Starting a new season at age 44, Bill Muncey is the
one superstar of unlimited hydroplane racing but a most unusual hero. He
consumes fudge sundaes and 'passes out' from pain.
Bill Muncey is a man of contradictions. At 44 he is the elder statesman of unlimited hydroplane drivers, but he refuses to grow old gracefully. There is in him a refreshing innocence about racing and life. He is a duffer on the tennis court but, as one opponent said after watching him swing away with unfailing good humor, "He's like a little boy who never grew up." Lee Schoenith, the owner of his boat, says, "I never have to worry about Muncey the night before a race. At nine o'clock he has his third hot fudge sundae and goes to bed."
Muncey claims he notices neither the searing cockpit temperatures nor the deafening noise of his thunderboats as he jounces along from wake to wake—"a stale and stagnant atmosphere," he calls it—yet there is no it's-just-another-race nonsense about him, either. He has wept unashamedly after particularly satisfying wins, and in Detroit last year when he coasted into the pits after a four-heat sweep of the Gold Cup he flashed his gap-toothed, Terry-Thomas grin and clapped his hands so hard he almost fell out of the boat.
Although he is outgoing enough to have made as many as 300 speeches in a single year, played with the Seattle Symphony, deejayed a radio show (his tastes run to modern jazz) and campaigned (unsuccessfully) for the lieutenant governorship of the State of Washington, by his own admission he is something of a loner. "If I get on an airplane with all the seats reserved except one," he says, "the empty seat will always be next to me. I don't know what it is. I feel friendly and I like people, I really do, but there's something about the way I present myself in conversation that scares them off."
The unlimiteds do not treat their jockeys gently—nearly all of Muncey's contemporaries from the halcyon days of the 1950s and early 1960s are either dead or retired—yet he does not consider himself particularly courageous or brave. He usually passes out during bad accidents. "I have a low threshold of pain," he says. "I think about dying a lot, and I don't want to die. Other people may see what I do and call it courageous, but I don't think of it that way at all.
"I don't consider myself very different from other people. I'm an unlimited hydroplane driver, and I define as accurately as I can everything I'm expected to do—and can do—and then go out and do it."
For doing so well for so long—he has been driving boats of all sorts competitively for 30 years and the unlimiteds full-time for 18—Muncey receives an annual racing income of only $20,000. He is surely the most underpaid superstar in professional sport. The $20,000 is guaranteed by Schoenith; he gets no prize money. He has other sources of income, but these scarcely put him in the tax bracket of a Wilt Chamberlain or Dick Allen. Said his wife Fran in a moment of innocent candor, "If Bill were killed racing I'd really be mad, because considering what he's done over the past 20 years I don't think he's gotten enough out of it."
Muncey disagrees. "Naturally I'd like to make more money if I could," he says, "and I know there are people in other sports with my degree of success who are making 10 times the dough, but I have to question whether they're 10 times as happy. I'm a happy man, and to me that's important. Three years ago I almost gave up racing. I didn't, obviously, but for the first time in my life I concluded I was going to make it, no matter what happened. It takes a long time to reach that point. As you move through your 20s and 30s you may be making a fortune, but you're still frightened, still insecure. It took me until I was 40 years old to conclude that I wasn't frightened about my future. If I stopped doing everything that interests me right now, I feel confident that by the end of next week I could find something else equally rewarding."
That will have to wait, however, because next week when the unlimited fleet assembles in Miami's Marine Stadium for the first race of the 1973 season Muncey, driving the awesomely successful Alias Van Lines, will be in the catbird seat without a care in the world except the pressure of competition—under which he thrives. "If I were going to have ulcers I would have had them by now," he says.
Equally front and center will be the owner of Atlas, the aforementioned Lee Schoenith, president of Gale Enterprises of Detroit. If you appreciate the irony of that situation, you are probably a sports trivia nut. If you don't, a little history is required, because if anybody had suggested 10 or 15 years ago that Bill Muncey would ever drive a boat owned by Lee Schoenith, he would have been laughed off the dock.
