1973 Champion Spark Plug Trophy
Thunder on the Bay
Biscayne's waters shivered to the opening of the unlimited-hydroplane racing season as a new winged marauder called "Pay 'n Pak" awed and eventually overcame Bill Muncey, the suffering 1972 champion
by Dan Levin
The noise of the big boats set knees and spines humming Sunday in Miami's Marine Stadium, but the shock waves were even more intense. Out on the roiled water of Biscayne Bay a baby-faced driver known to virtually no one beyond the roostertails and emergency wards of hydroplane racing was dueling side by side with the champion and grandest old man of the unlimiteds, Bill Muncey. Baby Face, who answers to the name of Mickey Remund, not only had an insuperable lead over Muncey on points in this final heat of the season's first event but was behaving very much as if he were the master's master. Suddenly, on the third lap of Miami's tight, 2½-mile oval course, Muncey's Atlas Van Lines spun out and went unmasterfully dead in the water. Remund finished that and the three remaining laps with an insouciant flourish, and as he coasted his brand new, futuristic, winged Pay 'n Pak into the pits, he turned a gleeful face to the shower of beer rained down on him by his supporting troops. Someone made the impolitic suggestion that he had backed into victory, to which Remund calmly replied, "I'll take 'em any way I can get 'em."
Remund took this one because he had the speed-up to 160 mph on the straights—and sweet confidence to take it. And maybe to a degree because Muncey, 44 and concealing broken ribs which would have kept a less intense competitor ashore, was one snake-bitten hero.
Muncey arrived in Miami in a thunderboat mood. He was just out of the hospital after cracking up in a smaller boat the previous Sunday. That was in Memphis and, as Muncey put it, "All of a sudden the boat started climbing. It went up about 50 feet and came down on top of me, still going about 100. There were lots of other boats flying past my head, some 15 or 20 inches away, and that made it a little exciting, but I kept thinking, 'I hope I'm not badly hurt because there's a big race coming up.'"
At Miami, Muncey let on he had only a bruised kidney-the ego bruises were to come later. Meanwhile Remund showed up with the season's surprise, a flashy boat said to be 800 pounds lighter than any other entry and decked out with a horizontal stabilizer that made her look something like a fat, wheel-less Indianapolis car. The rest of the fleet was content with the traditional vertical fin. A Pay 'n Pak crew member said the wing was meant to keep her going straight. He was asked if it would help in the turns, the narrowest on the unlimited circuit. No one knows, he replied. And he was not kidding. This Pay 'n Pak had never been raced before.
Everybody found out soon enough. In practice and qualifying runs -the boat was sensational in the turns. At one point Bernie Little, owner of Miss Budweiser, was standing in the pit tower with his driver, Dean Chenoweth, observing Remund out on the course. "Watch him into those turns, Dean," said Little. "He doesn't seem to slow down at all."
Perhaps one reason for Remund's course-burning in practice is that he has had few misadventures to make him nervous, at least by unlimited-hydro standards. In some 15 years in all kinds of racing he has left his boat involuntarily only twice. Last Labor Day he was thrown out of an 18-footer at 120 mph and shaken up. "But," he says, "I didn't have to do any sheet time."
Remund qualified with a two-lap average of 119.048 mph, a new course record, while the best Muncey could do in the boat with which he had all but drowned the opposition in 1972 was 113.493. Said Chenoweth of Muncey: "Remund's got Bill's mind so bent with that 119 you wouldn't believe it. He said to me, 'What are you gonna do, Dean?' I said, 'Hell, I'm gonna go and race."'
In the pits Sunday there was an almost palpable aura of danger-and money. Two ambulances stood by, and behind each boat was its van, full of extra propellers and engines. The props, forged in Italy, were shiny little 11-inch, $1,100 beauties. Each crew had a dozen or so, not to mention five to eight engines at up to $10,000 per, originally designed to cruise airplanes at 2,000 rpm. In these boats they would be going at 4,500 rpm, but that is how you make thunder.
Chenoweth and Miss Bud won their first heat Sunday, but for Muncey it was a day of unmitigated misery. Driving in Chenoweth's heat, Muncey sprang an oil leak on the first lap and got the stuff in his eyes. Even so he finished second. Meanwhile Remund won his first heat.
A second set of heats brought the top boats together, but not for long. Muncey simply could not get Atlas moving, an astonishing development in view of her reputation for bugless running, and Miss Bud conked out while putting on a fine show out front. The winner: Mickey Remund.
"You have to be a natural out there in everything you do," Remund had said. "Fortunately, I am."
Doing what came naturally in the final five-boat heat, he hooked up with Muncey in thrilling dashes down the straights and swoops through the tortuous turns until Muncey at last was forced to give him surcease.
"These," said the old warrior, "have been the worst eight days of my life."
(Reprinted from Sports Illustrated, May 28, 1973)