Dancing with the Devil
Chip Hanauer, boat racing's 'living legend,
might have been better off as an auto
By JERRY GARRETT
It was the start of the 1996 Gold Cup race, unlimited hydroplane racing's Holy Grail. Ten-time winner Chip Hanauer skimmed across the choppy Detroit River at speeds up to 190 mph in Miss Budweiser, trying to beat Mark Tate in Smokin' Joe's inside the first corner. Without warning, Miss Bud's right sponson ricocheted off the water and bounced up . . . up . . . and away, until the boat was airborne, twirling over in midair onto its left side. The crowd watched in horror as the Bud boat landed squarely on top of Smokin' Joe's. An explosion as loud as a cannon shot ripped away Hanauer's protective plexiglass canopy. His neck Jammed as his helmeted head grazed Tate's boat. Then Miss Bud careened away and landed right side up in the water. It took an hour to free the unscathed Tate, whose canopy remained intact. Hanauer was whisked away to a hospital for a CAT scan. Later, a rescuer held two fingers a quarter-inch apart and said the otherwise uninjured Hanauer, the sport's celebrated "living legend," had come "this close" to joining other hydroplane greats like Bill Muncey, Gar Wood, and Dean Chenoweth in the "dead legend" category. Abruptly, Hanauer retired, leaving many questions and few answers as to why. Then, in March this year, just as unexpectedly as he had left, he announced he would return to thunderboats, driving Miss Pico, and be back at the Gold Cup in June. Herein, inquiring minds, for the first time, are the reasons why he quit, and why Hanauer, now 44, is coming back."I truly feel like I walked through the Valley of Death and came out the other side," said Hanauer. He was just four wins shy of Muncey's career record of 62. Many feel Hanauer, despite the lesser victory total, is the greater racer. "I always believed I was the best," Hanauer modestly concurs. "If I didn't believe I was the best, I would have just quit."In 1995, Hanauer was, at 41, the youngest person ever inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame. Hanauer's achievements came despite a "bionic" left hand powered by steel tension rods that replaced the tendons he severed in a propeller accident as a teenager. So he did it all "single-handedly." As accomplished as Hanauer is at racing boats, he may have also been the best auto racer you never saw. More on that later in this program. ”My first love was cars," Hanauer said. But at age 10, cars weren't an option. With money he made from a paper route, he bought a small hydroplane. He started winning races immediately. He was an American Power Boat Association (APBA) champion before he had a driver's license, and by the time he graduated at 22 with honors from Washington State University in1976, he'd won nine limited hydroplane titles. That seemed adequate. He was prepared to retire and settle down as aspecial-ed teacher for troubled teenage boys. Part-time, he's still doing that. By outward appearances, Lee Edward "Chip" Hanauer was a typical school teacher. Tall and thin, he looked, dressed, and acted the part. He lived then—and still does—in a tiny house in Seattle that was built for his late grandmother. He drove aVW—a Bug then, a Jetta now. Some thought him reclusive, others felt he was just terribly shy. Everyone agreed he was a tightwad." I made a conscious decision when I began teaching never to have a lifestyle above what I could make as a teacher," he said, "because I knew racing was a flaky business. Here today, gone tomorrow. I didn't want to establish a lifestyle that I could afford at one salary, only to have it all taken away. To one degree or another, I've pretty much done that." His friends, he chuckles, are still working, while he enjoys the seven-figure nest egg he set aside. Hanauer’s unlimited-hydroplane debut came in an ancient 1957-model boat, coinciding with his '76 college graduation. A year later, he succeeded Jerry Bangs, a driver who had been killed, in the Squire Shop hydroplane and soon made it a winner. Hanauer proved to be a master tactician, uncanny at "hole shot" starts. For 1982, the 27-year-old phenom was picked by Muncey’s widow, Fran, to replace her late husband in the Atlas Van Lines boat. That tenure was the high-water mark of his boat-racing career. "Nobody expected us to win anything," he beams, "and we came out and won everything."First up: A tactically brilliant victory in the 1982 Gold Cup over the nearly unbeatable Chenoweth, who would be killed in Miss Budweiser a month later. Over the next nine years, Hanauer won five championships, as the Atlas boat morphed into the Miller American, and finally Miss Circus Circus, before owner Bill Bennett disbanded the team in 1990. Hanauer's 1991contract was bought out, so he had the freedom to try auto racing. He was ready to leave the big boats."Hydroplane racing