Thursday, July 14, 2011

The men who have been at the top

Have you ever heard of Roger Connor?  He's a Baseball hall of famer, but even many of the most hardcore baseball fans have never heard the name.  He was one of the premiere ballplayers in the nineteenth century but his name and accomplishments had largely been lost to time as the twentieth century progressed.  For a brief time though in the mid-1970's Roger Connor was getting quite a bit of publicity.  As Hank Aaron inched closer to Babe Ruth's career home run record that had previously seemed unreachable a question began to arise among fans and baseball historians: who was the leader in career home runs before Babe Ruth?  Ruth had, of course, been the undisputed home run king for over a half a century as Hank Aaron approached his alltime mark, so the thought of anyone other than Ruth being at the top of the list, but now with Aaron coming along people began to realize that there was a leader in home runs before Ruth just like there would be one after Ruth.  After a bit of research, attention turned to Roger Connor, an Irish American from Connecticut who played most of his career with the New York Giants.  He played in an era when home runs were extremely rare but Connor still managed to hit 138 home runs.  This record would stand after Connor retired in 1897 until Babe Ruth broke it in 1921 (Ruth's second season with the Yankees and only his third year as a fulltime position player) in an event that got very little recognition at the time, as people were more enamored with the amazing single season home run numbers that Ruth was putting up at the time.  As Aaron approached Ruth's record Connor finally got the recognition that was due him and in 1976 Roger Connor finally took his rightful spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame, two years after Aaron broke Ruth's record and forty five years after Connor passed away.  Roger Connor, the former alltime leader in home runs, now sits tied for 483rd on the list of career home run leaders.

Roger Connor, the one tme career leader in Major League home runs.

So why do I bring this up?  Villwock's surpassing of Bill Muncey's record this week got me to thinking about something:  Who held the record BEFORE Bill Muncey?  It's almost strange to think that anyone else besides Bill Muncey was ever the career leader in Unlimited victories.  Muncey had been an almost regular figure in the pits from the 1950's until his untimely death in 1981 and he had the highest career victory total longer than anyone could remember.  When Muncey passed away in the accident at Acapulco in 1981, he had accumulated more than twice as many race wins than any other Unlimited driver up to that point.

So whose record did Muncey break?  For many years I had presumed it was Ron Musson, who had won 16 races until he was killed on "Black Sunday" at Washington, DC in 1966.  However, I once read an article on the unfortunate events of that tragic day that made mention of the fact that Bill Muncey was already the alltime leader in wins at that point.  A look at Muncey's career win total will show that, indeed, Bill Muncey had won 20 races at that point, four more than Musson at the time of his death.  So while there are still many longtime fans who will contend that had Musson not met an untimely death he would have gone down as the undisputed greatest driver in Unlimited Hydroplane history, he was never at the top of the career wins list.

The next possibility would be Chuck Thompson, who won fifteen races in his career, including eight before Bill Muncey's first career win at the 1956 APBA Gold Cup.  Thompson's career has a bit of a gap in it, however.  He only won two races between 1953 and 1962 before he enjoyed a resurgance from 1963-1965 behind the wheel of the Tahoe Miss.  By that point Muncey had surpassed Thompson's win total and there was no looking back.

That leaves only one person:  Danny Foster.  Foster had fourteen career victories, all of which came before Muncey's first career win.  Therefore, when Bill Muncey's career began it was Danny Foster who sat atop the career wins total and it was Foster whose record Bill Muncey broke.  Fred Farley begins his biography of Danny Foster by stating that Foster "was to Unlimited racing in the 40's and 50's what Bill Muncey was to the 60's and 70's and what Chip Hanauer was to the 80's and 90's."  Indeed the career  race wins record, and its progression over time, is an example of this.

 Foster's career began with the founding of the Unlimited class in 1946 and he was an immediate winner as he drove the Miss Great Lakes to the President's Cup that year.  By the way, if you were wondering who had the career post-war win record before Foster, I suppose you could say Guy Lombardo, who won the first two races of 1946 as he won the Red Bank National Sweepstakes Regatta and the Detroit Gold Cup that year.  The next season Danny Foster won six races en route to a National Championship while driving the Miss Peps V and there was no question as to who the superstar was in Unlimited Hydroplane racing.

  From then on Danny Foster's career was more uneven, but that is more indicative of the haphazard era of Unlimited Hydroplane racing Foster raced in than Foster himself.  This was a time when Unlimited Hydroplane racing was more of a regional affair and very few if any boats would compete on the full national tour.  The Gold Cup was usually the only race that would attract hydroplanes from throughout the United States.  It was not uncommon in that era for over twenty boats to race for the Gold Cup, but in truth only a handfull had any real shot at winning the race.  In fact, many hydroplane owners and drivers at that time treated the Gold Cup as many Indycar teams have approached the Indianapolis 500 throughout the years, with many boats and drivers only competing in the Gold Cup and no other races.   Danny Foster entered only one race in 1948, where he drove the Miss Great Lakes to the Gold Cup.  After sitting out all of 1949, Foster drove no less than seven Unlimited Hydroplanes from 1950-1954, collecting a couple wins along the way but never driving a boat for the full national tour.  Then in 1955 Foster finally got a fulltime ride adnd made his presense felt.  Behind the wheel of the Tempo VIII, Foster overcame a disappointing Gold Cup where an onboard fire ended the team's day and went on to win five races (which also happened to be the last five races the team entered that season).  Foster captured his fourteenth and final victory at the 1955 Indiana Governor's Cup at Madison and would then go into semi-retirement, only doing spot duty behind numerous Unlimiteds and never winning another major race, although he did win a secondary race at the 1965 Lake Tahoe Regatta.

