In the spring, ChatGPT was asked to rank the Top 10 H1 Unlimited drivers throughout the sport’s history. Do you agree or disagree with ChatGPT assessment? In your opinion, who is the greatest driver ever to race in the Unlimited category?
Craig Fjarlie (Unlimited News Journal Writer & H1 Unlimited Volunteer)
A number of factors must come together to produce a great driver. It takes a lot more than just climbing in the cockpit and stepping on the throttle. First, however, I want to say that I think Unlimited racing has changed numerous times in its long history. Boats that required a driver to push a piston engine to its limit had more mechanical problems. Additionally, drivers who sat in open cockpits were in constant danger of having their career cut short because of a serious accident. Wooden boats were sometimes said to “disintegrate.” Modern carbon fiber boats can be more easily repaired when damaged, and drivers in enclosed cockpits can often walk away from a flip. For that reason, comparing a driver from 1956 with a driver in 2023 may not be a case of apples and oranges, but it’s peaches and nectarines, anyway.
With that in mind, I believe a driver who has an intimate knowledge of the mechanical and technical side of an Unlimited hydroplane will have an advantage over one who is unsure which end of a screwdriver to hold. My choice for the best driver is Dave Villwock. I think he was a bit past his prime when he drove in 2022, but taking a long view of his career leads me to the conclusion that he is the best all-around driver in the history of unlimited hydroplane racing.
Brad Luce (H1 Unlimited PA Announcer)
This is the toughest question proposed to the H1 Unlimited Writers’ Panel. Or is it? Being as I have never driven a race boat of any type, maybe it is the easiest. The simple and honest answer is, I don’t know. How would I know? But you asked only for my “opinion.” So here goes.
To be clear, Villwock, Muncey, and Hanauer are in a class by themselves. Their career victory totals will never be eclipsed and cannot be ignored.
So, maybe that’s it. Maybe the greatest driver is simply the driver with the most career wins. That seems easy enough. And that would be Dave Villwock. It is easy to make the case for Dave. Not only does he have the most career wins, he also has the highest race winning percentage of races entered (45%). Case closed. Well, some might argue Dave had great, and in some cases, far superior equipment to the competition. Good point. But I think you can say that for all the drivers on the CHATGPT list. For most of their careers, they all had the very best equipment.
But what if we allow the definition of “driver” to go beyond just what the individual accomplished behind the wheel? Would we change our opinion? Or does this just make the case stronger for Dave Villwock? Dave is a master when it comes to boat setup, propeller technology, and other aspects of racing far beyond the cockpit. He is a mastermind. Should this be considered? I think it should. (Remember, it is my opinion!)
But if other aspects of being a driver are to be considered, the list starts and stops at Bill Muncey. Muncey’s accomplishments on the water speak for themselves. He was a winner. But for me, it is what Bill Muncey did outside the cockpit that sets him apart. Bill viewed his driving duties as all encompassing: the actual driving being only part of his total responsibility. He felt responsible for the sport as well, and thus became the greatest ambassador the sport has ever known. He was the sport’s spokesperson, publicist, salesman, advertiser, front man, you name it. In short, Bill Muncey was a fan of hydroplane racing and did everything in his power to promote it the best way possible. Imagine if Bill were still with us today.
And because of all that, Bill Muncey was “Greatest Driver of All Time”. NOW, case closed.
Jeff Morrow (Former Sports Editor of the Tri-City Herald)
I believe Villwock should be at No. 1.
Muncey was before my time, and I know he was a great driver as well as a great promoter of the sport.
I interviewed Hanauer numerous times. Great guy. Great PR man for his teams.
And to me, Steve David has been perhaps the best PR driver I’ve seen. He always — ALWAYS — seemed to make time for fans. And he was great on the water.
But here’s the deal: Villwock wasn’t just a great driver. He knew everything about the boat he drove.
Yes, he has the most career wins. And yes, he could rub people the wrong way.
One year in Tri-Cities, maybe 2004, I wrote a story: I had $1 million to start a hypothetical race team (I know, it’s probably more money today). I offered complete anonymity to every person I talked to in the pits for the story.
I wanted to know which driver they would hire; which crew chief, which prop guy, etc.
Some of the people I interviewed didn’t care much for Villwock.
But grudgingly, this group of people picked Villwock as their driver. They also picked him as their crew chief, as well as their prop guy.
The point is, they might not have liked Villwock all that much. But they would have grabbed him for their team if they could.
