Tuesday, October 18, 2011

HYDROS: The Day the Sport’s King met his Maker

Today marks the 30th Anniversary of the late Bill Muncey’s untimely death behind the wheel of his fabled Blue Blaster, nee Atlas Van Lines Unlimited Hydroplane at the Acapulco World Championships.

So, it seems eerily fitting that Bill’s final ‘BigBoat, the 1977-81 Hull: Cabover Design with rolls Royce Merlin powerplant Is currently being restored at this very moment in Kent, WA, as I happened to call to inquire on the Hull’s progress the very day that she was being flipped over in the Restoration Shop... To which Don Mock (Crew Chief of the project) informed me was a pretty momentous occasion!

As the Hull’s been upside-down for the past 18-months having its entire bottom side rebuilt - including newly re-fabricated sponsons, etc. Don says the boat’s frames were all made out of one-inch thick Honeycomb-Aluminum which is no longer utilized, with Honeycomb/Nomex being the preferred method these days.

Mr. Mock gave me a brief rundown of the boat’s past life, which instantly made me think of Indianapolis’s Hall of Fame museum’s inhabitants and the stories those Old Cars could tell.

As the boat was not only involved in a fatal Blowover accident - but was split into two when Chip Hanauer ran over it! (Obviously a fact I was unaware of) The boat was then cosmetically repaired with plywood decking in order to become a “Trailer Queen” and was on display in the Smithsonian Institute for a few years - ‘Circa 1982-84/85.

Fran Muncey, Bill’s widow then took the boat to San Diego for awhile before donating the boat to the original Hydroplane museum at South Park, an industrial complex in Washington along the Duwamish River.

Don says the boat’s been in the museum ever since, sitting somewhat neglected whilst awaiting a full-blown restoration - funds pending. Thus Thursday’s (10/06) turning over of the boat was therefore a significant milestone in the restoration project - with the Hull completed, new Aluminum skins fitted and primered; with the aid of two forklifts easing the boat skywards some 8-feet airborne - Bill’s Blue Blaster was righted and now work can commence on systems installation, engine installation, Cockpit representing, painting, etc leading to the ultimate completion of this historic  Unlimited Hydroplane, which Mr. Mock said will probably take another year to finish...

I asked about the weight of the boat; as Arch-nemesis Bernie Little’s Miss Budweiser that was a constant thorn in Muncey’s final years was reputed to weigh a stout 7,000lbs (or more) to which Don replied the Atlas was ridiculously light for its day; probably 5,000lbs - as our other Atlas; the 1982 Hull weighs 5,800lbs. With Don guestimating they’d probably added another 500lbs to the boat while rebuilding all of the frames - which he’d be happy with and wasn’t really a concern for the project - stressing the Museum had already pledged the boat would only be run for very special occasions and see limited running when finished, due to its historic nature. Having won 25-races, Three-in-a-row Gold Cups and two National High Points Championships!

As this fabled Blue Blaster was part of Bill Muncey’s acquisition of Dave Heerensperger’s Pride of Pay ‘N Pak Operation after he’d decided to leave the sport at the end of 1976, albeit Heerensperger briefly returned as a boat sponsor before his longtime Crew Chief Jim Lucero would woo him back into the sport with his revolutionary proposal - ultimately spawning the dawn of the current era of Unlimited Hydroplanes by introducing the first successful turbine powered (Pride of) Pay ‘N Pak in 1980; but I digress...

As I have to admit I was never a Bill Muncey fan - having grown-up as a ‘Bud Man instead, a la Bernie Little’s Miss Budweiser Dynasty, as I swear it was 1973 when as a very young lad I witnessed the most dramatic Hydroplane race of my life

Yet its funny how for nearly four decades I’ve grown up thinking it was Mickey Remund at the wheel of the Miss Budweiser - instead of Dean Chenoweth, as I can still vividly recall that splendid looking blazing red and white “Beer Wagon!” Thus, perhaps this is why Messer Chenoweth was my very first-ever favourite Unlimited Piloto, eh? As he was simply Numero Uno to Mwah until his untimely death at Tri Cities, WA in 1982; before his mantle was taken over by another prolific BUD driver named Jim Kropfield; but I digress again - as Kropfield arrived on the scene after the Bill Muncey era concluded.

But back to the Dom ‘O Unlimiteds, as Muncey’s stats are truly prolific, having won a staggering 62-victories - a record which stood for three decades, until being broken earlier this year by Dave Villwock on the Detroit River aboard his Spirit of Qatar; which I wonder what ‘Ol Bill would think about that? Although Bill seemed a pretty shrewd Businessman and therefore probably would have embraced Qatar’s involvement... (Especially monetary - wise, eh?)

As it seems totally Symbiotic that Villwock would overtake the Master’s mark on his original Home River in the Piece de la Resistance Gold Cup - further shattering Muncey’s accomplishments  by claiming his ninth Gold Cup victory, one more then his predecessor.