As Bill Muncey's career took off in a big way in the late 1950's and early 1960's, his accomplishments would seemingly dwarf what anyone else in Unlimited Hydroplane racing had done up to that point.  Muncey would break Foster's record of fourteen career wins at the 1962 Spirit of Detroit Regatta behind the wheel of the Miss Century 21 (breaking the record in Detroit, coincidence?).  None of the articles I have read about that race make any mention of the fact that Muncey had set the new bar for Unlimited race victories, much like Babe Ruth becoming the career home runs leader received little if any publicity.  It was seen as just another dominating victory by the driver and boat that were seemingly unstoppable at that point.  Muncey's long career would go through a lot of peaks and valleys, but when his life ended in 1981 his career victory total of 62 race wins seemed safe.

And for many years, Muncey's record was safe.  At the time of Bill Muncey's death, nobody was even close to his total.  However, a young driver who already had three race wins under his belt would take over the seat of the Atlas Van Lines and would make a serious chase at Bill Muncey's record.  Something that drove me nuts at the Madison Regatta this year was that at least twice the PA announcers talked at length about how Villwock was about to break a record that seemed unreachable up until now and there were NO mentions of Chip Hanauer.  One of them even said "the one guy I thought who ever had a shot at breaking the record was Dean Chenoweth" but once again there was no mention of how painstakingly close Hanauer came to breaking the record.  At the approach of the 1996 season, the consensus around hydroplane racing was that it was only a matter of time until Hanaur broke the record.  He sat at 58 race wins, four behind Muncey and when he was healthy he was nothing less than dominant behind the wheel of the Miss Budweiser.  It wouldn't come to be, of course.  After Hanauer suffered injuries in yet another horrific accident in the Miss Budweiser at Detroit, he resigned from the team and likewise sat out for 1997 and 1998.   Then, when he returned to drive for Fred Leland's Miss Pico and won his third race of the year (and 61st career win, one less than Muncey) in Detroit, the question became not if Hanauer would surpass Muncey's career total, but when.  Once again it wouldn't come to be, as Hanauer was sidelined in a blowover at Tri-Cities and wouldn't win any more races for the rest of the season.  At the end of 1999 Chip Hanauer once again retired and this time for good, only one race win behind his mentor.  If Hanauer had not temporarily left the Unlimiteds in 1991 to pursue auto racing or went on hiatus for nearly three full years  in the late 1990's, then more than likely we would right now be discussing Villwock approaching Hanauer's alltime win total.  There has been speculation over the years that Chip Hanauer did not wish to surpass Bill Muncey, the man who served as a mentor early in his career.  Personally though I feel that it was health concerns, as Hanauer suffered a number of accidents throughout the 1990's that resulted in him missing  time behind the wheel or making a trip to the hospital, especialy during his time with the Miss Budweiser where one or both of these scenarios happened at least once every year he was with the team.  After numerous injuries, I feel Hanauer saw his health as more valuable than a career wins record and stepped away.

With Chip Hanauer out of the sport, attention quickly turned to Dave Villwock in terms of if or when he would break Bill Muncey's record.  I heard it predicted as early as 2000 that Villwock eventually getting the record was "inevitible."  For a brief period it appeared that Bill Muncey's record was safe, as Dave Villwock announced his retirement at the conclusion of 2004 season with the departure of the Miss Budweiser team from the sport.  Villwock had 47 career wins at that point.  Then, in the middle of 2005, it was announced that Villwock was taking over driving duties for the Miss E-Lam Plus, a boat that already had the High Point lead at that point in the season, and more race victories followed.  Finally last week Muncey's record fell and Villwock took his place at the top.  For the first time in forty eight years, there is somebody new at the top of the last in career race victories.

As the career leader in Unlimited race victories has passed from Guy Lombardo to Danny Foster to Bill Muncey to Dave Villwock, we are reminded that records were meant to be broken but also that those who have held the record should never be forgotten.  Danny Foster, like Roger Connor in baseball, never got due credit for his record setting performance as his accomplishments were overshaddowed by those who came after him.  However many race victories Dave Villwock has at the end of his career (and he certainly shows no signs of slowing down, no pun intended), there will certainly be questions of who if anyone has a chance to approach his record.  I feel that two people who are racing now have a serious chance of someday being atop the list:  Jeff Bernard and J. Michael Kelly.  While at this point in their careers Bernard only has three wins and Kelly has one they are both young drivers early in their careers and have both shown a keen ability to put any boat in a position to win.  They have the potential to be dominant in the coming  years and perhaps even challenge Dave Villwock's record in the coming decades.  What Bill Muncey's and Babe Ruth's longstanding and seemingly insurmountible records being broken show is that even the most unreachable records can be broken but the people who set those records will always be remembered as one of the people who have been at the top.

All images taken from the web.  Thanks to Leslie Field's Hydroplane History website and to Fred Farley's fine article on the career of Danny Foster for being a fine source of information for this post.  Also, many thanks to the men who have raced and won in Unlimited Hydroplanes throughout the years.

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