Chip Hanauer Drives Himself Toward a Record in the Deadly Sport of Hydroplane Racing
Chip Hanauer rarely drinks, cusses or takes artificial stimulants. He doesn't chase women, even though with his looks he could probably catch quite a few. Hanauer, 31, gets all the thrills he needs or wants from driving the fastest, most powerful race boats—"unlimited hydroplanes," which may be no more than 28 feet long but may have an engine of any size or type—at speeds approaching 200 mph. "It's dangerous," concedes Hanauer, who is the winningest active driver in his class in the American Power Boat Association. "I know I'm playing with dynamite."
In fact this is one of the deadliest of all sports. During the past 39 years there have been more than 100 competition hydroplane drivers. Twelve were killed while racing. Champion Bill Muncey died in a flip, or "blow over," in 1981. Another champion driver, Dean Chenoweth, followed less than a year later. Hanauer himself came perilously close just a month before Muncey was killed. This weekend in Seattle, Hanauer will be going for his fourth consecutive APBA Gold Cup, the sport's most prestigious trophy. The legendary Gar Wood was the only person to ever win it four successive times, and that was more than 60 years ago.
Racing hydroplanes is more like flying than sailing. The craft these days are powered by aircraft engines: Hanauer's Miller American (it is sponsored by the beer) uses the same turbine as Chinook helicopters used in Vietnam. Skimming across the waves, these sleek high-tech cocoons throw "rooster tails" of water 50 feet high. The noise of the "thunder boats" is ear splitting, and the ride is torture. "The river sets you up and beats you down," Hanauer says. "It's like being a linebacker in the NFL." Strapped in—and wearing a triple-layered flame-retardant suit—he pilots his hurtling, 28-foot projectile by feel more than sight. "It's like skiing," he says. "It's a sense of speed, rhythm and adjusting to irregular terrain. I guess you could say I use my butt more than my eyes."
Hanauer's nearest brush with death came in a blow over. Blow overs occur when the hydroplane's bow rises out of the water and the boat flips over backward. As Hanauer's boat flew upside down, the nightmare unfolded in slow motion. "I was convinced I was going to be dead," he recalls. "I thought, let's get it done with. I don't like being up here." He survived with only a ruptured kidney because he was thrown clear when his bow hit the water.
Hanauer grew up a boat-crazy kid in Seattle, buying his first racer at 9 with $250 he earned from his paper route. A few months later his mother died. He credits his father, Stan, a retired power-tool salesman and also a passionate boat lover, for his sangfroid. Early on his father told him, "You have to accept whatever comes from your racing. If you lose an arm or a leg, I don't want you moaning or groaning."
Following that advice Chip exudes a Zen-like acceptance of racing's consequences. "My biggest fear is not of death," he says. "It's of permanent disability, being a quadriplegic." Yet he insists that he's not the macho type. "If I have a close call in my car," he says, "I shake. It scares me." Why then does Hanauer take such risks? He answers without missing a beat: "In a single day you can feel intense fear, joy, defeat, excitement, humiliation—every human emotion. All those feelings make you feel alive."
Despite an estimated income nearing six figures, Hanauer lives in a modest, almost ascetic two-bedroom bungalow in Seattle. During the four-and-one-half-month racing season, women are taboo. While his crew needles him about his matinee-idol looks and legion of female fans, "Hollywood" Hanauer is actually rather shy around women. "I'm afraid of commitment at this time," he admits. "I am very much at peace going into a restaurant alone with a book." At the same time, he looks forward to the day (he imagines around age 40) when, retired from racing, he will have "a nice home away from the city, a kennel full of golden retrievers, kids and a wife I'm in love with."
Given his job Hanauer realizes that that time may never come. "If it all ends today," he says, "I've had more days of happiness than anybody should have in a lifetime."