Book covers 100 years of hydroplane racing

By Sara Bruestle | Jul 03, 2013
Courtesy of: Rosenfeld Collection, Mystic Seaport Museum Kaye Don in the Miss England II is followed by Gar Wood in the Miss America IX at the start of the first race of the 1931 Harmsworth Trophy competition on the Detroit River. Wood executed "The Yankee Trick" the day after this photo was taken. Local author Andy Muntz tells the story of that race in his new book "At the Ragged Edge."

Andy Muntz was 6 years old when he watched boat-racing legend Bill Muncey crash his hydroplane into a Coast Guard boat during the 1958 Gold Cup on his black-and-white TV.

A longtime fan of hydroplane racing, Muntz, the Mukilteo School District spokesperson and local author, has published a book about the history of the sport.

“At the Ragged Edge” covers the first 100 years of hydroplane racing, from 1903 to 2003, and focuses on two of the sport’s most famous competitors: Gar Wood and Bill Muncey.

“Those were by far the most colorful characters that the sport has had, and the most successful, and so by telling their two stories you pretty much tell the history of the sport,” Muntz said.

Wood was a mechanical genius and a self-made millionaire – he invented the hydraulic hoist for trucks – who made it his mission to become the world’s greatest speedboat driver.

“He was an inventor, and at one point he had more patents than any other living American,” Muntz said. “He was very creative and very much into mechanical things.”

From 1917 to 1933, he was famous for winning five Gold Cup races in a row and nine Harmsworth Trophy races. The Harmsworth was the first international motorboat race.

He also set a number of speed records – he was the first to break 100 mph in a race boat – and did various publicity stunts, such as racing a train down the Hudson River from Albany to New York City. He beat the train by 22 minutes.

In one race held in 1931, an estimated 600,000 spectators were drawn to the Detroit River to watch Wood compete against a British race boat. Wood won the race because of what the British claimed was a “Yankee trick” – a story of legend in the sport.

“He made a run for the start and jumped the gun, but he also got the British guy to start too early, and so they were disqualified,” Muntz said. “But Gar Wood’s second boat (driven by brother George Wood) was well behind them, and he started legally, and ended up winning the Harmsworth.”

Bill Muncey was famous here in Seattle. He raced hydroplanes from 1950 to 1981, winning 62 races, which was the most races in the history of the sport until his record was broken in 2011.

He set a world speed record of 192 mph in 1960, but that was broken two years later.

“He was very, very well known around these parts,” Muntz said. “Anybody who was alive during the ‘50s and ‘60s would know Bill Muncey, because he was hands down the most famous driver that there was at the time.”

Muncey is often remembered for the 1958 race in which he lost control of the steering on his boat and it crashed into the side of a Coast Guard boat on Lake Washington.

He survived that crash, but died in 1981 when his boat flipped during a World Championship race in Acapulco. He was 52 years old.

What helped make him a legend, Muntz said, was that Muncey was a master at getting into the heads of his competition and play them to his advantage.

“He played the psychological game really well,” he said. “Oftentimes he won the race before the race even started.”

Muntz was a kid in the late 1950s and 1960s when hydroplane racing was Seattle’s sport – before there were the Seattle Mariners or the Seattle Sonics. He was a big Muncey fan, along with all the other kids.

“This was our sport,” he said. “We all knew all the hydroplanes and we knew all the drivers. It was a big-time deal here.”

Muntz, 60, has done a lot of writing about hydroplanes: He wrote another book “Roostertails Unlimited,” a handbook about the sport. He was also the director of public relations for the Seafair for a year, was the editor-in-chief of “Boatracing Magazine” for 10 years and contributes to the Unlimiteds Unanimous club newsletter.

When the boats are in Seattle, Muntz also volunteers to give pit tours at the Seafair, and has done so for many years.

“I apparently like things that are fast and loud, because in my spare time I’m a docent up at the Flying Heritage Collection, which is Paul Allen’s museum. So that’s another interest of mine. I spend many weekends up there giving tours as well.”

He wrote “At the Ragged Edge” over the course of 20 years, inspired by Wil Muncey, Bill Muncey’s son, who had been publisher of “Boatracing Magazine.”

“It’s great of someone of Andy’s considerable talents to take the time to write a book about my dad,” Muncey said. “My dad’s career represents a good purview of marine motor sports, because he happened to start participating at a very special time.”

Other interesting characters covered in the book include: Chris Smith and Ted Jones, two designers and boat builders who revolutionized the sport, and Bernie Little and Guy Lombardo, who were some of Bill Muncey’s competitors.

The book was recently included in a display of books by local authors at the Mukilteo Library.

“At the Ragged Edge: Hydroplane Racing and the Sport's Most Famous Competitors” is available on Amazon.

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