The Kentucky Derby and Preakness are behind us, the Belmont is this weekend, and once again horse racing will be without a Triple Crown winner. The Triple Crown, the most prestigious and rare (there hasn’t been one since 1978) accomplishment in horse racing, is such a captivating achievement that its terminology has spilled over into a countless number of other forms of competition, and naturally this includes Motorsports. From a historical standpoint, the Triple Crown of Motorsport has been understood as the Indianapolis 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the Monaco Grand Prix. This is more a nod to the fact the historical significance of these races, however, and competing in all three races within the same year would be a near impossibility, especially since the Indianapolis 500 and Monaco GP are often held on the same day. In fact, only one person, Graham Hill, has won all three races in his career. During the 1970’s IndyCar attempted to promote its own Triple Crown of the 500 mile races at Indianapolis, Ontario, California, and the Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, but only the Indianapolis race was seen as the truly prestigious race and the Ontario and Pocono races were eventually dropped from the schedule (although a return to the Poconos is scheduled for this season). For many years, NASCAR had a de facto Triple Crown, as the season opening Daytona 500, Memorial Day Weekend World 600, and Labor Day Weekend Southern 500 were seen as the circut’s “major” races and were guaranteed to garner the most media attention. This too has fell by the wayside, however, as expanded media coverage and changes in the traditional scheduling arrangement by NASCAR, highlighted by the fact that the circut no longer races in Darlington, South Carolina on Labor Day Weekend, means that this too has fell by the wayside.
So what about hydroplane racing? I would argue that a Triple Crown has always been there, even if it has rarely if ever been given its deserved recognition. Since the formation of the URC in 1957, three race sites have appeared on the schedule every single year: Madison, Detroit, and Seattle. Although they have had differing levels of prestige through the years (for its first years the Madison race was seen as little more than just another small town race) and have all had financial and logistical issues threaten their spot on the schedule through the years, the fact that all three races have endured for over a half century now means that all three hold their own special place among hydroplane fans, observers, and of course competitors. Let’s take a look at the men and boats who have won all three of these historic and prestigious races in the same season. It should also be noted that for the purpose of this post I am counting the Silver Cup/Spirit of Detroit Race as opposed to the Detroit Memorial Regatta as the leg of the Triple Crown in the years when both races were run, as the Spirit of Detroit race is the one with the most direct connection with the race that is still run to this day.
1962 Miss Century 21, Bill Muncey: The first dynasty of the URC era was also the first team to achieve the Triple Crown. The Willard Rhodes-owned entry came into the 1962 season as the team to beat, having won two championships and eight races in the previous two seasons. After a win in the season opening Diamond Cup, the Century 21 team won all three heats in the Seattle Gold Cup at a race that was more widely remembered for an accident that saw the Miss Seattle Too disintegrate at the Start/Finish line on the first heat of the day. The Century 21 team was briefly challenged by Bill Cantrell and the Gale V before they succumbed to mechanical issues and Muncey went on to another perfect day on another rough course at the Spirit of Detroit Regatta. At the Indiana Governor’s Cup, the Century 21 team was once again largely unchallenged as they won all three heats and hydroplane racing had its first Triple Crown winner.
