By Holly Cain
If Chip Hanauer had his way he would have retired in 1982 after winning his first Gold Cup -- unlimited hydroplane racing's crown jewel. He genuinely doubted his racing career could get any more magical.
It was Hanauer's third victory and remains number one No. 1 in his heart because of the emotional circumstances surrounding it. It was his first win after replacing his mentor, the late champion Bill Muncey, as driver.
Nearly two decades and seven driver championships later, Hanauer comes to the Seafair General Motors Cup on Lake Washington this weekend needing only one more victory in the Fred Leland-owned Miss Pico to tie Muncey's all-time record 62 victories. Although you'd think the occasion warrants great celebration and anticipation, the Seattle native has mixed feelings about the feat.
Hanauer strongly believes that not all records are made to be broken.
"In some ways I wouldn't want to break the record," Hanauer said. "I already have more Gold Cups (11) and national championships than Bill. Frankly, I don't feel all that good about taking this record away. He's Bill Muncey; he's a legend.
"In some ways it would be bittersweet. Bill's memory has more of a good use for the record than I do."
Ironically, Muncey's widow, Fran, has always encouraged Hanauer to stay after the record. She welcomed his return from the sport this season after a two-year absence in hopes Hanauer would go down in history alongside her husband.
Fran Muncey and Hanauer have remained close friends. She arrives in Seattle today to witness Hanauer's run for the record and for her induction into the Hydroplane Hall of Fame along with George Henley and Bill Brow.
Like Fran Muncey, Hanauer's competitors and those that have followed the sport may be more enthusiastic about the impending record than he is. Hanauer sees it more as another victory for his team. Others believe Hanauer's quest has energized the sport and drawn welcome attention.
"It's like comparing apples and oranges for different sports, but for our sport this is like getting the home run record," said Dr. Ken Muscatel, commissioner of the Unlimited Hydroplane Racing Association.
"I used to think the home run record would stand longer. Then again no one ever thought Bill's record would be broken."
The difference is newly-crowned home run king Mark McGwire never competed alongside Roger Maris, whose record he broke. They never spent long afternoons in the dugout talking about the nuances of their sport, a veteran teaching the up-and-comer.
Hanauer and Muncey did share that type of relationship, and understanding their bond helps us appreciate Hanauer's reverence for Muncey, if not for the record run itself.
Muncey was about to clinch his sixth and final championship when Hanauer came on the scene in the late 1970s and early '80s, but the veteran liked the young driver so much they raced as teammates in off-weekend endurance events around the West Coast. It wasn't so much a tutorial in the art of driving a boat as a primer in being a champion, in representing the sport with poise and personality.
Muncey wasn't just a champion driver, he was hydroplane racing's showman, a reporter's ideal interview, the series ambassador. As Fran Muncey likes to joke, "No one else needed to talk because Bill did the talking for everyone."
That couldn't have been a better situation for Hanauer at the time. Although he is considered one of sports' best interviews now, when Hanauer first started racing he was extremely shy, a "yes-and-no" answer kind of guy. Then Muncey started dragging Hanauer along to his own news conferences and interviews.
Hanauer still laughs remembering a particular interview with a Seattle television station after one of the pair's endurance races. The boat broke with Muncey at the helm on the first lap of the nine-hour event. With Hanauer sitting expressionless at his side, Muncey told the reporter that Chip was driving at the time and made a mistake costing them the race.
"He told this whole story that was untrue and so I finally had to say, 'Wait a minute, that's not how it was,'" Hanauer said. "He had been prodding me to talk and take the initiative, and so really he forced the issue on me. He had always told me that I had the ability to drive, so we didn't need to go there. He wanted me to learn not to be so shy."
Sadly, the lesson was put to the test earlier than anyone could have imagined. Muncey was killed in a crash while leading the final heat of the 1981 season finale, the Acapulco World Championship in Mexico.
"Because Bill cared so much about the sport, he always made me promise that if anything ever happened to him that I'd get the boat to the next race -- that the race must go on," Fran Muncey said. "I felt I had to honor his request, and Bill always liked Chip because he was such a good student of the sport. Chip was my only choice."
And so Fran Muncey and her new driver carried on with the Atlas Van Lines team, and the results never reflected the great challenges this new adventure handed them. Not only did Hanauer win the 1982 Gold Cup, he won four other races en route to the season championship and collected two more titles during his seven-year tenure with Muncey's team.
Along the way Hanauer, who also had stints in the Circus Circus and Miss Budweiser boats, successfully made the transition from introverted young driver to experienced professional. He is accessible to the media, popular with fans and Seattle's favorite homegrown sports figure.
And like Muncey, Hanauer has managed to protect his privacy away from the racing circuit. He escaped to his beach home this week for a little peace before the Seafair hubbub begins. And there's even a slim chance Hanauer will take himself out of the cockpit this weekend since his neck and back are still sore from a horrifying flip-over last weekend at Tri-Cities.
The chase for the record has almost become more a burden than a notch in his belt. The expectations, the constant hype have Hanauer eager to accomplish the feat as much for relief as for glory.
Even in the rare moments Hanauer allows himself to reflect upon the significance of this accomplishment, he is humble and respectful.
"All it says was that I was fortunate enough to work with talented people a whole lot of years, and I rode on their shoulders," Hanauer said. "I contributed my portion, and I'm proud of that, but the thing that means the most to me is that the guys that have worked so hard on the boat have entrusted it to me, and I was able to contribute.
"I feel if it (the record) would happen, we've kept it in the family, and I hope Bill would look at it that way."
Fran Muncey assures the family would have it no other way.
"People often ask me who I think is the better driver," Fran Muncey said. "Bill was more a showman and cared about building the sport. Chip is so focused and concentrated every time he goes out in the boat, he could never just let even one heat slide. In seven years he drove for us, he never made one driver error that caused us to lose.
"Bill Muncey and Chip Hanauer are both my heroes. Not only are they the very best people in the world at what they did, they are honorable and decent human beings."
It's likely Hanauer will cherish that legacy most -- not victory No. 63.
His return this season and the ensuing record run have invigorated the sport and given it an element of intrigue that's been waning the past few years. People across the world are interested in hydroplanes again.
And that, Chip, would also make Bill Muncey proud.