Saturday, January 12, 2013

Dynasties of the Sport: Miss Thriftway, 1960-1962

                In the year and a half that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve made a contentious effort to write about items of hydroplane history that might otherwise be overlooked: also rans who always put forth a solid effort, forgotten race sites, common misperceptions within the sport that have sprung up through the years, events that have been largely forgotten due to other contemporary happenings in the sport, the lack of realization of the historical significance of the event, or simply because they have been forgotten due to the turning of time.  My reason for ignoring the more mainstream stories throughout hydroplane history has been simple: so much ink has been spilled over these events throughout the years that it’s all but impossible to write anything new about said events.  After a brief hiatus, I figured I would go a different route.  For the next few weeks I will have a series where I cover the teams that have been dominant within the sport for a period of time.  For a half century now, there has almost always been a team in the pits that could be pointed to as “the team to beat,” although that honor has been passed from team to team over the years.  This, of course, has been the case in almost every sport in the United States, but in the case of hydroplanes sometimes these periods of excellence are followed by the teams quickly falling apart.  The first dynasty in hydroplane's modern era, the Miss Thriftway, certainly followed this model.
   As the 1950’s transitioned into the 1960’s, the focus of Unlimited Hydroplane  racing also transitioned from a once a year battle for the Gold Cup for civic pride surrounded by a number of regional races to a year-long national battle among owners for the High Point title.  Many teams of the “old era” of Hydroplane racing simply fell by the wayside, but one team that had the foresight to change with the times was the 1956 and 1957 Gold Cup winner.  Miss Thriftway and driver Bill Muncey became one of the most recognizable participants in the sport during the 1950’s with some memorable performances in the Gold Cup.  Quite remarkably, however, is that the only wins for the driver and team during that decade came during said Gold Cup races.  The team might have had two of the most memorable Gold Cup wins during this time, but the also experienced some very low lows as well.  The first Miss Thriftway hull which carried Bill Muncey to wins in the 1956 and 1957 Gold Cups as well as a near win in in the 1955 Gold Cup was destroyed at the 1957 Indiana Governor's Cup race when the boat bounced twice and disintegrated, leaving Bill Muncey seriously injured. 
A painting depicting the Miss Thriftway accident at Madison

 The most horrific accident, however, would come in the 1958 Seattle Gold Cup as the Miss Thriftway would lose its rudder, veering off course and crashing into a Coast Guard patrol boat.  Bill Muncey would actually be pronounced dead at the scene, but would be revived and would continue his brilliant career for another two decades.  The team would sit out the rest of the 1958 season.  In 1959 the team would build yet another hull but would go winless on the year although they did come close to winning another Gold Cup.

 With the new decade came a new focus for the team and thus the first modern dynasty in the sport was born.  In 1960 the team won four of ten races entered (including a rare “triple crown” in winning in Detroit, Madison, and Seattle) and finished on the podium three more times en route to the driver and team’s first high point championship. 
Miss Thriftway at Madison.  After suffering a horrific accident on the Ohio River just three years prior, Bill Muncey would go on to win his first Indiana Governor's Cup in 1960

 In 1961 the name of the boat was changed to Miss Century 21 in order to promote the upcoming Seattle World’s Fair but the results stayed the same, with wins in four of six races entered, a Gold Cup, and two other podium finishes for a near-perfect repeat  performance in 1961.  In 1962 the winning continued as Muncey and the Century 21 won the first five races it entered, including the Seattle Gold Cup, the Spirit of Detroit Trophy, the Indiana Governor’s Cup, and the President’s Cup.  Only mechanical issues in the season finale in Lake Tahoe kept the team from having a perfect season.  In three seasons, the team had won every major trophy in the sport multiple times, and along the way Bill Muncey's personable nature would make him the de facto spokesman for the sport with multiple media appearances. As the sport was becoming a truly national tour as opposed to one big race, the Miss Thriftway and Bill Muncey became the sport's first national brand.

  Perhaps thinking they had nothing left to prove, owner Willard Rhodes and the Thriftway team ran a greatly reduced schedule in 1963, only entering three races and, despite a convincing win at the Diamond Cup at Couer d’Alene, Idaho, struggled in its other two races and the team left the sport for good.  The first dynasty of Unlimited Hydroplane racing came to an abrupt end and the most recognizable name in the sport found himself without a ride.  Much of the rest of the 1960's would be a struggle for Muncey until he found a home with the Gale Enterprises team and would continue his consistent winning ways.  The name Miss Thriftway would make an appearance four decades later, as it was the sponsor of a Leland entry at the 2005 Seattle race with Steve Hook at the wheel.  Despite the shot of nostalgia, the boat would fail to live up to its memorable name as the boat would fail to start a heat or score any points on the race.
The 2005 Miss Thriftway Leland entry

The Legacy: These days, most of the memories of the Miss Thriftway are inevitably tied to the persona of Bill Muncey.  That's to be expected since it was the ride in which Muncey enjoyed his first success in the Unlimited Class and in which he would establish himself as the "driver to beat" for years to come.  The boat is also widely popular among R/C hobbyests, as the understated but dignified striped hull has found its way into seemingly every R/C event over the years, sometimes with multiple entries sporting the same Miss Thriftway paint scheme.  All in all, with the growth in the sport's popularity in the 1960's with the clear ties to one of the most legendary figures in the sport, the Miss Thriftway would rightfully earn its spot as a legend within the sport for fans for years to come.

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