1972 Atlas Van Lines, Bill Muncey: Ten years after winning the first Triple Crown, Bill Muncey repeated the feat with another team. Muncey’s career was largely in limbo in the late 1960’s. Although he finally found a stable ride with the Gale Enterprises entry in 1970, he found himself chasing the Miss Budweiser for two seasons. His fortunes changed in 1972 and he had what was arguably the most dominant season in the history of Unlimited racing, winning six of the season’s seven races and finishing second in the seventh race. The Atlas Van Lines team scored a convincing win at the Gold Cup in Detroit in a race in which hardly anyone left unscathed, including Muncey himself who had to miss the Gold Cup celebration in order to nurse sore ribs. The following week’s Madison race could be seen as nothing more than a major letdown, especially in comparison to the seeming unattainable high of the 1971 Madison Gold Cup Race. The field had already dwindled to eight entries due to multiple teams taking the week off to do repairs because of the previous week’s Detroit race. This included the Miss Madison, which sank in the Detroit River during qualifying and would have to miss its home race for the first (and to this point only) time since its debut in 1961. Tumultuous river conditions forced the race to be delayed until Tuesday, and even then it could only be run when a recruited armada of over fifty pleasure boats cleared debris to the best of their ability. Despite the numerous setbacks, Bill Muncey won the two preliminary heats that he entered and was awarded the Indiana Governor’s Cup (which doubled as the UIM World Championship that year) based on points after the Final had to be cancelled. The season finale at Seattle lacked the tumultuous water conditions of Detroit and Madison, but Muncey found himself in unfamiliar territory after engine problems forced him to a second place finish to the Miss Budweiser in the first heat , but Muncey and the Atlas team rebounded and won the Final Heat going away. At the dock, Muncey acknowledged that this was indeed his greatest season. The good times would not last long , however, as the remaining three years of Muncey’s time with Gale Enterprises would be filled with no wins and lots of frustrations. Much like the Chicago Bears had a historically dominant season in 1985 that was sandwiched between a number of good but not great Bears teams, the 1972 season domination would prove to be the lone season in which the Bill Muncey/Gale Enterprises union would reach such a level of dominance.
1978 Atlas Van Lines, Bill Muncey In 1976 Bill Muncey became owner of his own team and subsequently went on to his first championship since 1972. In 1977 his team debuted a revolutionary new cabover hull and, despite the fact that the time it took to dial the new boat in allowed the Miss Budweiser to score enough points to win the title, it was no secret that the Atlas Van Lines “Blue Blaster” hull was the class of the field. In 1978 Bill Muncey Racing was ready to dominate. As if the best driver, best crew chief, and best boat seen up until that time weren’t advantage enough for the team, the fact that the rest of the field was having a low ebb moment meant there was little in the way of Bill Muncey winning seemingly every trophy out there. An omen of how the rest of the season would go happened in the season opening Miami race, when Bill Muncey was the lone starter for the Final Heat and would run five uncontested laps on his way to the win. The following race was the Spirit of Detroit Regatta and Bill Muncey was top qualifier and coasted to two easy heat victories. In the Final Heat Muncey was briefly challenged by Chip Hanauer in the Squire Shop, but would eventually open up to a pretty comfortable victory with Hanauer finishing second. Two weeks later at Madison Muncey was once again top qualifier but also showed that he wasn’t invincible with a DNF in his second heat. Despite the setback Muncey would win the Indiana Governor’s Cup Final Heat going away for his fourth straight win on the year. A few weeks later in Seattle, Muncey would come into the pits coming off his first loss of the year when a blown engine in the Final Heat of the Columbia Cup resulted in a DNF. Seemingly determined to show that the loss the previous week was a momentary fluke, Muncey piloted the Atlas Van Lines to a qualifying record of 125 MPH on the two mile course. On race day, Muncey would suffer another setback in the preliminary heats as a penalty relegated him to a third place finish on the first heat of the day. In the Final all the drivers on the course had to deal with an added obstacle after a smoking engine from the Squire Shop II hull driven by Pete LaRock meant that visibility on the course was nearly zero. Despite the setbacks and obstacles, Muncey was able to cruise to an easy victory in the Final, crossing the Finish Line more than thirty seconds before the second place Miss Budweiser. The Atlas Van Lines clinched the championship on that day, and Bill Muncey had his third Triple Crown.
