisers, the Bill Boeings, the Horace Dodges, and the Sam DuPonts. In their places emerged the likes of Willard Rhodes and Ole Bardahl, who fielded boats with patently commercial names--titles that, at one time, had been prohibited or at least strongly discouraged in the Unlimited ranks.
The absence of many of the famous names of the 1950s was keenly felt. But the impressive performances of the MISS THRIFTWAY and the MISS BARDAHL organizations still attracted large crowds and thereby proved that the public would indeed accept boats that were intended primarily for advertising.
The defending National Champion MISS THRIFTWAY had its name changed in 1961 to MISS CENTURY 21 to publicize the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. This signalled the beginning of the end of Thriftway Stores as an Unlimited hydroplane sponsor. Simultaneously, the unsuccessful THRIFTWAY TOO was retired after four years of trying.
Despite the name change, the basic organization of the racing team remained the same. Willard Rhodes was still the representative owner with Bill Muncey as the driver and Jack Ramsey as the crew chief.
During the 1960-61 off-season, two major teams retired: Joe Mascari's HAWAII KAI III, along with Sam DuPont's NITROGEN and NITROGEN TOO. Both organizations had employed the year's number-two driver, Ron Musson, who was at that point without a ride--but not for long.
In the early sixties, Unlimited racing still possessed a distinctly regional flavor with the traditional East-West rivalry still very much intact. The first Eastern race of 1961 was the Detroit Memorial Regatta, which saw Bill Cantrell score a decisive victory with GALE V over Bob Hayward in MISS SUPERTEST II.
Finishing fifth in a field of eight boats at Detroit was a new team from southern Indiana--the community-owned MISS MADISON with Marion Cooper in the cockpit. The MISS MADISON was the former NITROGEN, which had been donated to the city by Mr. DuPont. This was the start of the longest-running race team in Thunderboat history. (As of 2003, the MISS M had participated on the Unlimited tour for 43 consecutive seasons.)
For the first time in several years, no West Coast boats attended the Detroit Memorial--not even the MISS CENTURY 21 team, which had won two of the previous three Memorial races.
Conversely, no Eastern boats participated in the 1961 Diamond Cup at Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, which attracted an all-West Coast starting field.
The newly renamed MISS CENTURY 21 was a model of preparedness at Coeur d'Alene and won all three heats handily. Rex Manchester took a distant second with the "Lilac Lady" MISS SPOKANE.
About the only noteworthy facet of the 1961 Diamond Cup, a distinctly lackluster event, was the debut of 18-year-old Limited Inboard and Outboard champion Billy Schumacher. As pilot of Bob Miller's under-powered and under-financed CUTIE RADIO, Schumacher completed all three heats and finished an overall third but only averaged 74.500 for the 45 miles.
Ole Bardahl's MISS BARDAHL team passed up both the Detroit and the Coeur d'Alene races and appeared to be doubtful starter on the 1961 tour. Bardahl, who hadn't won a race since 1958, was without a driver. Many people expected Ole to hire his son-in-law Rex Manchester. But on the recommendation of Bill Muncey, Ron Musson was recruited to pilot the "Green Dragon," beginning with the World's Championship Race at Seattle on August 5.
At Seattle, for the first time, all responsibility for the actual running of the race itself was vested with the Referee rather than with the local committee. The result was a first-class competitive show, conducted with a refreshingly business-like flair and hailed by spectators and the media alike.
The Seattle Seafair Regatta featured a forerunner of the "fan-plan" race format that would be tried in the 1970s. The field was divided into three groups, based upon qualification speeds. Fast boats ran against fast boats, middle boats ran against middle boats, and slow boats ran against slow boats. Bonus Points for finishing in the third stanza were added to put greater emphasis on Final Heat performance.
The two secondary races were won by Marion Cooper and MISS MADISON in the middle group (for the Seattle Trophy) and Bob Gilliam and FASCINATION in the slow group (for the Seafair Queen's Trophy).
On the eve of the race, Muncey and MISS CENTURY 21 were the obvious favorites, but this was to be a bad day for Bill. He got off to a miserable start in Heat One, found himself running seventh and last, but managed to work his way up to third behind Musson in MISS BARDAHL and Dallas Sartz in MISS SEATTLE TOO.
