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Jim Murray

Fast Formula Is Easy: Just Add Water

September 18, 1986|JIM MURRAY

The lure of unlimited hydroplane racing is, it adds another dimension to the danger of high-speed competitiveness. In addition to the perils of crashing, burning, exploding, disintegrating, you can add the exhilaration you might also drown. I mean, you can't do that at Indy.

People who go through life fast don't care what kind of course it is, land, sea or air. The surface or circumstances don't seem to matter. The attention does. They want to draw it to themselves. They are people who can't stand to stay in one place and wait for the hand of history to find them. They go out to meet it. The danger is secondary. They seem to be saying: "Hey, notice me! I may be killing myself for your attention!"

Speed is an addiction, one of the worst. It's harder to kick than chocolate. Its victims are in the clutches of a demanding mistress. They like it that way. They would rather die young at Mach One than live forever in a rocking chair.

Danger ignites them. The known bores them. They are restless, active, as full of energy as their machines.

That is why, when I was told I was going to meet Lee (Chip) Hanauer, the greatest of the men who go down to the sea in 200-mile-per-hour racing boats, I was prepared for a wild-eyed, wild-haired young radical who would probably arrive by motorcycle, drink from a bottle, eat with his fingers and lose interest in the whole conversation as soon as he learned we weren't going to discuss turbines, hull configurations or planing surfaces.

Chip Hanauer looks instead like the schoolteacher he once was. If it weren't for the broken noses (2), ribs (several) and hands (1) you could take him for a Mr. Chips still.

His approach to his sport is scientific, not emotional. He can discuss it as Arnold Toynbee discusses the War of the Roses, and he has no illusions about it. He is the most successful powerboat skipper of his time, maybe of all time, precisely because he respects the sea, the lake, river or competition, not because he laughs at it.

He knows the cockpit of a hydroplane is not place for bravura. This is not an opera out there; it is a tightrope walk on a precipice over a rock-strewn coast. Water at 210 m.p.h. can become like concrete. Hit it and drowning can be the least of your worries.

Hydroplanes are well-named. They are not boats at all. They are low-flying aircraft. Some of them get higher in the air than the Spruce Goose. The world lap record, set by Hanauer, is 153 m.p.h., which means the boat was doing 200-plus in the straightaways. At that speed, water is as dangerous as fire. Make a mistake there and you might as well make a mistake on the ledge of a 100-story building. Powerboat racing has caused as many deaths at sea as icebergs.

It has been a sport since the first inventor (probably Gottlieb Daimler) attached a one-cylinder engine to a rowboat in the Gay Nineties and challenged a canoe to a race.

It has been popular with the same kind of people who race cars--or walk wings, or climb Everest or hunt tigers. People who get bored with safety. But it has had some surprising champions, like the bandleader Guy Lombardo. The only thing Guy liked better than playing Auld Lang Syne on New Year's Eve was driving in a Gold Cup. The sweetest music this side of heaven to him was the roar of an inboard firing up on the Detroit River.

Gar Wood was the Babe Ruth of this sport, but Chip Hanauer did something last year that only Gar Wood (65 years ago) ever did--won his fifth consecutive Gold Cup championship.

Hydroplane hulls are powered by the same engines that defeated Hitler's Luftwaffe, Rolls-Royce powerplants of Spitfires. Only a few inches of the understructure is actually touching the water, and the boats spend most of their time struggling to get airborne.

They race on 2 1/2-mile ovals on waterways from Miami to Philadelphia to Detroit to San Diego to Las Vegas. "Water is not like asphalt," Hanauer explains. "You go into a corner in motor racing and it stays the same. You go through a corner one time on the river or the ocean and the next time you come back to it, the chop or the wind or the motion of the boats has made it an entirely different adversary. It's like getting another fighter in the ring with you every round."

The circuit hits San Diego this week in the Miller High Life Thunderboat Regatta on Mission Bay, and hits Las Vegas next week in the $150,000 Budweiser Silver Cup race on Lake Mead.

The boats that used to be able to go out only on the glassy seas and calm days when no wind rippled the surface can now go out under conditions only the USS Missouri would once brave. Hanauer, who in addition to five Gold Cups and the world-lap record is the winningest driver in a boat today (23 victories), points out that the sport takes a man who must be part-geologist, part-meteorologist, part-engineer and part-chemist--and have the soul of a guy who would dive from a tower into a blazing tub 10 stories below.

"The shallower the water, the more turbulence," he says. "The Detroit River is like riding a whirlpool but the fans are the world's most knowledgeable. In San Diego, we have the problem of salt water. Fresh water in the turbines is no problem. Salt residue can cause overheating." Overheating can cause boats to disappear, to say nothing of the drivers.

For all his accomplishments--he has won 5 of 9 races this year--Chip Hanauer is leading the driver championship race by only 569 points, a spread that can be wiped out in two heats. But his hydroplane is ready, his crew is ready. And, if worse comes to worse, he has an ace in the hole: He can swim.

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