1979 Atlas Van Lines, Bill Muncey Although the field was more competitive on paper in 1979 than it was the previous year, there was little stopping Bill Muncey behind the wheel of the Blue Blaster. While the quality of the field might have seen a slight uptick in 1979, the quantity of the field was dwindling as access to World War II era aircraft engines were becoming more and more difficult to come by. At the 1979 Spirit of Detroit race, only six Unlimiteds showed up in the pits, a far cry from the post war years when boat counts for the Detroit race would sometimes approach twenty. Muncey would win the two preliminary heats and the Final with relative ease. With The Squire Shop and Miss Budweiser boats missing the Detroit race that year, only Jack Schaffer and the Myrna Kay was there to offer resistance and he trailed the Atlas in every heat. The following week at Madison, which was hosting the Gold Cup that year, would see a larger field of ten boats as the Miss Budweiser, Squire Shop, and Miss Madison would all rejoin the field. Muncey would set a Gold Cup record in qualifying with a lap of over 121 MPH but would actually finish second in one of his qualifying heats to Steve Reynolds in the Miss Circus Circus. The Circus Circus and Squire Shop would provide the Atlas its toughest competition in the Final as the Miss Budweiser boat, which was still trying to figure out its new Griffon powered hull, fell by the wayside in the preliminary heats. In the end, the Final would prove to be a runaway as Muncey would pull away from the field in the first lap and the true race became the race for second, although even there Reynolds and the Circus Circus would distance itself from Hanauer and the Squire Shop. Muncey had easily won what would prove to be the last Gold Cup of his brilliant career. After wins in El Dorado, Kansas and Tri-Cities, Washington, Muncey came into Seattle riding an eight race winning streak and little signs of slowing down. Contrary to the small field which showed up to the Eastern races, a field of fifteen Unlimiteds showed up to the Seafair pits (although only ten would score points that weekend). The huge Seattle crowd, seemingly growing tired of Muncey’s dominance of the sport, was briefly brought to its feet when the Atlas Van Lines went dead in the water in Heat 2B allowing Chuck Hickling and the underdog Tempus to capture the win in the heat. The crowd was momentarily excited again when it appeared that Steve Reynolds wired a perfect start in the Circus Circus and opened up a huge lead, but it was soon learned that Reynolds had jumped the gun, giving the victory to Muncey and the Atlas over Dean Chenoweth and the Miss Budweiser. Muncey had his ninth consecutive win, but hopes for a perfect season were dashed the following race at Ogden, Utah when the Atlas would go dead in the water, allowing Chip Hanauer to win his first career race in the Squire Shop. After another DNF in the Final Heat in San Diego for Atlas allowed Steve Reynolds to win his first race in the Circus Circus, there were questions of whether Muncey’s near perfect season was blemished. Despite the setbacks at the end of the season, there was no denying that Muncey’s brilliant 1979 campaign, capped by his fourth Triple Crown (and by extension the fourth Triple Crown for the sport as a whole) would not soon be forgotten.
1981 Miss Budweiser, Dean Chenoweth The first Triple Crown to be won by someone not named Bill Muncey in Hydroplane racing would prove to be his main competition for much of his latter years. Despite turning in some solid seasons in the late 1970’s, Bernie Little, never satisfied with anything less than first, looked for a new advantage for his team and turned to the much more powerful Rolls Royce Griffon engines in 1979. That season would prove to be a learning experience as the Miss Budweiser would be left out of the winners circle and the boat would actually be destroyed after the conclusion of the season during an attempt to break the mile straightaway record. The next season the Budweiser team would debut another Griffon power hull and this time the team was ready to dominate, winning a record twenty heats in a row en route to the championship. In 1981, the Miss Budweiser team would continue its dominance and this time a Triple Crown would be part of its accomplishments. At the Spirit of Detroit race, Chenoweth and the Budweiser would win with relative ease as it was top qualifier, heat winner in both of its preliminary heats, then won the Final without much of a challenge as its perennial rival Bill Muncey was disqualified. At Madison, the Miss Budweiser would once again face little competition, especially after both the Atlas Van Lines and the Pay N Pak would both go dead in the water in the Final. With only the hometown Miss Madison left to give any kind of pressure, Chenoweth would coast to another easy victory. The Seattle Gold Cup race appeared to be more of the same after the Budweiser boat would be top qualifier by a considerable margin and easily win its two preliminary heats, but in the Final it found itself challenged by a suddenly alive Pay N Pak hydroplane. Despite a valiant effort by John Walters and using technology that would come to dominate the sport a few years later, the day belonged to Dean Chenoweth and the Griffon Powered Miss Budweiser and the Budweiser team had its first Triple Crown.