In Heat Two, Muncey had C-21 running well in second but missed a buoy in the upper (north) turn and lost two positions, an error that ultimately cost him the race by a mere ten points.
Bill made an on-the-nose start in Heat Three and led all the way. In so doing, he posted the fastest heat of the day at 111.111 miles per hour. The race was almost a repeat of Muncey's uneven 1960 Reno Regatta performance, which had also ended on an "up" beat for the U-60.
Ron Musson ran a conservative fourth in the final go-around to claim the World's Championship with 1054 points to Bill's 1044. Ron's victory signalled a magnificent "comeback" performance by the MISS BARDAHL team, which had finally come back to life after a long dry spell.
Muncey had been fairly and squarely beaten at Seattle. Yet, even in defeat, he had re-affirmed his credentials as the one most likely to win at the Reno Gold Cup Regatta, three weeks later on Lake Pyramid.
And sure enough, Bill Muncey did indeed wind up in the winner's circle on August 28. But the victory proved to be the most bizarre of Bill's career in that he didn't win a single heat.
On the contrary, he finished second three times, but still managed to outscore the fastest qualifiers, Don Wilson and MISS U.S. I, 900 points to 800. Wilson had a pair of firsts, but had failed to finish the middle stanza. Ron Musson and MISS BARDAHL beat Muncey in Hear Two but could tally no more than 794 points for an overall third.
The Reno Gold Cup took three days to run on account of accidents and high winds. Two boats--MISS SPOKANE with Rex Manchester and MISS RENO (the former MAVERICK) with Russ Schleeh (who beat the winner MISS CENTURY 21 in Heat 1-A)--flipped in the competitive goings-on.
Only four times in the 53 runnings of the Gold Cup had the overall winner been unsuccessful in winning at least one heat. The most recent occurrence had been the 1955 renewal when GALE V's Lee Schoenith had run second, second, and third, but managed to defeat--with the aid of Bonus Points--the fledgling team of Bill Muncey and MISS THRIFTWAY.
Muncey had posted heat finishes of third, first, and first in 1955, but was 4.536 seconds slower than GALE V in total elapsed time. The GALE had then become eligible for 400 additional points for running the fastest race. This gave Schoenith a victorious total of 1225 points to Muncey's 1025.
For 1961, the Bonus Point rule was not in effect, having been abandoned after the 1960 Lake Mead fiasco. Muncey didn't have the fastest boat in the 1961 race, but he managed to outlast everyone else.
Bill's victory meant the return of the Gold Cup to Seattle's Lake Washington for 1962, as per the time-honored rules. At the trophy presentation ceremony, Muncey exclaimed, "Let's throw it [the Gold Cup] in the lake so no one can ever take it away from us again!"
But the end of an era was at hand. Never again would the winner's yacht club be allowed the privilege of defending the cup on its home waters. Beginning in 1963, the race site would be determined by the city with the highest financial bid.
The sport did admittedly lose many old-time supporters when this break with tradition, which dated back to 1904, occurred. On the other hand, the change was entirely in line with the new professional school of thought, which included mandatory cash prizes at all Unlimited events.
With the de-emphasis on the importance of the Gold Cup race location, the significance of that prestigious event was, for the first time, eclipsed by the annual contest for the National High Point Championship. Overall performance throughout the season began to carry more weight with boat owners than an individual race performance. Correspondingly, no longer were conflicting sanction dates assigned for Unlimited Class races.
The alteration of the Gold Cup location rule also accounted for the disappearance of the East-West rivalry, which had so defined Unlimited racing in the 1950s. Many veteran followers of the sport were understandably reluctant to see this and other facets of the amateur tradition vanish into history.
But change was necessary for the sport to survive. And for those that accepted the new order of things, their reward was as competitive a series of aquatic festivals as one could expect, which compared favorably--if not better--to many of the great races of the past.
After the Gold Cup in Reno, the fleet headed East for three races in four weekends to conclude the 1961 campaign. MISS CENTURY 21 was enjoying a substantial lead in National Points.
