Muncey Runs for the Glamor [1971]

Bill Muncey has a date with an old girl friend on Sunday and he knows no matter how hard he tries to woo her and win her, he eventually will be rebuffed.

"Nobody ever gets the best of the Detroit River," said Muncey, who has tried for years to conquer the gracious lady. "I've won a lot of races on the Detroit River but I never came away with the feeling that I got the best of her.

"She's a tough old gal . . . the toughest course in the world to drive on safely."

Muncey is the best-known of these hydroplane drivers who will do their annual thing on the river Sunday, this time in the Horace E. Dodge Memorial Cup race.

I've always been fascinated by the names they give these races, as if they are always trying to lend some special importance to them. I've always felt they could call them anything they want, including the Bob-Lo Regatta, and those guys with their couped-up saucers couldn't stay away.

When you get hooked on the water, you get hooked, and when they come to town each summer they provide an afternoon of excitement that is unlike anything seen around here all year long.

You hear stories about how the sport of boat racing is in trouble around here because of financial difficulties. What a shame it would be if we didn't have this once-a- year carnival . . . because the boats running on the river are as much of a part of the Detroit scene as Belle Isle itself.

Life can go on without the boats, perhaps a lot more sensibly and saner, and a whole lot more quietly. But to anyone who has seen them run up that long backstretch in front of the Yacht Club, with that spray of water spewing high into the air behind them, and then come bounce, bounce, bouncing around the turn in front of the Roostertail with the drivers fighting madly to keep their howling machines under control . . well, if that doesn't get to you, then racing just doesn't mean too much to you.

These races are curious things in many ways. For one thing, they're free. All you've got to do is pack a lunch, pick out a spot along the river and you're in for an afternoon of high speed thrills.

I've always found this odd . . . that so many people could enjoy something so much, and yet the sport is supposed to be in such financial distress. Maybe it goes against the grain since we've been getting all these races free for years, but if they come around with a hat to keep the sport alive in Detroit, they can count me in.

In fact, I've always wondered where the money is in this sport. It's certainly not an inexpensive sport. Those machines cost up to $80,000 and $70,000, with no insurance. You break one up in the water and you've had it.

And this doesn't include all the extra engines and parts and all the mechanics to keep the boats running.

Obviously, it's a massive publicity stunt. Take the Atlas Van Lines Moving Co. It has two boats here -- the one driven by Muncey, the other by young Terry Sterett.

Somebody figured out, and very shrewdly, that this was a great form of advertising. As even Muncey was saying during Thursday's practice runs, "Where else could they buy the publicity they get out of owning these boats? Heck, Atlas owns the whole sport, just as the Budweiser people own the sport when their boat is running. We are bit players in their promotion, as they are to ours."

So that explains the money angle. The next thing is, what makes these guys get into the cockpits and run those boats?

Certainly, they're not as well-known as the auto drivers. Compared to the fame gained by baseball, football, basketball and hockey players -- well, there just isn't a comparison.

The hydroplane drivers are a small, tightly knit group who really aren't too well known outside their own sphere. For instance, Bill Muncey, for all of his fame as the No. 1 driver in this sport, is not exactly a household word in the sporting community of our country.

So what drives him on -- what makes him get behind the wheel when he knows, for one ground swell, for one backlash of waves, he may never get out?

Muncey, after all, is 42 years old, the father of six children and that hair of his isn't turning to gold. "I've had a lot of people ask me this question," he said. "They say, 'You're a well educated man, you've got a family, you have responsibility -- what the hell are you doing driving a boat?'

"Well, number one, I like it. I can see nothing wrong with trying to be the best hydroplane driver I possibly can. I didn't expect to get into the business, but now that I'm here, I want to be the best.

"Man is a vain animal and I have my share of vanity. When I drive a boat and drive it well, it gives me all the dignity and glamor and attention and notoriety I want . . . or need. I revel in it."

People die at this sport . . . two on the Detroit River in recent years, three on one day on the Potomac, another in Tampa, another in Seattle in the final race of last season.

I asked Muncey what his greatest fear was. He sat in the back of the trailer parked down near the water and puzzled over it for a moment.

The auto drivers fear fire and oil. I wondered what Muncey would say -- a boat veering in front of him, debris floating in the water, a sudden wave or swell?

He finally said: "Well, I've got a low-scare level . . . and the thing that frightens me the most is to go out there before all those people, before all those cameras, before God, if you will, and embarass myself. Not only embarass myself but my owner and my sponsor.

"I've been a professional driver for a long time. I've won some races, and lost some races. But I've always had a private fear that some day I will go out there and blow it. I'm always afraid that I'll give a bad performance, that I won't do my best.

"That, I think, would kill me. That's the thing I'm really afraid of. I just don't want to make a fool of myself out there. When I get close to that, that's when I'll quit."

The phrase is professional pride . . . and in case you are interested in watching Bill Muncey and Friends on Sunday, the gun goes at noon for the first race.

(Reprinted from the Detroit Free Press, June 26, 1971)