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Race Days
A life of left turns keeps Chip Hanauer on the move

After years on the unlimited-hydroplane and auto-racing circuits, Chip Hanauer exercises his passion for racing in a high-tech go-cart.

Chip Hanauer has suffered nine broken, displaced ribs, he thinks — he lost count, and can't even guess at the number of ribs simply cracked. The transverse processes (the little protrusions off the sides of the vertebrae) have been sheared off four of his vertebrae — all at once. His rotator cuff has been torn, and all the other neck, ligament and muscle injuries are too numerous to mention. He's been knocked unconscious three or four times, and has had twice that number of concussions, of varying degrees.

One might think that, at age 47, he'd be retired, hobbled and suffering the effects of years of professional hydroplane and auto racing.

Retired he is: "I'm mostly just being a bum, enjoying life."

But hobbled? Besides traveling a lot, being part owner of a downtown Seattle restaurant (Fandango) and doing work in video production, he's hiking, skiing, water-skiing, bicycling, motorcycle riding, hiking — and racing again. Go-carts. Just for fun.

As popular as Hanauer was as a hydroplane driver, he may be even more inspiring for overcoming physical obstacles in order to stay active.

Even when they don't crash, unlimited hydroplane drivers pay a physical price with every ride: G-forces, vibration, impact with waves, noise. "Whether in a car or a boat, racing is much more physical than most people think," Hanauer says. "The feeling you get is of a violent, hostile environment. It beats you up pretty good. If everything goes well, it's like being in a 55-gallon drum going off Niagara Falls."

When racing professionally, Hanauer trained seven days a week, doing both cardiovascular work and strength-training. He paid special attention to strengthening wrists and forearms: In the cockpit his upper body was strapped back and couldn't help much with steering, yet the pull was about 70 pounds, because of a stiff gear ratio that gave him quickness and accuracy with just an eighth of a turn.

Hanauer's training goal was to be so fit he wouldn't notice the physical strain while racing. "Once I was aware of being tired or weakness, all of a sudden I wasn't going fast. The physical part of it has to stay totally in your subconscious."

Many people, he says, think the hard part of racing is going fast, but the high-speed straightaways actually are the easier part. "That's when you think to relax your hands, relax your arms, be conscious of breathing."

The hard part comes in the corners, when a hydroplane driver pulls 4 Gs sustained, experiencing a force four times his body weight.

The G force is so strong that Hanauer would turn his head before entering a corner, "because once you turn the boat, wherever your head is, that's where it's staying."

Even go-carts can pull a lot of Gs, he says. "They're really pretty violent machines. The average guys off the street who hadn't trained for carting specifically might be good for about five laps. They'd be using way more energy and muscle than they need to be, simply because of the stress. As you learn to race a car or other vehicles, you learn to relax and use only the strength you need."

Though he credits good genes, good luck and consistent training for his resilience, all those years of turning his head, turning left and resisting those G forces — not to mention the accidents — left Hanauer with chronic neck problems.

"The last four years I was pretty much in constant pain. When I'd wake up it took an hour to be able to turn my neck to the left. It took a lot of the joy out of life. I believed it was something I was gonna carry the rest of life."

One day, though, he heard Dr. Stan Herring, a physiatrist at Puget Sound Sports and Spine Physicians, speak about a promising approach to chronic pain. "He said there were two reasons for pain: One was the site of the injury, and the other was the brain processing the pain and overreacting to it." Anti-inflammatory medication was used to address the injured site and low doses of antidepressants to enable a deep sleep rare among those with chronic pain, which in turn would lesson the brain's overreaction to it.

Hanauer began working with Herring and physical therapist Wolfgang Brolley at the Center for Physical Arts and Rehab. He used medications, stretching and strengthening of small but crucial muscle groups. "They worked hard with me, and it took the pain away," says Hanauer. He no longer takes either medication as he pursues his many dynamic hobbies. His workouts now emphasize flexibility more than strengthening.

"Every day being free from pain, after being in chronic pain, just feels like heaven. The joy comes back to life."

Molly Martin is assistant editor of Pacific Northwest magazine. Barry Wong is a staff photographer for Pacific Northwest magazine.


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