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Driving On the Fragile Line Between Life and Death

He's Mr. Calm, Cool and Collected in the Most Dangerous Game of Hydroplane Racing

Reprinted from the Los Angeles Times, September 09, 1985

SEATTLE — The deaths of boat racers Jerry Bangs and Bill Muncey gave Chip Hanauer the opportunity he needed to become the No. 1 driver of unlimited hydroplanes.

When Bangs was killed on Lake Washington in 1977, Hanauer was chosen to replace him. He was 22, a weekend racer, a schoolteacher with a degree in psychology from Washington State University.

When Muncey, the winingest driver in hydroplane history, was killed at Acapulco, Mexico, in 1981, Hanauer was chosen to replace him in the famed Blue Blaster that Muncey had driven to four national championships. Since then Hanauer has won two national championships and four straight Gold Cups.

A win Sunday on San Diego's Mission Bay in the Thunderboat Regatta would give Hanauer yet another national championship.

Hydroplanes are considered the most dangerous form of motorized racing--huge 6,000-pound missiles, nearly 30 feet long and built like jet airplane wings. They skitter across choppy water at 180 m.p.h., their tiny props churning at 12,000 revolutions per minute, putting out 3,000 to 4,000 horsepower. Going through tight turns, with 40-foot-high roostertails hurling tons of water behind them, the big boats are constantly on the ragged edge of flipping.

"A survey of the most dangerous professions rated unlimited hydroplane drivers second only to astronauts, but if the astronauts keep coming back without incident the way they have been, we may be No. 1," the 31-year-old Hanauer said, his blue eyes sparkling at his little joke.

The deaths of Bangs and Muncey--and others in the volatile sport--are constant reminders to Hanauer of the fragile line between life and death. As if the memory of seeing his friends perish in high-speed accidents wasn't enough reminder, two of Hanauer's most cherished relationships are with Edward Muncey, Bill's 13-year-old son, and Tiffany Bangs, Jerry's 12-year-old daughter. Tiffany was the last person to give Chip a hug before he climbed into his boat to win his fourth Gold Cup last month on Lake Washington, and Edward was the first to greet him when he returned to the dock with the win.

"They are very special to me, very special," Hanauer said. "Especially Tiffany. She not only lost her father; last year she had aplastic anemia (a 90% terminal illness) and she beat it." Although Hanauer is not married, children have had a special place in his life. Before becoming a full-time boat racer in 1978, he taught emotionally disturbed and handicapped children in Port Townsend, a ferry ride across Puget Sound from here.

Hanauer does not like to dwell on the morbid side of boat racing, but he is pragmatic enough to use his experiences to his advantage. And the deaths of Bangs, Muncey and Dean Chenoweth are among those experiences. Chenoweth, the 1981 national champion, was killed nine months after Muncey's accident on the Columbia River near Pasco, Wash.

"They were all frustrated at the time, frustrated at not being able to go faster, at not being able to beat their biggest rival," Hanauer said. "That frustration led them to take chances they probably knew they shouldn't take.

"Jerry (Bangs) was a prominent Seattle attorney and he knew the risks he was taking, but he was frustrated at not getting more out of the Squire (Bangs' boat). It was an ill-handling boat and he asked it for more that it was capable of giving. He drove it too hard into the corner and it bit him. Bill (Muncey) was frustrated at not being able to beat Dean (Chenoweth) and Miss Budweiser. Dean had the best equipment at that time. Bill pushed his boat beyond its limits to try and make up the difference.

"When we started to beat Dean in '82, he wanted to win so bad he did the same thing. Ultimately, all of the drivers learned lessons from that. It certainly left me with an important lesson: If the equipment is not up to it, don't push it. You always want to go as fast as you are capable, but when that isn't fast enough you must not allow your frustrations to push you further.

"I am very blessed to be with Jim Lucero and Fran Muncey (co-owners of his Miller American team). Jim always tells me not to try anything that isn't comfortable. He and Fran tell me to feel free to pull in at any time I think the boat is not working properly, not to take any foolish chances. Not every driver has that latitude. Naturally, no owner or sponsor tells a driver to go over the line, but in some camps you can feel the subtle pressures to go faster, no matter the risk."

Hanauer has felt the sting of a blowover, but he was one of the lucky ones. He survived. A blowover is caused by the same principle of physics that allows a 747 to take off--only instead of flying when it gets airborne, a boat tips over backward and lands upside down.

Hanauer's blowover occurred in 1981 during a test run on Lake Washington, shortly before leaving for a race in San Diego. It was only about a month before Muncey was killed.

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