As long as he can remember, Chip Hanauer has loved motorsports. “There wasn’t even much in the media back then,” says the hydroplane pilot from his perch at a coffee shop near Green Lake. “There was Wide World of Sports and they would run the Monte Carlo and the Daytona 500. I looked forward to those more than Christmas.”
During a weekend trip to Crescent Bar in central Washington, a 9-year-old Hanauer saw a notice for outboard hydroplane races for kids ages 9 to 12. He went home, got a paper route, babysat, mowed lawns, and saved $250. “I found a classified ad in The Seattle Times for a small outboard. I showed my dad the money and the ad and that was it.”
He threw himself into racing. After his mother died on his twelfth birthday, he did so even more. His father Stan devoted himself to helping. They started out traveling to races with a boat on top of their car and the motor in the trunk. By high school, Hanauer was driving limited inboards, boats with smaller engines.
By then, racing was all that mattered to Hanauer. As a high school senior, he found sponsors and raced all over the country. Pointing across the street to the glistening lake, he says, “My first national championship was won right there. It was heaven for a kid like me.”
Although school wasn’t a priority, and his grades showed that, he knew he needed a backup plan. His brother Scott Hanauer ’73 was already at WSU when Chip announced he would go to college there, too. His brother and father doubted he would be up to it. “They were correct, but it pissed me off,” says Hanauer. So he threw himself into college.
He remembers his first test in Anthropology 101. “It was the first time I studied hard for anything. I was scared to death. And I aced it,” says Hanauer. “I remember going back to the fourth floor of Goldsworthy Hall and staring at this anthropology test with an A on it.”
His degree in special education came cum laude and led to a job in Port Townsend working with children with behavioral problems. “It was the hardest job I’ve ever done,” he says. “I had an individual program for each kid for each hour of the day. At the end of the day I would be exhausted.”
But racing wanted him back. One day the school secretary announced over intercom, “Chip, there’s a man coming to see you and he’s wearing a suit. He drives a Cadillac.”
Bob Steil, owner of Seattle’s Squire Shop, was starting an unlimited hydroplane team and he wanted Hanauer to be his pilot. Even with an untested racing team and a boat less powerful than his competitors’, Hanauer won races, and grew famous. He even bested hydroplane legend Bill Muncey.
In 1981 Muncey died when his boat flipped in the final heat of a race in Acapulco. “That rattled all of our cages,” says Hanauer. “Back then the sport was incredibly lethal. The sport basically shut down for months.”
Then Muncey’s sponsor, Atlas Van Lines, called Hanauer. “They said the Muncey family decided Bill would have wanted us to continue with me as the driver,” says Hanauer. “For a kid who always wanted to race, it was shocking to get a call to replace the greatest racer ever.”
Their biggest competitor was Budweiser, with a boat with a much bigger engine. In 100 days, the Atlas engineers built a smaller, lighter boat, which was both exciting and frightening. “The higher you can get in the air, the faster you will go. But the window for going upside down is tight. That boat was almost undriveable,” says Hanauer.
A few races into the year, Hanauer and his team won a come-from-behind victory against Budweiser in the 1982 Gold Cup in Detroit. They went on to have a great season, but another top driver, Dean Chenoweth, died in a qualifying heat on the Columbia River.
Hanauer was ready to leave the danger of the sport and return to teaching, but the Atlas team convinced him to stay with a promise to re-engineer the boat with a safer cockpit. “It changed the sport and we eventually got to a canopy,” says Hanauer. “I would never have survived my crashes without the canopy.”
By the 1990s he was driving for the best team in the world, sponsored by Anheuser-Busch, and had won multiple national championships in the powerful boats. But he faced his greatest challenge when he lost his voice.
“I noticed it was getting to be an effort to talk. At first I thought it was a cold. I could feel my vocal cords slamming shut,” he says. Finally, he couldn’t speak. At a time when Hanauer should have been relishing his victories, “I went into a depression I never want to see ever again.”
He could still race and win, but “I would come home every night, shut the door, and sob myself to sleep,” he says.
Hanauer went to multiple doctors, who couldn’t find a reason for the condition. One day in an airport a man came up and said, “You don’t know what you have, do you?” He said it was likely spasmodic dysphonia, and he knew a doctor who could treat the symptoms. Hanauer flew to New York City for injections of Botox into the muscles around his larynx.
That night he requested a wakeup call at the hotel. “At six, they called. And I said, ‘Thank you.’ [Then] I called the front desk up just to talk to someone,” says Hanauer.
The depression faded, but he had learned from it. “In depression, nothing looks good. Now I have so much joy in things I never realized.”
Hanauer retired from hydroplane racing in 1996, but returned for the 1999 season. He ended with 11 Gold Cups and 61 victories, one short of Muncey’s record. He was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1995, the International Motorized Vehicles Hall of Fame in 2005, and the Washington Sports Hall of Fame this year.
Now Hanauer, 60, mentors young drivers for NASCAR, speaks at corporate events, volunteers with veterans, and works hard at flamenco guitar. A few years back he walked into a music shop. “I asked the salesperson, ‘What are the odds of a 55-year-old guy learning to play flamenco guitar?’ ‘Not good,’ was her response,” says Hanauer with a grin.
He tried it anyway. “The more uncomfortable I am about doing something, that’s the key I need to do it. If it’s playing guitar in front of an audience, if it’s driving a raceboat in front of 100,000 people, I better do it,” he says.
When NASCAR videographer Sam Bisset approached Hanauer to do a video series about boating, Hanauer declined. But then he reconsidered. “This makes me horribly uncomfortable. So I need to do this.”
They took the first video to KIRO TV in Seattle, the producers loved it and asked for more. “The Boat Guy” was born, and Hanauer and Bisset continue to film more episodes of the lighthearted series on boating and life in the Pacific Northwest.
Videos from The Boat Guy: “Finding Gig Harbor” and “Trawlerfest”