1993 Miss Budweiser, Chip Hanauer In 1992 Bernie Little needed a new driver so he turned to the man who he had worked so hard to beat over the previous decade. Chip Hanauer, who had left the sport in 1991 to try his hand at sports car racing, would return to drive the Miss Budweiser. There were some questions as to whether the two largely successful but very proud individuals could coexist, but winning proved to be the ultimate balm as the team started off the 1992 season with five straight wins, including wins at the Detroit Gold Cup and the Indiana Governor’s Cup. Only a horrific blowover in qualifying at Seattle would deny the Budweiser team a Triple Crown in 1992. In 1993, despite a loss in the season opening race in Texas to Steve David, there was little stopping Chip Hanauer and the Miss Budweiser. At the Gold Cup, Hanauer seemed little phased by a Detroit River that was its usual temperamental self and coasted to a relatively easy victory. At Madison, the Miss Budweiser was once again dominant, winning by a considerable margin despite having Mark Tate and the Winston Eagle nipping his heels all the way. The only real attrition came after the racing for the day was over, as the escape hatch blew out of the Miss Budweiser during the cool down lap after the Final Heat. After a brief trip to the hospital, Chip Hanauer was cleared to compete and the winning ways continued. In Seattle the Miss Budweiser ran into some attrition in the preliminary heats and was assigned to lane five for the Final. Mark Tate steered the Winston Eagle to the lead, but suffered a high blowover in the second lap and its day was over. On the restart the Miss Budweiser opened up a lead at the start and didn't look behind as he coasted to a runaway win with Mike Hanson and the U-6 Kellogg's Frosted Flakes-Miss Madison finishing second.
Another win in Seattle gave Miss Budweiser its second Triple Crown, and Chip Hanauer his first and ultimately only such accomplishment. After a 1992 and 1993 where there appeared to be little stopping the Hanauer-Budweiser combination, many hydroplane observers expected a number of years of continued dominance, but it wouldn’t come to be. Despite winning the next two championships, a number of accidents that resulted in multiple trips to the hospital for Hanauer meant that Mark Tate would take home the Driver’s championship both years and the team as a whole would eek out championship wins over the Tate-driven Steve Woomer entry. After another injury causing accident in 1996 in Detroit, Hanauer resigned from the Budweiser team. Despite the connection being brief and not leading to the multiple years of unprecedented dominance that some had predicted, the record breaking and dominant 1992 and 1993 seasons, capped off by a Triple Crown win in 1993, was proof of what two highly talented but highly proud people like Bernie Little and Chip Hanauer can accomplish when they put their egos aside and work toward the same goal.
1998 Miss Budweiser, Dave Villwock Despite winning the championship the year before, the Miss Budweiser team came into the 1998 season with a lot of question marks. Long time Crew Chief Ron Brown was gone, being replaced by a then relatively unkown Mark Smith. Dave Villwock was returning from a horrific accident in Tri Cities where he had to be resuscitated on the deck of his boat. Externally Mark Evans and the Pico American Dream team had rattle off four straight wins in Villwock’s absence in 1997 and looked poised to challenge the Budweiser team for its throne. With all these questions, the Budweiser team responded with a historically dominant 1998 season. After a dominant win in the season opener at Evansville, Villwock was top qualifier at the Gold Cup in Detroit but hit a snag in Heat 2A when it was determined that the Budweiser jumped the gun and was forced to run an extra lap. After arguing with officials for an hour after the heat, Villwock acknowledged the right call was made after reviewing the video and went on to race the following day. This time Villwock stayed safely behind the line and went on to comfortable wins in the third and fourth heats as well as a convincing win in the Final Heat with Steve David and the Chrysler Jeep trailing. The Pico team, perhaps spread a little too thin as Leland Unlimited had three entries in the Detroit race, recorded a DNS in the Final.
At Seattle, the Final Heat looked it was shaping up to be a showdown between Villwock and the Miss Budweiser and Mitch Evans and the Apian Jeronimo. Drawn into separate heats all day, the Jeronimo won all three of its heats while the Budweiser won two and jumped the gun in another heat. The expected showdown at the Final wouldn’t come to fruition, as the Jeronimo boat would be disqualified for cutting off the field at the first turn of the first lap. The Pico would lead the first couple of laps, but Villwock would overtake him and open up a decent lead at the end with Evans trailing. Despite the protests of Mitch Evans, the penalty against him was upheld.
