When Jerry Hansen was 12 years old he was a quiet, self-conscious kid with a harelip. He sold Popsicles and whistles to earn spending money. He also dealt in junk. He would knock on neighborhood doors and ask, "Got any junk you don't want?" "That Hansen kid is going to be something someday," the neighbors would say.
When Jerry Hansen was in high school he couldn't get a summer job because it seemed that all those available went to football players and sons of influential businessmen. So one night he knocked on another door, at the home of the man who owned one of the largest construction companies in Minneapolis. "I don't like the way the system is about getting jobs," he said. "I'm not a football player and my dad doesn't know anybody and you don't know me. But I want a job working for your company, and if you hire me, I'll outwork anybody around." He got the job and he kept his promise.
When Jerry Hansen was in college he was sitting in a physics class when the professor was called out of the room. A moment or so later he came back with a puzzled look on his face. "Jerry," he said, "there's a fellow on the phone for you. Something to do with one of the 24 apartment buildings you own."
A few years later Jerry Hansen turned up on the grid at a sports-car race, behind the wheel of a backyard special called an Echidna. He had never road-raced. "I was really nervous," he recalls. "I was scared that I wouldn't win." He needn't have been; he won by a mile.
January 5, 1976
Hansen is 37 now, and he has done a lot of winning since his days as a teenage junk dealer. He owns more buildings than he keeps track of, as well as a Cadillac, a Rolls-Royce, a Ferrari and all sorts of similar stuff. He also holds 14 Sports Car Club of America national championships, more than anyone else in history. Ten more, to be exact.
Despite the fact that he has occasionally competed in professional races, and is good enough to hold his own against the pros, Hansen is still an amateur driver. This status might not fit the AAU's definition, but it remains true that almost all of his races are run for trophies only, and most of his time is spent making money at endeavors other than racing, such as playing Monopoly with Minneapolis as the board.
Recently Hansen acquired SCCA titles Nos. 13 and 14, driving his open-wheel Lola-Chevy in Formula A and his big-bore two-seater Lola-Chevy in the ASR sports-car division, the two fastest classes in the Champion Spark Plug races at Road Atlanta. He won Formula A despite a cracked cylinder block that kept his race laps 14 seconds slower than his qualifying time. In the ASR race he spun out but still narrowly defeated a driver from Oregon named Monte Shelton, who hadn't been beaten in two years. The next week Shelton sent Hansen a fan letter that said, "You're truly great!"
Hansen has won his last 38 races, not counting ice racing, which he dabbles in during the winter. When was he last beaten in a race? "Uh, the last time I lost, last time I lost, let's see..." and he scrunches up his forehead and stares at the ceiling for 30 seconds before he gives up and sheepishly shrugs his shoulders. It was the summer of 1972.
This much success is bound to earn a man a few enemies. Innuendos sometimes float around the pits that Hansen has a chronic case of the overkills, that he is a checkbook racer who buys his championships. Hansen's own admission that racing is a $50,000-a-year hobby is strong ammunition for that argument, but he bristles when he is accused of winning simply because he spends more on his cars than his rivals. Actually, he buys and sells race cars the way he traded junk as a kid. For example, after some involved swapping and dealing, he got the ASR Lola as a wreck with a bent chassis. He insists that it represents a basic investment of less than $5,000. He has owned 23 race cars since he began racing 12 years ago, has sold many of them for as much as he paid for them and made money on a few. Both Lolas he raced last year are well worn; one is three years old, the other six. On the track, that shows. Hansen's competitors frequently have a horsepower edge.
Most of Hansen's money goes toward punctilious preparation. He maintains a roomy shop and employs two full-time mechanics, Mike Lindorfer and Brian Anderson. Hansen is no nuts-and-bolts man. "We see him at the races, and that's about all," says Lindorfer. "He hardly ever comes around the shop." Since Lindorfer became the chief tuner three years ago, Hansen has finished every race he has entered.
