July 24, 1972: About time for Atomic Cup luck, says race winner

July 24, 2008 

When it was suggested to Bill Muncey on Sunday afternoon that luck as much as speed decided 1972's Atomic Cup, he had a jovial retort.

"Well, it's about time Bill Muncey had a little luck on the Columbia. I've been trying to win this race for a long time, and I'm real happy we put it all together here."

For the 44-year-old hydroplane jockey with 32 regatta championships to his credit, the $4,500 he pocketed for first place in the Tri-Cities was only part of his winning story. His Atomic Cup victory, the first in seven tries, guaranteed Muncey of the unlimited hydroplane national point championship.

Although Muncey established three Atomic Cup and two world speed records before an estimated 50,000 fans, it is unlikely he would have won the race without Lady Luck interfering.

In the sixth and final lap of the championship heat, Muncey and his Atlas Van Lines were embarrassingly behind by some 13 seconds to favored Billy Sterett Jr. in the Pride of Pay 'N Pak. But, with the heat and the race nearly in the record books, Bob Gilliam was thrown from his hand-me-down boat, Pizza Pete, and the heat had to be restarted.

Forty-five minutes' worth of engine-changing and second-guessing later, Atlas and Pay 'N Pak resumed the fight. But no sooner had the two boats hit the starting line than Pay 'N Pak stopped dead in the water as a result of what the crew later diagnosed as a frozen supercharger.

So, while the Pay 'N Pak floated helplessly downstream in the final heat of a race it had virtually won earlier in the afternoon, Muncey coasted around the 2 1/2-mile course for his fifth victory in six races on the unlimited circuit this year.

Muncey said later that it was not until his second lap that he knew "we were on our way to the bank."

"Going through the corner of the first lap of the rerun, I didn't know he (Sterett) was down. I was wondering to myself on the first backstretch where his boat was, but I said to myself, "I've got a good lead and I'll keep on pushing.'"

In a unprecedented tribute to the racing fans, many of whom, Muncey admitted, weren't exactly rooting for him, the San Diego native toured the course one last time in a victory lap, clapping his hands with glee as he passed the official barge.

Sterett and Pay 'N Pak owner Dave Heerensperger, Kent, were appropriately glum-faced after the race. It was Billy Sterett Sr., however, who offered the most appropriate analysis. He said to Gilliam after the Pizza Pete driver had been safely brought back to shore, "If that happens again, please fly through the air for at least 30 seconds more."

Gilliam was scratched up a bit, but that's all. He finished fifth, behind Muncey, Terry Sterett in Miss Budweiser, Billy Sterett in Pay 'N Pak and defending Atomic Cup champion Jim McCormick in Miss Timex.

Muncey set new records for fastest lap, 115.979 m.p.h. fastest heat, 110.655, and race average, 107.417. The first two records are world as well as Atomic Cup standards.

Atlas and Pay 'N Pak won their respective heats so handily earlier in the afternoon that it was not until their long-awaited confrontation that the sun-drenched throng had much to get excited about.

In the "first" championship heat, Pay 'N Pak beat Atlas to the first buoy, Sterett outmaneuvered Muncey at the upstream turn and led by two seconds at the end of lap one. By the end of lap two, Sterett's lead was 11 seconds, and the issue was apparently decided.

But when Gilliam was tossed out of his boat four laps later, Muncey had his chance.

"It wasn't his (Sterett's) fault and it wasn't mine," said Muncey. "It's a shame this had to happen, but things like this have happened to me many, many, many times in this strange world of unlimited racing."

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