In Heat 1-A of the Silver Cup at Detroit, MISS BARDAHL ran away from the field to win handily. MISS CENTURY 21 was a fast second but finished fourteen seconds behind the "Green Dragon." Defending Silver Cup titlist Ron Musson did 108 miles per hour to Muncey's 105. Fred Alter and SUCH CRUST IV then annexed Heat 1-B, followed by Bill Cantrell and GALE V.
The draw for Heat 2-A matched MISS CENTURY 21 against MISS U.S. I, MISS SUPERTEST II, MISS DETROIT, and THUNDERBOLT. C-21 held a distinct advantage since MISS BARDAHL was drawn into a different section and because neither the U.S. nor the GALE V appeared to have the necessary speed to make them likely winners that day.
MISS SUPERTEST II started Heat 2-A in last-place but quickly roared up through the pack and overtook the front runners, MISS CENTURY 21 and MISS U.S. I. In the dash through the first turn, near the Belle Isle Bridge, SUPERTEST flipped over at about 100 miles per hour after cascading wildly through MISS CENTURY 21's roostertail. In so doing, the Canadian entry soared over MISS U.S. I's bow, rolled completely over, and landed upright. The heat was immediately red-flagged.
SUPERTEST driver Bob Hayward died instantly from a broken neck when the Rolls-Royce Griffon-powered craft impacted with the water. Hayward had been disqualified in Heat 1-A for striking a buoy and needed a high finish in 2-A to qualify for the Final Heat.
After realizing what had happened, Bill Muncey immediately turned the U-60 around, returned to the pits, broke down on the deck of his boat, and wept.
When patrol boats reached MISS SUPERTEST II, her cockpit was a mass of twisted metal. The decking was also ripped off in several places.
A shocked Thunderboat fraternity voted to suspend racing for the day. Hayward's death was the first in the Unlimited Class since the QUICKSILVER crash of 1951 in Seattle.
According to the rules, the final results were determined on the basis of Heat One. MISS BARDAHL took the trophy by virtue of having won section 1-A in a faster time than SUCH CRUST IV had done in winning 1-B. MISS CENTURY 21 was officially third with GALE V fourth.
In ten deathless years, the Unlimited fraternity had been extraordinarily lucky. But their luck ran out on September 10, 1961.
Some of the near-misses that could easily have been fatalities included the accident to Bill Cantrell in the original SUCH CRUST IV at Seattle in 1952, Lou Fageol in SLO-MO-SHUN V at Seattle in 1955, Ken St. Oegger in HAWAII KAI at Honolulu in 1956, Joe Taggart in SLO-MO-SHUN IV at Detroit in 1956, Russ Schleeh in SHANTY I at Washington, D.C., in 1957, Bill Muncey in the first MISS THRIFTWAY at Madison in 1957, Muncey in the second MISS THRIFTWAY at Seattle in 1958, and Jack Regas in MISS BARDAHL at Coeur d'Alene in 1959.
In the wake of the Hayward tragedy, the MISS SUPERTEST team retired from racing. Ironically, owner J. Gordon Thompson had never planned to campaign the "II" again after MISS SUPERTEST III debuted so sensationally in 1959. The "III" had been reserved for Harmsworth competition and only participated in one American Power Boat Association event (the 1959 Detroit Memorial).
But because of the great demand that the team appear on the APBA circuit, Thompson relented and re-activated MISS SUPERTEST II at a few races during 1960 and 1961.
When MISS SUPERTEST III and Hayward won their third successive Harmsworth Trophy at Picton, Ontario, in 1961, Thompson indicated that he planned to send the "III" to Seattle in 1962 to challenge MISS CENTURY 21 for the Gold Cup. But this was never to be.
Eight boats appeared for the 1961 President's Cup, the week after the Silver Cup, despite talk of a boycott after Hayward's death. These were MISS CENTURY 21, MISS U.S. I, MISS BARDAHL, SUCH CRUST IV, GALE V, GALE VII, MISS DETROIT, and MISS MADISON.