There also are scattered complaints that Hansen is overly aggressive on the track. Most of this is sour grapes. Tuck Thomas is a crosstown Formula A rival from St. Paul who has never beaten Hansen. "Personally, I don't think Jerry is a clean racer," Thomas says. But another competitor, Howie Fairbanks, who finished third in Formula A at Atlanta, says, "Some drivers are on an ego trip that won't let them admit how good Hansen is, but I'm not. I think Hansen is underrated, if anything. He's one of a handful of the best road racers in the world."
One SCCA leader and former competitor thinks most drivers are reluctant to criticize Hansen because "they haven't got the guts," yet demands anonymity when he says, "Because of his intense appetite and almost ungovernable desire to win, Jerry will win at any cost to himself and other amateurs. This results in an arrogant driving technique. Time and time again over the years I've seen him cut drivers off. Other amateurs don't like to run close to him."
But even this detractor recognizes Hansen's talent. "He is one of the most consistent drivers I've ever seen," he says. "The guy just never sets a wheel wrong in a corner."
Hansen has made racing mistakes, but his career has been remarkably free of crashes. The only serious smashup came in his 10th race in 1965. Unbeaten in the Echidna, Hansen traded it in for a Scarab, celebrated as one of the hottest cars around in those days. His second race in the Scarab was also his first appearance at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. On the first lap he tried to compensate for a misfiring engine by speeding up. Imprudently, Hansen made his move on the outside of a 140-mph turn called the Carousel, and the Scarab skidded off the track and into a guard rail. It caught fire, flipped eight or 10 times, knocked over a tree, then exploded and fired shrapnel 20 feet high. When the Scarab finally settled, there was hardly a scrap of the aluminum body left. Hansen crawled away from the scene with little more personal damage than two black eyes. The experience has served to keep Hansen out of driving trouble since. And he also stayed away from the Road America course for a year.
Hansen is often asked why he hasn't turned pro, especially since offers to drive at Indy began pouring in from those like Clint Brawner and George Bignotti as early as 1967, after Hansen hit 194.8 mph on Daytona's back straightaway in an SCCA championship race. That feat rated instant recognition, since it was the fastest clocking on a closed circuit at the time. Drivers who are comfortable at 200 mph were hard to find then. They still are; as recently as last year the UOP Shadow team approached Hansen about driving in the Formula 5000 series. Hansen has not seriously considered any of the offers, but he hedges a bit. "If A. J. Foyt called tomorrow and asked me to drive his car at Indy, I'd have to think about it," he says. "But he's not going to."
The question hounds Hansen. If he is that good, why won't he turn pro? Is it simply because he is happy being a big fish in a little pond? Or, as Tuck Thomas suggests, because "the pros would pop him in the nose if he drove against them the way he drives against amateurs." Does winning mean so much to Hansen that he is afraid to lose?
He offered an answer to that question eight years ago. "I don't want to become obsessed with racing," he said then. Today he expands on it. "I just don't want to get in so deep I can't get out. I don't want racing to control me, like it did Mark Donohue. He was an unhappy man. I race for fun. If I turned pro, I'd have to sacrifice for it. I don't want to be mediocre, and I'd have to be dedicated to racing to win."
When Hansen carefully explains this—that it isn't losing but the price of winning that worries him—he rivets his green eyes on his listener. At times he pauses for long, introspective, exploring seconds, but he never removes his eyes, never gives the listener a chance to avert his glance. Hansen sends out vibrations that are intense but not tense. He does not laugh easily. Nor does he expose his emotions easily. When he does, it is usually to express concern for "little guys," as he calls ordinary people. He means the expression to be more complimentary than demeaning. For someone who is preoccupied with beating people, he spends a lot of time worrying about their feelings, and to him this is no contradiction.