Next up was the Madison race, which had to be postponed to Labor Day due to high waters on its scheduled date. The late season race meant that many of the Washington based teams would choose to stay home instead of make the long trek back east and only seven teams were in the pits. The Apian Jeronimo, perhaps still upset over their back to back Final Heat disqualifications, skipped the trip. So did perennial contender U-8 Llumar Window Film. Despite the small field, the day was once again looking to be a duel between two boats, Villwock and the Miss Budweiser, and this time Mitch’s brother Mark Evans in the Pico boat. Both were drawn into separate heats all day. Evans and the Pico won all three of its heats, and did Villwock and the Budweiser but not without controversy. In Heat 3B the Miss Madison wired a perfect start and appeared to have the heat in hand after the Miss Budweiser struck a buoy. It was determined, however, that the Miss Madison had encroached on the Budweiser, thus forcing Villwock into a buoy and resulting in a disqualification for the Miss Madison and Mike Hanson. The few fans who did attend the postponed race showed their displeasure, and even the WORX radio crew got Mark Allen, who was in his first and last race serving as the UHRA commissioner, to admit on the air that he had not seen the video which had led to the call. The Final Heat was expected to be a showdown between Evans and Villwock, but once again controversy ensued. As the field creeped up to the line for the Final, Evans broke from the field and wired a perfect start, then widened his lead on the backstretch. Coming out of the second turn on lap one, Evans made the course as wide as possible for Villwock with his roostertail, and once again the Miss Budweiser struck a buoy and once again it was determined that the other boat had “forced” the Budweiser into the buoy, thus giving the Pico a one lap penalty and giving the Budweiser an easy route to victory. Behind him, more attrition happened as the Steve David in the U-2 Freddie’s Club spun out in the last turn, thus giving longtime competitor Ken Muskatel his first and only podium finish as he came in second. Miss Madison, which had started as the trailer, finished third.
Despite the controversy that arose from having a rarely called penalty called two, and both to the benefits in a row, and both to the benefit of the Budweiser team, there was no denying that the Miss Budweiser had a dominant season with a record eight race wins that was capped off by a Triple Crown.
2000 Miss Budweiser, Dave Villwock Unlike 1998, the only question coming into 2000 for the Miss Budweiser team was whether or not anybody could stop them. They had introduced the T-6, a hull that was the class of the field the moment its sponsons got wet and only seemed to get better from there. Their rivals in the Leland Unlimited camp were undoubtedly facing a season of transition, as driver Chip Hanauer retired and they lost the longtime support of Pico. Also going through a time of transition was the U-2 Harvey Motorsports as they parted ways with longtime driver Steve David. As if that wasn’t enough of an advantage, there was a rumor going around that Bernie Little was looking to “buy” the sport as a whole. Although nobody seemed to know what that meant at the time, it made everyone a little uneasy. On the water, there was little stopping Dave Villwock and what was arguably the best crew put together in the history of the sport. After easy wins in Lake Havasu, Arizona and Evansville, the tour rolled into Madison with two less entries as the Leland team was mysterious in their absence. Of the nine boats who did compete in Madison, the Miss Budweiser was seemingly the only boat that escaped unscathed as the Ohio River was its usual ornery self. The York Heating & Air, driven by Mark Weber, lost a rudder in qualifying after striking a piece of debris. Second fastest qualifier Mark Tate in the U-2 Freddie’s Club lost a gearbox prior to the start of its first heat and it was done for the day. The Miss Budweiser wired a perfect start in the Final and didn’t look back en route to its record tying ninth consecutive race win, being trailed by Mark Weber in the U-10 York (with a new rudder) and Mike Hanson in the U-9 Jones Racing.
The following week at Detroit, the Leland team was once again absent and once again the biggest challenge to the Budweiser would seem to be the course itself, as the Final had to be delayed four hours due to high winds. Despite the conditions, the Miss Budweiser was able to plough through with little resistance, in the process winning a record breaking tenth consecutive race and giving Villwock the honors of being the all-time winningest Miss Budweiser driver. Mark Weber in the York trailed while his teammate George Stratton, who had garnered attention earlier in the day by barely missing a boat that was dead in the water and the Detroit seawall, finished third.