was horribly lethal at that time," said Hanauer, who in 1983 was the first driver ever to use a seatbelt! "TheAPBA and unlimited's racing commission didn't like my using seatbelts. The APBA threatened to sue me; they said you were better off being thrown free in an accident." This, despite the fact that Muncey and Chenoweth were each ejected—andsuffered fatal head injuries as a result. With seatbelts, hydroplane racing became, begrudgingly, much less of a death and dismemberment spectacle. Hanauer’s brief pavement career had begun with a near victory in the 1990 Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race at Long Beach; eventual winner Bob "Hurricane" Hannah, the motocross racer, punted him out of the lead on the final hairpin. Team Toyota manager Dennis Aase was dazzled and added Hanauer to the factory lineup for 1991. Even teamed with the likes of Aase, P.J. Jones,and John Morton, Hanauer immediately garnered respect. By his sixth start, he won his first Firestone Firehawk endurance racein the Sports Class. Later, he would set a fastest-lap time and contend for the championship, finishing seventh out of 127 drivers. "My favorite race of all came at Watkins Glen," said Hanauer, who qualified second but started last due to a paper work infraction. "I started 80th, passed 78 guys—including my driving-school instructor—and finished second. P.J. won—and I was gaining on him."As Hanauer prepared for a full-on title assault in 1992, Toyota pulled its Firehawk money to go CART racing. He picked up a24 Hours of Daytona ride that winter in a privateer Porsche 962 and was running third midway through the night when the engine sucked a valve."Chip had no reasonable fear of death while racing cars," Aase said. "His learning curve was so vertical, if he'd stayed with it, he’d be at the top of the profession today."Unlimited hydroplane racing has a credibility level barely above the WWF. Anyone who cares about Chip's well-being has begged him to quit."But rather than find backers to keep road racing, Hanauer opted for a seemingly cushy $200,000-a-year job piloting the famed Miss Budweiser hydroplane on the '92 tour for flamboyant owner Bernie Little.The horrors to be visited upon him read like a Stephen King novel. Spectacular crashes were the legacy of the Bud boat, and a source of injuries and close calls for previous drivers Jim Kropfeld and Tom D'Eath. Don Wilson, Bill Brow, and Chenoweth were frequently injured and finally killed in earlier models. But, Hanauer thought, its problem is bad hull design. He erroneously assumed he'd have input to fix that. But the problems were deeper and more dangerous than that. Miss Budweiser rewarded him initially: five starts, five wins. But at race six, Seattle's prestigious Seafair, she blew over. Hanauer broke several ribs and was unconscious for 20 minutes, most of it underwater. His helmet was crushed on one side. He now believes that lick caused a brain injury, which, in turn, triggered a neurological condition that would escape diagnosis and slowly rob him of his voice over the next three years.Soon, his voice started sounding raspy. Then it became hoarse, as if he had a bad cold. Month by month, it deteriorated to Just an aggravating whisper as his crashes and injuries proliferated."The boat had this nasty habit: The right side of the hull bounced up and wouldn't come back down. It would become anairfoil," he said. "I had only blown over twice, maybe three times, in my life prior to that. And those times I knew I was out there on the edge, dancing with the devil. And I was okay with that, because I had known the risks and accepted them. But this was different." Blow-overs would come without warning, without taking extraordinary chances.He won the next race in Missouri, but in San Diego that August, another frightening crash sent him to the hospital with a new set of busted ribs. His crew's reaction astonished Hanauer: "They went home!"Was he expected to walk home to Seattle, barefoot, with his butt hanging out of a hospital gown? Without so much as a concerned phone call, they had left—taking his clothes, shoes, and wallet with them. Days later, after friends helped him get home, he confronted the team in manager Ron Brown's office: "I said, 'Ron, you left me!' And he said, 'Well, we had work todo.'"It broke my heart," he added. But he acknowledged that "they're not bad guys. It was just the corporate culture of that team.No one individual really matters. We just gotta fix the boat and go on. They were always like, 'Can you drive?' 