Muncey, like Schoenith, was a Detroiter, the son of a prosperous suburban Chevrolet dealer. He was lured to Seattle by Ted Jones, creator of the revolutionary Slo-Mo-Shun hulls, to drive a Jones boat called Miss Thrift-way for Owner Willard Rhodes in the furious Detroit-Seattle Gold Cup races. "Seattle was a young, new country," says Muncey, "a place where a young guy could grow as it grew. It was hard to leave Detroit because the business was mine for the taking, but all over town I was known as E. L. Muncey's son, and I wanted to see if I could be Bill Muncey, if I could make it on my own."
In the next eight years Muncey and the three Thriftways he drove (the third was temporarily renamed Miss Century 21 in honor of the Seattle World's Fair) made it very well indeed. Beginning in 1956 Muncey won four Gold Cups in seven years. In 1960 he won the first of three straight driving titles. During these years he gained more than a nodding acquaintance with Schoenith, who was both a driver and an owner, and who, with his father Joe, was the leader of the Detroit fleet. Their flagships were a succession of Gales named after the company Poppa Joe had bought from its founder in 1937. After the 1962 season Muncey went into what everyone but himself considered a rather steep decline. By 1963 the last of the Thriftways was a "tired" boat, and at the end of the season it was retired. Muncey was laid up for 12 weeks in 1965 by an operation to remove two battered disks from his back (he now wears a steel corset when he drives, the metallic stays of which frequently work loose and bloodily stab him in the thighs).
Nor was the sport itself doing well. When the last Thriftway was retired much of the spirit went out of the Detroit-Seattle rivalry. The size of the fleet, which at its peak numbered as many as 18 boats, declined on more than one occasion to a mere half a dozen, attendance was down, and beginning in 1966 the unlimiteds, which had killed only three drivers in 20 years, wiped out seven in the next five.
Then, in 1969, everything happened at once. Muncey obtained a divorce, met and wooed a lovely woman from San Diego and quit the Miss U.S. team, which he had joined in late 1965. Finally came the ultimate irony, considering the fact that 13 years before, Bill Muncey had come within 10 inches of killing Schoenith: Bill went to work for him.
"I did something terrible," Muncey says of that incident, which took place during the 1956 President's Cup. "That year Lee was really flying in Gale VI, a big, heavy boat that always made the water rough. My little ol' Thriftway was so light I could hardly control it, but eventually we got into a helluva battle. Lee was running a wide lane, and going into a corner I tried to duck under him and went into the next corner way over my head and just about nailed him. He had the right-of-way and I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fortunately, Lee made all the right moves and got out of it.
"When we came in, his dad was blue, just absolutely blue. He's not even as big as I am, but he was going to tear me apart, and he had a perfect right to. I had almost killed his son. I don't think Joe will ever forgive me for that."
Despite the long-standing rivalry, by 1969 Muncey and Lee Schoenith had become fast friends. They are so close today that Muncey considers Schoenith and his wife Shirley his only real intimates outside his family. "When I left Thriftway I started socializing with Lee a lot more," says Muncey. "We were still competitors, but down underneath, where people find real meaning, we began to gain a certain respect for one another. Never, however, to the point where I could imagine driving for Gale Enterprises."
False pride would probably have prevented either man from popping the big question, and it ultimately took Shirley Schoenith to bring the two together. In late 1969, Dean Chenoweth had abruptly quit the Schoenith team, and Lee was shopping for a new driver. Shortly after Bill and Fran were married they found themselves honeymooning as Lee's houseguests in Grosse Pointe Shores.
One morning in the kitchen Shirley and Bill were talking about their various racing problems—Gale Enterprises being without a driver and Muncey being without a ride. Out of the blue, Muncey recalls, he asked Shirley, "Hey, how about me?"
Shirley, taken aback, sort of chuckled and said, "We might like that," and before the honeymoon was over, Muncey and Schoenith had struck the deal that last year produced one of the most successful teams in unlimited history.