After scoring two decisive preliminary heat victories over MISS U.S. I, Muncey coasted MISS CENTURY 21 to a safe second to MISS BARDAHL in the Final for an 1100-point total and his second President's Cup since 1956. Musson and BARDAHL hadn't finished the First Heat and had to settle for an overall third behind Wilson and MISS U.S.
For the second weekend in a row, a major accident marred the running of an Unlimited regatta. Fred Alter cracked up the SUCH CRUST IV at 130 miles per hour in Heat 2-A. The right sponson sheared off along with the entire right side of the boat. (SUCH CRUST IV was the craft that had raced as the second GALE V during 1956 and 1957.)
Alter was hurtled out of the driver's seat, bounced onto the Allison engine, and was thrown back into the cockpit. As Fred struggled to free himself from the rapidly sinking CRUST, a nearby patrol boat remained inexplicably motionless.
Fortunately, Bob Schroeder, who had been running 200 yards astern of Alter at the time of the crash, shut off his own boat (GALE VII), leaped aboard the quickly submerging SUCH CRUST IV, and rescued the stricken Alter.
Bob supported Fred on the sponson of the GALE VII, while a Coast Guard 40-footer finally moved in from a quarter mile away.
Alter was treated for cuts and bruises but was released from the hospital in time to watch the Final Heat. His boat, however, was a total wreck.
As the President's Cup winner, Muncey earned the privilege of having the cup presented to him by the Chief Executive of the United States. President John F. Kennedy did the honors that year at a White House ceremony.
So impressed was Kennedy by Bill's performance in the race that--in addition to the trophy--the President handed Muncey one of the famed PT-109 tie clips, right off of Kennedy's own tie. (The PT-109 was a gunboat that JFK had commanded in the South Pacific during World War II.)
Although arguably the fastest craft on the circuit, MISS CENTURY 21 was not invulnerable. Other boats--notably the MISS BARDAHL--could run with her and, on a given day, could defeat the C-21 decisively. And it seemed that whenever the "Green Dragon" had trouble finishing, the Bill Muncey-chauffeured craft was always there to grab the marbles.
At the 1961 season finale in Madison, Indiana, another sobering weekend awaited the power boat racing fraternity. Jim Clark, a 266 Cubic Inch Class driver from Detroit, died of injuries suffered in a Limited hydroplane accident on the picturesque Ohio River.
Muncey and MISS CENTURY 21 duplicated their President's Cup performance by winning two preliminary heats and taking a safe second in the Final.
GALE V and Bill Cantrell gave their strongest performance of the year. They tied MISS CENTURY 21 on points and beat the Muncey boat in the Final, 107 miles per hour to 105. Cantrell also turned the fastest lap of the race at 111.340.
MISS U.S. I, with crew chief Roy Duby filling in for regular pilot Don Wilson, took an overall third with a victory in the First Heat.
MISS BARDAHL, the only craft with a mathematical chance of eclipsing the C-21's National Points lead, won its first preliminary heat but failed to finish the second and was through for the day.
Bill Muncey and the U-60 now had back-to-back season titles for 1960 and 1961. (This hadn't happened since Lee Schoenith won two in a row in 1954 and 1955 with GALE V.)
For the second straight year, the Associated Grocers team had also not scored a single DNF and now possessed a start/finish record of 40 consecutive heats. (This didn't include the ill-fated Heat 2-A of the 1961 Silver Cup, which was halted on the first lap and not re-run.)
In both seasons, Muncey turned the fastest heat of the year: 110.087 at Reno in 1960 and 111.111 at Seattle in 1961. This compared to the world record for a 15-mile heat of 112.312, set by the original MISS THRIFTWAY at Madison in 1957.
The three-year-old U-60 had a career total of eight wins, which made her the most successful Unlimited hydroplane since HAWAII KAI III.
Muncey had twelve victories since 1956. This tied him with his boyhood idol Cantrell, who likewise had an even dozen major wins, dating back to 1949. (A major race is defined as an event that is scheduled for a minimum of two heats and has at least four Unlimited Class boats making a legal start.)
William Edward Muncey stood only two short of the post-World War II record of fourteen wins set by Danny Foster between 1946 and 1955. Bill would eclipse this record in 1962, en route to becoming the all-time winningest Unlimited driver.