'Do you feel well enough?'"Hanauer, who finished the '92 season with a record seven wins and a championship, tried to reason with the crew in the off-season. "Guys, we need to change things," he told them.The clue meter read zero. "One guy, Loren Sawyer—I remember him looking at me, and saying, 'What do you mean, change things? How many races did you win last year?' Yeah, I won seven races, but I also took four trips to the hospital. It dawned on me: They were winning races. They were willing to pay that price." Hanauer was used to crew being "family." One for all, all for one. Corny stuff, he admits. But the brew crew was not the Brady Bunch.When Hanauer won seven of the first eight races of the 1993 season, the team's cold cost-benefit analysis seemed vindicated.Over the '92 and '93 seasons, Hanauer accumulated an unprecedented 14 wins in his first 16 starts for Budweiser. Then the worm began to turn; weirdness waxed, wins waned. From August of '93 until 1996, Hanauer won just eight of 22 races. "We were either winning or crashing," said Hanauer, whose '93 driver's title was his last.Blow-overs weren't all that spooked Hanauer: "Probably the worst injury I had was when the escape hatch in the bottom of theboat—[it] lets you get out if the boat's upside down—failed [at speed], not once, but twice—the second time, breaking my back. I should have called a team meeting and gone, 'Jesus Christ—you know, guys, I need the trap door to stay in. It's failed twice and cost me races.' I had sponsons fall off. The protective canopy was coming off." The boat inflicted cruel and unusual punishment; it was unpredictable, hard to drive—its "normal" ride was harsh enough to cause a concussion or snap a rib. Water only looks soft. Hanauer raced on with four broken vertebrae, assorted concussions, a failing voice, and ribs crunched up like crackers in chowder. But he felt his superhuman effort was taken for granted."This is another example of how the team thinks," said Hanauer, citing Seafair 1994. "We had this experimental two-wing boat,and we got it upside down [in practice]. I got stuck underwater. They were having trouble getting me out." The sponson had folded over like origami onto the escape hatch—finally, a way to keep it closed! Saws and crowbars freed Hanauer, who once again had nearly drowned. But even as he was being checked in at the field hospital, the team sent a messenger to summon him to drive his backup boat.Within minutes, a groggy Hanauer was back in the saddle. Believe it or not, he aced qualifying. But the "attaboys" were still no-shows. In fact, a sponsor rep made him feel guilty for begging off an appearance in the "Torchlight Parade" later that night."So here I had been upside down, been trapped underwater in one boat, and two hours later qualified the other boat as fast qualifier, and they come up and go, 'We need you to ride in the parade tonight,'" he said, shaking his head. "That's why I think I Got myself in trouble. I never went, 'Hey, you know, you're being unreasonable here. I think I've given my pound of flesh.'"That team—why we were not a good match—would take everything I was willing to give. But I wouldn't put limits on what that was."Hanauer wanted to be the ultimate team player. The "go to" guy. The guy who never complained, drove in pain, was fast, won races, and stoically paid the physical price."I've come up with a saying: 'Being a good warrior may be good for the ego, but it's bad for the soul,'" he continued. "I think I Was a very good warrior, a great warrior. But it came at a real high price personally."Three days after his record 10th Gold Cup victory in June of 1995, Hanauer was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame along with Roger Penske, Bruce McLaren, Louis Chevrolet, and Keith Black. He croaked his way through an acceptance speech; his lost voice had him in a black depression: "Here, I was supposed to be at the pinnacle of my career. Instead, I was just totally defeated, depressed, confused. I've always wished I could go back and experience that again."Oddly, of the hundreds of boat-racing trophies Hanauer won in his 33-year career, none graces his home. "Actually, there are two trophies in my house," he clarified. "One is my first-place trophy from Portland for the Firehawk race, the other is from the Motorsports Hall of Fame."The thrill of winning boat races was long gone, he said. He was in chronic physical agony and mentally distraught over his lost voice. After one last trip to a speech therapist failed to find answers, he said, "I just broke down and started sobbing."He added, "I had been to maybe 50 doctors, and speech therapists, and everyone said, 'There's nothing wrong with you.' I Finally ended up on a psychiatrist's couch. I thought I must be emotionally disturbed or something."As the 1996 season loomed, he could visualize more blow-overs, mysterious crashes, and inexplicable mechanical failures. He could easily see himself becoming the latest in a long line of drivers to be killed in Miss Budweiser. The depression he felt over his voice overshadowed any sense of satisfaction he may have derived from winning, or making millions."I wasn't suicidal," he