Muncey is the best unlimited driver in the country these days for many reasons. One of them is simply his longevity. He claims that he has never been seriously injured, which is puzzling because he has ruptured both kidneys and has had his stomach torn loose from the abdominal wall. Once he nearly bit his tongue in half; another time he almost severed the big toe from his left foot; he has suffered literally hundreds of lacerations and abrasions and on at least two occasions he has temporarily been given up for dead. "I've been banged around and bruised and a lot of that jazz," he admits, "but I've never broken a bone, and I consider that the most serious thing that can happen to you."
So Muncey is a survivor, but he has also had the intelligence to use his experience well. To Muncey driving is almost a creative experience. "You've got to be fairly imaginative to figure out what's wrong when the boat's doing something strange," he says, "and to try and make it perform a little better than the competition. But the most important thing is knowing an engine's limits, and I think my record shows that I've been able to keep equipment alive."
Over a decade ago with the Thriftways Muncey once started and finished an unbelievable 56 heats in a row; last year Atlas lost not a single engine in competition. Schoenith says, "Bill's got the smoothest foot around."
"When you hit a bump and get thrown out of attitude and you know you've got to take the time to bring the boat back—when you can do that and not decrease your boat speed, then you've done something," Muncey says. "It involves absolute control of the throttle with your foot and a real coordination between the throttle and the manifold pressure. It's all very slow, very coordinated. It can almost be a...no, not a sensuous experience, but certainly an artistic one."
No stranger to artistic endeavor, Muncey was first of all a musician, and a good one. His mother got him started on the saxophone, and he quickly became proficient on the piano and clarinet as well. Later he studied under Larry Teal, then the concertmaster of the Detroit Symphony, composer Ferde Grofé and concert pianist Percy Grainger. It was his early dedication to music, in fact, that propelled him toward boat racing. His parents, fearful that Bill's world was too narrow, encouraged him to pursue another activity.
"Music certainly represents the fun side of my life," Muncey says. "Even now I'd rather be involved with that more than anything else I can think of. There isn't anything that can compare with the reward of creating a composition, presenting it to an orchestra and hearing it played. I haven't done that for a while, and I miss it."
The music Muncey et al. play on the water still comes from modified Rolls-Royce Merlins and General Motors Allisons that were designed decades ago and came to maturity in the British Spitfire and American P-51 Mustang fighter planes of World War II. Schoenith currently owns some 40 Allison and 30 Rolls-Royce engines—enough, he calculates, to last the team another six or seven seasons. He recalls that he bought his first large batch of engines at auction in 1953. Their original market value had been approximately $32,000 per unit. Schoenith got his for $125 each and the government threw in 15 tons of surplus parts at a penny a pound. The next unlimited power plant probably will be the jet turbine engine, but such are the economics of the sport that this will not happen unless and until they, too, come cheaply onto the surplus market.
With the addition of a sophisticated supercharging system, exotic booster fuels and specially machined parts, a racing Rolls-Royce now generates 2,500 to 3,000 horsepower—almost twice what the manufacturer intended. Properly geared, at 4,000 rpm it produces a prop speed of 12,000 rpm. That is on the far frontier of development, but year after year the mechanics undoubtedly will squeeze a little more and a little more from gallant old iron that, some say, deserves a decent burial. That they are obsolete bothers Muncey not in the least. "I get a little sick of this improving-the-breed nonsense," he says. "Why can't you just have one helluvan event that attracts people because it's dramatic? I've gone to races where the winner was a foregone conclusion a month in advance, and yet we drew fantastic crowds. People are not necessarily interested in seeing a competitive experience. We're there to put on a show, to provide a dramatic experience, and I think we do that very well."
Muncey's present showboat was first tested in April 1971. "It was extremely fast right from the beginning," he says, "and it was a delicate boat. You couldn't make a driving error because it would bite you. To be honest, I kind of liked that because it taxed my ability to the limit and it was fun to drive."
In the season's first race, at Miami, Atlas qualified fastest, an unprecedented feat for a new boat, but also developed what later became known as "the Atlas Van Lines hop."