As the tour made the trek west, news broke that Bernie Little, in partnership with Gary Garbrecht, was indeed buying the sanctioning rights of Unlimited Hydroplane racing and the following year would launch a new sanctioning body known as Hydro-Prop. For the time being, however, the focus was on whether or not the Miss Budweiser would achieve the elusive perfect season, as it seemed that only a catastrophic event would stop the Miss Budweiser. As it turned out, a catastrophic event would happen in the following race in Tri-Cities. A collision with Ken Muskatel badly damaged the Miss Budweiser and, despite finishing the heat, it was determined that the boat was too damaged to finish the race. The streak was over. So was the T-6 for the year. Coming into Seattle with the T-5, the Miss Budweiser suddenly looked human, especially after it lost all three of its preliminary heats. The boat lost its canard wing in its first heat and Villwock was forced to slow his boat down for a third place finish. Bad starts in the second and third heats, along with a much stronger field than what started off the year with a return of the Leland boats and the Miss E-Lam Plus, meant that the Budweiser would finish third and second respectively. Despite this, Villwock wired a perfect start in the Final and won the Final Heat going away. Mike Hanson was able to pick up a surprise second in the U-9 entry.
Despite being denied in their bid for a perfect season, the Miss Budweiser team could lay claim to having the closest thing to such an accomplishment in the turbine era and their fourth Triple Crown.
2009 Miss E-Lam Plus, Dave Villwock The most recent Triple Crown winner is also a rarity among teams who have accomplished this feat: A team that won the Triple Crown despite not having a dominant season, not winning the championship, or even any other races outside of the three classic race sites. The E-Lam was indeed looking like the team to beat heading into 2009. After running an abbreviated schedule in 2008, the E-Lam team rolled into Madison with the U-1 stickers still attached, a clear message that they still saw themselves as the top team in the sport. Madison left little doubt to these boasts, as the E-Lam Plus won all three of its preliminary heats, beating newly minted U-1 Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison in all three heats. In the Final Villwock opened up a decent lead in the first lap then was able to push J. Michael Kelly in the Graham Trucking to the outside en route to victory. Kelly finished second while Steve David was able to take advantage of the Formula Boats entry suffering engine problems and the U-3 going dead within feet of the Finish Line to claim third.
In Detroit, perennial rivals David and Villwock were drawn into separate heats in all four preliminary heats and it looked like David might have the upper hand (as well as the inside lane) after a penalty in heat 4A was called on the Ellstrom entry. Despite having the inside lane, however, Villwock was able to win the Gold Cup going away, giving Villwock his sixth Gold Cup and a very memorable picture of Steve David sitting dejected on his boat in the next day’s edition of the Madison Courier. All thoughts of E-Lam invincibility were lost, however, after numerous penalties against them in the Tri-Cities race meant that not only had they lost their first race of the year but would lose the High Point lead coming into Seattle. After claiming top qualifier, Villwock would edge David in the first heat. After finishing behind Jimmy King in the U-3 and Steve David in the U-1 in heat 2A, Villwock would win over King in heat 3A while David took heat 3B. The Final was shaping up to be a three way race. Villwock jumped out to a lead in the Final, but was challenged early by Steve David. In the last lap David, which seemed comfortable to take second place points in life to fight another day, came high out of the water and came down hard, resulting in the engine overheating and the U-1 losing multiple spots on the course. This allowed Jimmy King to finish second in the U-3. Villwock won the race and, despite still trailing the Oberto in points, apparently had the momentum going into the final two races of the year, but a blowover in Evansville and a badly compressing engine in Doha gave Steve David and the less spectacular but more consistent Oh Boy! Oberto-Miss Madison just enough daylight to claim the championship. So while Villwock and the E-Lam team won the Triple Crown in 2009, the big crown stayed in Madison.
Much like the “real” Triple Crown has only been won eleven times, the fact that Hydroplane Racing’s own version of the Triple Crown has only been won nine times shows the significance of its achievement. It should also be of note that the only four drivers to accomplish this feat are the top four on the list of all time race winners in the sport, so it’s certainly an achievement meant for the upper echelon. Also, I realize that other races can rival these three in terms of prestige, especially the Washington, DC President’s Cup race in earlier years and the current Doha Oryx Cup race in modern times, but it should be noted that the longevity of the Madison, Detroit, and Seattle races only add to their prestige and thus set them apart from other races on the schedule in their own special way. If a driver and team win the Triple Crown, they certainly have accomplished something.