said. "But I certainly didn't see any reason to keep living."A preseason radio interview he did in Seattle produced a glimmer of hope, however. A former high-school classmate listened and called Hanauer's voice mail. "Do you know what is wrong with you?" he asked. "If you don't, call me, because I do."Hanauer, full of hope and apprehension, returned the call and was given the number of a doctor in New York. It would be two months before the doctor could see him. His appointment? Two days after that '96 Gold Cup race in Detroit. That’s when he found himself in the hospital again, after Miss Bud's mating dance with Smokin' Joe's. Ever feel like Monty Python's Black Knight, who tried to fight on despite dismemberment? "Yeah," Hanauer said, "only that guy didn't know when to quit. I finally did."I was on my third or fourth ride on the CAT scanner. The technician was the same one I'd met the year before. When you know the CAT scan operator by name, that's a bad sign. I finally said, right then and there, 'I can't do this.'"Adios, he told the crew. "We're gonna have to go our separate ways." He flew to New York to see the doctor." He diagnosed me in about five minutes after going through three years of hell," he said. Hanauer had developed spasmodicdysphonia, in which the brain tells a person's voice it simply can't talk. The next day Hanauer got his first treatment for it: an injection in the neck from a syringe filled with deadly botulism. Botox, this poison's clinical name, was developed during our government's secret experiments into chemical and biological weapons designed to kill millions. The toxin short-circuits errant nerve impulses from his brain, and voila! his voice returns. Every few months, the poison wears off, and he is injected again. "If it ever fails me," Hanauer laughed, "I'm going to Iraq. I Figure Saddam's got to have some stuff that works really good. "He recalled, "It affected me quickly. I hadn't spoken normally in years. The next morning, the hotel wake-up call came, and she said, 'Good morning, it's 6 o'clock.' And I said, 'Thank you.' It was my regular voice. I couldn't believe it. I started calling home of course, it was three in the morning there, but I didn't care."His first call was to his brother Scott, who no longer even recognized Chip's voice."I cried," he said. "It was like getting a new lease on life. All the counters were zeroed. I was starting fresh. In 48 hours, I had gone from lying on a CAT scanner, contemplating the end of my career and not knowing if they were ever going to be able fix my voice, to 'Hallelujah! I'm happy as hell!' "Hanauer has become a national spokesman for spasmodic dysphonia and has, by his count, helped more than 50 people recognize they had the same ailment. Meanwhile, Hanauer has had chances to reconsider and return to boat racing. Bernie Little has called more than once. The last time, Hanauer remembers, was when Dave Villwock, his successor in the Miss Bud cockpit, was nearly killed in the summer of'97 in an accident all too familiar to Hanauer." The race couldn't have gone off any later than 4:10. Dave was in the water unconscious, not breathing, with his hand cut off, and there was a message on my voice mail at 4:25 from Bernie," he recalled. "He was already looking for a driver." But Villwock recovered and became team manager as well as driver. Brown departed and now runs an Indy Lights team; he and Hanauer had a catharsis and have become good friends. Villwock, an engineer, redesigned Miss Bud's hull, propellers, and canopy."Some of the complaints Chip had regarding the handling were valid," confirmed a team source. "When Dave came in, he gave us a fresh pair of eyes. We discovered the balance point was not exactly where we thought it was, not only front to back but side to side, too. "The accidents stopped. Miss Bud became invincible again in 1998, winning eight of ten races. But with Hanauer gone, that season lacked even a decent two-boat rivalry. Hanauer, meanwhile, tried auto racing again, driving in vintage races for CART car owner Bruce McCaw. He worked in media relations for PPG Motorsports, and for Michelin."If the pull of the moon and the alignment of the stars were perfect," Hanauer would reply when asked about his possible return to thunderboats. "I guess those things finally happened." So Hanauer, rested, rejuvenated and restless, has decided to mount one last campaign to break Muncey's career win record and exorcise the demons of his Miss Budweiser nightmare. After that, the life-long bachelor yearns to retreat to his life's one extravagance: a modest hideaway on the Olympic Peninsula, where he practices classical guitar, kayaks, and watches whales play in Puget Sound, as far as possible from thunderboat roostertails. History’s greatest boat racer doesn't even own a boat.
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