Yet William Edward “Bill” Muncey also won the APBA National High Points Championship Seven-times along with Eight Gold Cup victories and Four World Championships. As Muncey won his first two Gold Cup crowns in the Miss Thriftway, (1956-57) before a second Deuce aboard Miss Century 21; (1961-62) while Bill’s final four Gold Cup triumphs all came aboard Atlas Van Lines boats. (1972, 1977-78-79) As ironically his first Atlas Van Lines win was for Joe Schoenith, the very owner he’d lost his first potential Gold Cup too.

When upon perusing a ‘lil Gem of a book I picked-up several years ago: A Century of Gold Cup Racing, written by Fred Farley and Ron Harsin; (2004) I’ve just discovered that Muncey theoretically should have been an nine-time Gold Cup winner after having won the 1955 Gold Cup race at Lake Washington aboard the Miss Thriftway; BUTT! The victory was awarded to the Gale V and driver Lee Schoenith, (owned by his father Joe) instead upon the Judges findings that Lee had actually gone a fraction faster over the 90-miles: 99.552mph vs. Muncey’s 99.389mph and thus finished faster than Muncey by a minimal 4.355-seconds! Thus controversially awarding the Gold Cup to Detroit the following year by virtue of Gale V having accumulated the bonus points for fastest boat...

Therefore Detroit reclaimed the race - back when the Cup was awarded to the boat’s Hometown. As this snapped Seattle’s five year SloMo-Shun monopoly...

And it further seems totally symbiotic that the torch was ultimately passed to Bill’s hand-picked successor: Seattle’s very own Chip Hanauer in 1982, the year after he’d died. Further making it somewhat karmic that Messer Hanauer would make his Gold Cup final debut at Lake Washington in ’77 in the obsolete Tad Dean’s Body Shop (ex-1957 Breathless II) when Muncey was victorious as a Driver/Owner for the very first-time - en route to becoming the very first ever six-time Gold Cup winner.

Yet according to Fred Farley, Official Historian of the APBA - the 1981 Unlimited Hydroplane season was primarily dominated by Miss Budweiser and Dean Chenoweth in my all-time favourite ‘BigBoat - the ALL conquering ‘Juggernaught! The Rolls Royce Griffon, (1980-85) although I did somewhat like the quirky “Bud Bubble” predecessor - Bernie Little’s debutant Turbine Beer Wagon in ’86. Yet there’s simply nothing quite like the roar of a piston powered Hydroplane!

Thus, I find it somewhat appropriate that Bill Muncey went out in a Blaze Oh Glory, albeit ultimately failing to beat the Grim Reaper that fateful day in Acapulco when he was riding on the ragged edge of control trying to keep his arch-rival Chenoweth from obtaining the inside lane - in what was only the third time that season he’d have potentially defeated Bernie Little’s King of Beers; before a wicked Blow-over accident took his life at 175+ mph!

As I cannot help wonder if Muncey would have been willing to adapt to the new fangled Turbine era which were ultimately right around the corner - as it seems fitting that William Edward Muncey’s legacy stays firmly ensconced in the Post-World War II Aircraft engine powerplant era.

As many things changed that final season of competition, for instance; Muncey’s unheralded 27-consecutive Gold Cup finals streak was snapped at Lake Washington - having participated every year beginning in 1955! (A streak akin to A.J. foyt’s untouchable 35-consecutive starts at Indianapolis...) As Muncey was forced to withdraw after having been pummeled by multiple Roostertails after having ‘Chopped a competitor in a qualifying heat - where his boat would go dead in the water and sustain Hull damage.

And that year’s Lake Washington Gold Cup would see the arrival of the first Turbine-powered competitor with Jon Walters at the Pay ‘N Pak controls, while Brenda Jones would become only the Sport’s second ever woman to participate in a Gold Cup event.

Meanwhile in the virtually unknown Industrial complex in Kent, Washington resides the 1982 U-00 Atlas Van Lines, usually perched upon its trailer vertically alongside its arch-rival 1980 U-1 Miss Budweiser in the ‘lil gem of a Museo, aka the Hydroplane and Thunderboat Museum.

Thus, fittingly the Thunderboat facilities website has a link denoting how the museum has begun working upon the fabled 1977 U-1 Atlas Van Lines; the very exact boat that claimed the late Sport’s Godfather’s life at Acapulco, as apparently this Hull was utilized for five seasons.

 As its funny to Mwah, (again) that I seem to recall Muncy winning in this boat originally with its rear engine totally exposed - and not finding it very appeasing aesthetically, albeit somewhere along the line it apparently had rear cowling bodywork adapted; to which I’ve just been informed by another staff member of the Hydroplane museum who promptly returned my telephone call - that the boat had always had its cowling and rear wing bodywork yet sometimes the crew opted not to run it...

And I was even invited BY Mr. Mock to come back down again and visit the boat-in-work along with the rest  of the Museum, which is a pretty cool place - having visited once before, which I’ll post the story sometime in the future...

Thus, please feel free to check out the Hydroplane Museum’s website by clicking here!