"It would just jump up and down the racecourse time after time after time after time," says Muncey. "I was getting banged around a little, but I didn't really mind because I was getting such a good performance." Until the race, that is, when the gremlins went to work and Muncey failed to finish a heat.
Then came the 1971 President's Cup—and success. "I know grown men are not supposed to cry, but coming into the pit area after the last heat I bawled my head off. It was my fifth President's Cup, but it was Atlas Van Lines' first victory ever." Muncey won two races that year but also sank twice and was beaten for the national driving championship by Dean Chenoweth, who now was driving Miss Budweiser.
Schoenith's crew manager was—and is—Bill Cantrell, a man in his 60s who has worked for Schoenith for many years. As a driver he had been one of Muncey's first heroes. But Chenoweth had been Cantrell's protégé on the Schoenith team, and such a loyalty was not easily displaced.
"The crew didn't want me," says Muncey. "They didn't want anybody except Dean, and it took them two years to reach the point where I felt I was welcome on the team."
Muncey refuses to discuss in detail the problems they had, but he noticed a change during preseason testing last spring. "I could just tell everything was all right, and, believe me, something like that has a tremendous effect on a driver."
With that difficulty smoothed over, Muncey and Atlas entered all seven events on last year's truncated unlimited schedule. They won 18 of 21 heats and six of seven races. Muncey won the driving championship for the fourth time and Schoenith won the owner's title. Muncey also won his fifth Gold Cup, symbolic of all that is good in the strange world of the unlimiteds, thus ending a 10-year drought. And he won it on the Detroit River.
The Detroit venue is the most treacherous and demanding of all. The three-mile course is not an oval but shaped rather like a top. The bottom, or West turn, has a radius of some 1,200 feet and presents no particular problem, but the East, or Roostertail turn (named for Schoenith's Roostertail Restaurant, which stands at riverside at that point), has only a 400-foot radius, and this tight little monster has frustrated drivers for years. Also, the north shore of the river is completely bulkheaded, and the violent chop caused by the churning props, instead of dissipating harmlessly on a beach, slams up against the bulkhead and comes right back out into the middle of the course. Thus the delicately balanced three-pointers are guaranteed just one clean lap per heat, if that, and rough water, upsetting that nicety of balance, has contributed to the deaths of at least two drivers.
The Detroit River fully upheld its reputation during the four days of last year's Gold Cup. In practice Miss Madison sank, injuring her driver, Charlie Dunn, and in the four heats of the cup itself five more boats were damaged and two more drivers were injured. Muncey himself was so shaken about during the third heat that for a few minutes there was some question whether he would be able to drive the final. Said one driver grimly, "This course is either a test of courage or stupidity."
Muncey qualified fastest in the fleet and won the first three heats with ease, gaining enough points so that he needed only a third-place finish in the fourth to ensure victory. In the Atlas trailer shortly before the start Cantrell said, simply, "Why don't you go out like a champion?" and so Muncey did, nursing bruised ribs that would bother him for days afterward.
"In the patrol boat that took me to the victory presentation," says Muncey, "I stood up and said to the river, 'I've beaten you today,' and that's something I never could have said before."
Later that night in the Roostertail, Muncey quietly left the victory celebration that swirled about him and walked outside into the cool night air. "I had just gotten to the point where I wanted to be alone and think a little bit," he says. "And so I had a talk with The Man. I had a helluva long talk with Him. I thanked Him, and I was very proud. And you know? The feeling of accomplishment is getting greater and greater all the time."
Muncey is often asked why he does not retire. "Retire?" he retorts. "Why should I retire? Why are there those in our society who think you should quit when you're ahead? When I can no longer drive a good race or fulfill my responsibilities to the fans and crews and sponsors and owners, then I'll think about quitting. Whether I'll have the guts to do it then, I couldn't tell you. But gee, I'm winning. I'm driving as well as I ever have, or better, and I expect to continue unless something happens that physically prevents me from doing so. There's a demand for my services. When nobody wants Bill Muncey around anymore, then I'll quit. I'll take my savings and get a paper route." He chuckled at the thought. "But I can guarantee you, it'll be a big one."