"You know what the most important thing is?" he asks rhetorically. "People," he answers. "Yep, people. The best thing you can give a person is some of your time." Which hardly sounds like the philosophy of the average millionaire. But Hansen demonstrates this belief. He gives his race trophies and his attention to everyone from school kids—he once invited 60 sixth-graders to one of his races—to flagmen, "little guys" he thinks aren't recognized enough.
Nor is his family starved for attention. Connie and Courtney, his wife and baby girl, do not share Hansen with his cars or buildings. He takes few business calls at home and there are no signs of racing around the house.
Connie has dark hair and eyes, a smile that borders on a giggle, and she likes to submit jokes to the Reader's Digest. "Racing is a minor thing around here," she says. "I never know when or where we're going or what car Jerry is racing. He just never talks about it to me."
That shouldn't surprise her. After they met on a blind date, Hansen asked her out every night but 17—Connie counted them—for the next three years. But he never mentioned marriage, even though they spent many of their Sundays looking at houses. When he finally found one he liked, Hansen asked Connie if she would like to live in it. "Sure," she said, "but we have to get married first." "Next month," he said, and they did.
This is Hansen's second marriage. His first wife, a lovely Swedish model named Ingegerd, once appeared in toothpaste commercials on television. Connie considers their first meeting somewhat prophetic.
"Jerry and Ingegerd were separated when I first began dating him, and Ingegerd had started going out with another race driver named Bill Scott. Well, Jerry had won a race at this track and Bill Scott had come in second. And, naturally, all four of us ended up in the victory circle. A photographer shouted, 'Look over this way, Mrs. Hansen,' meaning me, of course, and I started to point at Ingegerd and say, 'But she's Mrs. Hansen.' And Ingegerd just smiled at me and whispered, 'Don't bother to explain.' We've been friends ever since."
"I am sure that I have succeeded at some things primarily because of my ego," says Hansen. Yet it is not really a large one. When Hansen was awarded his two 1975 national championship medallions at the Atlanta victory banquet, Chris Economaki, the master of ceremonies, said, "Jerry, I guess you're the big winner again this year. You haven't lost in a long time."
"Yes I have," Hansen replied softly. "We've all lost." And then he said he was giving his medallions to Mark Donohue's widow and sister on behalf of everyone present. Later he was embarrassed that the incident was mentioned in the papers.
Off the racetrack, Hansen has proved himself an uncannily sharp investor, even if he cannot keep track of his own cash. His bank recently discovered $1,300 in his checking account that he didn't know was there because he had subtracted a deposit instead of adding it.
"He once told me he must have lost over a quarter of a million dollars because he's so terrible with books," Connie says. Hansen specializes in buying old apartment buildings that he often improves, then sells after a relatively short period. He has owned hundreds of buildings in Minneapolis, and as he drives through the city he casually points them out. "See that one? I used to own it," or "I just bought that one over there." In one exceptionally quick deal he bought a building the day he left to race in Atlanta and sold it the day he returned. Another recent investment was the Mark Twain Hotel, located in the heart of the city. It used to be seedy and run-down, patronized primarily by hookers, but Hansen converted it into one-room efficiency apartments—"for little working people"—and not only cleaned up the neighborhood in the process, but doubled the building's worth.
Hansen bought his first building at 18 with savings from the construction job, and has been going full bore ever since. After 2½ years of college, he quit to go to work as a stockbroker for Paine, Webber, Jackson & Curtis, and soon became the company's leading broker in the Midwest. He generally avoided investing his own money in the stock market, preferring to buy buildings. Last July he resigned to spend all his time on his own affairs and now makes his deals from an office on the top business floor of the city's tallest skyscraper, the 51-story IDS Center. He works at a table, and does without a secretary.
Currently Hansen's favorite piece of real estate is a road-racing circuit in central Minnesota, one of the fastest and safest in the country. He bought it in May 1974, and the first thing he did was change the name from Donnybrooke to Brainerd International Raceway, after the town where it is located. Hansen then offered the concession rights to local organizations, from the Jaycees to a school for crippled children called Camp Confidence. He spent $100,000 to build permanent buildings and to clear 150 infield acres for camping, which solved the problem of rowdy college kids roaming the town on the evenings before races.
