All of Chip Hanauer's boat-racing idols are dead: Jerry Bangs, Bill Muncey, Dean Chenoweth. All were killed driving unlimited hydroplanes. You've probably seen the pictures. One minute the 6,000-pound, 2,600-horsepower machines are skimming along at 160 mph, the next they are flipping over backward in what is called a blowover. So dangerous is the sport that Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times once wrote, "In addition to the perils of crashing, burning, exploding, disintegrating, you can add the exhilaration you might also drown."
Hanauer, 38, narrowly avoided the last fate in 1981 after the first of his four career blowovers. He was thrown from the cockpit and pulled underwater when the parachute he was wearing to cushion a fall became tangled in the wreckage. Hanauer freed himself and bobbed to the surface, and now he has risen to the summit of this perilous pursuit. On Sunday on the Detroit River, Hanauer won his ninth Gold Cup, the Indianapolis 500 of hydro racing, at the wheel of Miss Budweiser. That victory gave him the record for the most Gold Cups, one more than Muncey won before he was killed in a 1981 race in Acapulco. "I am extremely fortunate to have survived [my early days] in racing," Hanauer says. He shrugs off accidents as "part of the sport," yet he helped pioneer the now mandatory closed cockpit, which was introduced in 1985.
After dominating the sport through the '80s, Hanauer felt burned out and left hydroplanes after the 1990 season to dabble in the comparatively safe world of auto racing. He drove well in IMSA's Firestone Firehawk series, but when he couldn't get sponsorship for a car in '92, he reluctantly returned to the hydros. He won seven of nine races last year, and the two he lost came after he suffered blowovers in practice. Despite breaking 13 ribs, Hanauer found he was once again enjoying himself on the water. "I had gotten sucked into tying up too much of my self-worth in trying to win boat races," he says. "I still want to win boat races—it is a passion—but it is much less of who I am."
He is, in fact, a 1976 cum laude graduate of Washington State who uses his degree in education to teach emotionally disturbed children in Seattle. He is also a bachelor and something of a loner—the night before the Gold Cup he attended The Will Rogers Follies by himself—and he still grabs a car ride when he can. Last January he drove a shift at the 24 Hours of Daytona. After 16 years in hydro cockpits, Hanauer could walk away with his 44 career victories and six national championships. But he chooses to chase the ghosts of his departed idols. "Chip has always struggled between boat racing and doing something significant, such as working with children," says his friend Lowell Cauffiel. "But the boats always call him back."
"I guess," says Hanauer with some resignation, "it's just part of me."