SAN DIEGO — For someone who has won five straight unlimited hydroplane Gold Cup races to share a 65-year-old American Power Boat Assn. record with the legendary Gar Wood, Chip Hanauer is surprisingly pessimistic about winning No. 6.
"The bottom dropped out of our program at San Diego last year, and I'm not sure we're back yet," Hanauer said as his turbine-powered Miller American boat was being transported from Seattle to Mission Bay for Sunday's Gold Cup.
"We didn't start out well this season and really haven't improved much since. What makes us look even worse is that the opposition hit it right on the button this year."
The opposition is driver Jim Kropfeld in Bernie Little's new Miss Budweiser, the defending unlimited champion and winner of five of this year's six races.
"Bernie's boat is 15 miles (an hour) faster than any other boat in the water and the only reason it lost the one race is because Jim jumped the gun at Detroit and lost a lap," Hanauer said. "The Bud boat has us covered the way we had them covered a couple of years ago."
Hanauer, in addition to winning five straight Gold Cup races, won the national championship in the Miller American in 1985, and the Atlas Van Lines in 1983 and 1982 after replacing the late Bill Muncey, who was killed in Acapulco in the final race of 1981.
Perhaps hoping to catch some past glory, Hanauer and boat owner Fran Muncey--Bill's widow--are switching from their 1987 model to the four-year-old boat that won the '85 championship for Sunday's race over the 2.5-mile Bill Muncey Memorial course.
"The new boat was not quite what we hoped it would be," the 31-year-old Seattle driver said. "We didn't feel we could go on the way we've been going, so we brought the old boat out of hibernation. We had hoped to run it at Syracuse (Aug. 23) but didn't get a chance to test it when the race was canceled because of high winds."
Hanauer put the old boat through a thorough test last Friday on Lake Washington, but admitted that "you can't be sure what you learn from a fresh-water test for a salt-water race."
The most apparent difference in the two boats is that the new one has an enclosed cab, while the older one does not.
"The cab has been responsible for saving the life of three drivers already, so I know it's the way to go, but I still don't have a good relationship with the environment," Hanauer said. "The old boat is more comfortable, like a pair of old tennis shoes.
"One thing I don't like about the cab is that it has poor visibility to the rear. Getting set for the start, which can be the most important time of a race, I'm unsure where the other boats are. By going back to the open cockpit, it should help me be more aggressive at the start.
"It did feel strange, though, after being in an envelope all season to suddenly be out there with the wind and the spray in my face again. At first it was a little unnerving, but it didn't take long to get the old feel back."
A protective cab has been credited with saving the life of driver Steve Reynolds, who crashed violently when his Cellular One flipped during a race last July on the Ohio River.
Reynolds also had a similar accident while testing, and Kropfeld flipped and landed upside down during a preseason test on Lake Washington.
A major problem facing Hanover and Kropfeld is that the Mission Bay course is salt water, which is anathema to turbines.
Last year, neither Miller American nor Miss Budweiser finished the race as the salt built up on the turbine blades and caused overheating.
"The problem point is running at low speed from the dock, before the boat gets up to racing speeds," Hanauer explained. "All the turbine boat owners are working on ways to filter out most of the salt before it reaches the blades."
Miss Bahia, an almost archaic piston-powered boat owned by Bob Patterson of Van Nuys and driven by Ron Armstrong of Lakewood, won here to become the only non-turbine craft to win a race in the last two years.
"Running a World War II aircraft engine against the jet turbines is like matching a DC-3 against a 747," said Patterson, who would like to see either the turbines banned or placed in a separate class.
There are only two salt-water courses on the unlimited schedule, here and Miami's Biscayne Bay, where Kropfeld nursed his turbine to victory the last two races.
"Our boat has never finished a race in salt water in 3 1/2 years," Hanauer said, "but we have to do better than we did here last year when we didn't even make it into the final heat. It was the first time we'd ever failed to qualify at San Diego, which was really embarrassing because it's Fran Muncey's hometown."
Actually, Mission Bay is one of Hanauer's favorite courses, a body of water where he won in 1981 and 1982 before the turbine era.
"It is wider than most places we race, it's at sea level and it's well protected from the wind, all of which helps make it very fast," he said, adding with a wry grin: "Except when you're running with a turbine."