The Brainerd city council responded coolly to Hansen at first. But he tirelessly promoted the track and visited most of the local clubs, persuading them to help sell tickets for a percentage. Soon the townsfolk began calling BIR "our" track, which was just fine with Hansen. Now they regard him as the best thing to come their way since Indian summer.
While reducing the number of major races to two a year—an SCCA National in July, sponsored by 7-Up, and a TransAm in September, sponsored by Pepsi—Hansen also raised the attendance. The track had been losing money when he bought it, in 1974 it broke even, and last year it showed a profit. Hansen also won the first race at BIR, the Uncola National in July 1974. And he won the only pro race held there, the TransAm last September. But because he owned the track, he could not pay himself any prize money.
The 1975 SCCA National drew the largest crowd in the circuit's history, more than 21,000, hyped by an exhibition race between Hansen, movie actor Paul Newman, who had entered a Datsun 510 sedan that weekend, and Bob Tulius, another SCCA star. They all drove Mack trucks, and it went over so well that a repeat is planned for next year. Hansen wants a match race between Hubert Humphrey and Ronald Reagan.
"Humphrey is from Minnesota, he likes cars and think of the labor votes he could get," Hansen says. "And Reagan, well, he's an actor, isn't he?"
The trucks were supplied by Fred Wines, president of Advance-United Expressways, a large Midwest shipping firm. Wines also sponsored Hansen's winning Corvette. (The Lolas are partly sponsored by Midwest Federal, a Minneapolis bank.) Wines has been confined to a wheelchair for the last 16 years, the result of a diving accident. But this does not stop him from driving a turbocharged inboard ski boat and a gold Maserati sports coupe.
"Jerry and I were two of the same kind," says Wines. "He called me one day and said, 'Fred, I'd like to meet you. I think we have a lot of things in common.' "
What Hansen and Wines have in common besides speed is a drive to succeed, not because of handicaps, but handicaps be damned. Hansen's handicap is more social than physical, but that doesn't make much difference. Pride and determination run in the family. His father Oscar, a man of solid Norwegian stock, was a star hockey player for the Minneapolis Millers in the late 1930s, despite gimpy legs caused by a horse falling on him when he was a child.
"My attitude toward winning was established before I began racing," says Hansen. "But sometimes I wonder how good I could have been if I had given racing 100%."
There is one clue. In 1973 Hansen built a rear-engine sprint car out of a Formula A Lola and ventured off to the USAC races to take on the Offenhausers, most of which were front engined. He showed up at the Minnesota State Fair for a paved half-mile race, qualified on the pole and won his heat before the USAC officials, much to their chagrin as the story goes, realized what was happening. Here was this outsider, not a good ol' boy from the sideways set but a sporty-car type with clean fingernails, an amateur—and a rich one to boot—driving a car with a stock-block, gasoline-burning, V-8 engine stuck in the wrong end. Shortly before the main event (and long after the car had passed tech inspection) Hansen was told that his roll cage didn't have enough support. Lindorfer hastily welded on a jack handle to satisfy the officials. Then, as Hansen was walking toward the grid, they told him his two-piece driving suit wouldn't do (after he had worn it in the heat race, of course). A USAC driver named Bruce Walkup lent Hansen a one-piece suit. Overcoming these hassles, Hansen had a couple of problems of his own to deal with, namely a fever and nausea from the flu. But after a seesaw dice with Tom Sneva he won the race. The next year, USAC banned the rear-engined sprint car.
Hansen reflects a lot on that incident. "I think when a man starts winning he expects more out of himself, so he tries harder. I was tired and I was sick and I ached, but I was determined to win. A lot of people hate to lose, but there are very few who are really afraid of not winning."
And one can't help but wonder just who it is Jerry Hansen means.