Andy Muntz (Unlimited News Journal Editor & H1 Unlimited Board Member)
I’ll start by admitting that I’m biased. About 10 years ago I wrote a book that is a biography of both Bill Muncey and Gar Wood, so I think ChatGPT is brilliant for putting Muncey at the top of the list and for including Wood at 6th place.
Muncey was very good at winning races, as his victory tally demonstrates, but his influence on the sport went way beyond the trophies that he collected. He was instrumental in transforming the sport from a hobby practiced by multi-millionaires to the commercial enterprise that we know today—an activity centered around sponsors and prize money, things that didn’t exist to any great extent when Muncey became involved.
Bill Muncey belongs at the top of the list because he was among the first drivers to understand that his role was a great deal more than sitting in the cockpit and turning the steering wheel. He knew that he was the face of his team, of his sponsor, and of the entire sport. He was a master at gaining publicity and promoting the sport every chance that he got. He never shied away from an interview and always had something compelling to say. Even during the off-season, he was a featured speaker at thousands of Kiwanis and Rotary club meetings, boy scout gatherings, high-school assemblies, and so on. And, because of that, he became a celebrity. He couldn’t walk into a Seattle-area restaurant in the 1950s and ‘60s without being recognized.
Gar Wood was much the same but gained his fame because of his technical skill and resourcefulness. While his win total is nowhere near that of others in the sport, he was dominant at his time and also brought world attention to boat racing. Because of his success and the marvelous stories about his escapades, Gar Wood had become among the nation’s most recognized sports figures during the 1920s and early ’30.
ChatGPT also did a good job with the other ratings. Chip Hanauer and Dave Villwock certainly belong among the top three with Muncey. As for the other seven, they probably belong, as well. We could quibble about their placing, but that’s no doubt a factor of the criteria that ChatGPT was given to create its list. My criteria might be different, so my list might be different, but that doesn’t make one right and the other wrong. I should point out, however, that drivers such as Bill Cantrell, Ron Musson, Billy Schumacher, and Danny Foster also deserve to be in the mix somewhere.
David Newton (Publisher of Roostertail Talk Podcast)
Creating a list of the top 10 drivers in H1 Unlimited racing history is challenging. What criteria would you use to make such a list? Obviously race wins is a must, but not the only factor. You have to think about the impact those drivers made on the sport. This means how they supported, marketed, and brought national attention to the sport. Bill Muncey is the prime example of this, he was ruthless on the water winning races, but also had charm and charisma with media and fans. Love him or hate him, he got people interested and talking about Unlimited Hydroplanes. Steve David and Dean Chenoweth were absolutely the same way.
Another criteria beyond driving the boat, is having the know how to make the boat’s performance better by wrenching, designing and evolving their craft. This makes me think of Gar Wood and Dave Villwock envisioning how to make the boats they race go faster. They helped evolve the sport to be faster and more exciting by changing how the boats were powered, improving designs and countless other things to make the boats be more efficient and faster. Bill Cantrell also comes to my mind in this category. A Detroit native, Bill earned 22 victories in the sport. He was a champion racer that spent more time wrenching on boats than behind the wheel. He was able to win the race on and off the water as a great driver, boat builder and mechanic.
There are two more drivers in my mind that should be on that list that were omitted. Ron Musson and Steve Reynolds. Each of these drivers were talented in their own rights, but unfortunately their racing careers were cut short. Ron a natural born winner (getting 16 victories in his short career), relentless behind the wheel and taken too early from the sport. Steve Reynolds who was a fast racer and had the marketing skills and charisma behind the camera to bring attention to the sport. He was lucky to walk away from his crash in 1987, but his injuries ended his driving career. Unfortunately, with Steve and Ron, they were both taken away from the sport too early, who knows how many more races they could have won and what other benefits they could have brought to H1 Unlimited.
The top driver in H1 Unlimited racing history has to be Chip Hanauer. His 61 race victories puts him 3rd in the win column (only 6 back from tying Dave Villwock). What impresses me most about his race victories is he was able to do this in 3 different decades with boats that were significantly different. He raced boats that were powered by turbo charged Allisons, Merlins, and Turbine engines. He won races in an open cockpit, with and without safety harnesses, and eventually in an enclosed cockpit. His driving adapted with the boats as they evolved designs and added movable canard wings. He was the first to qualify at 150MPH and the 2nd driver to qualify over 170MPH. His accolades on water were matched off as he continued Bill Muncey’s legacy by masterfully promoting the sport on camera as a fan favorite. Even 24 years after Hanauer’s retirement he remains a fan favorite. No one will ever match the significance Chip has had on H1 Unlimited.