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Sunday, August 08, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Job Market
Chip Hanauer: "Your work is a statement"

By Blanca Torres
Seattle Times business reporter

Chip Hanauer survives a flip in the Miss Budweiser 10 years ago on Lake Washington.
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Chip Hanauer never worried about being a workaholic — he just raced.

During his 25-year career racing unlimited hydroplanes, Hanauer won 61 times, one shy of the record held by the late, great Bill Muncey (who died in a boat race in 1981).

Sure, winning was nice, but the greatest reward was doing something he loved and make a living while doing it.

Long before he flipped race boats, Hanauer entered the working world flipping hamburgers.

He also worked in manual labor and taught special education before becoming a professional athlete. Hanauer's racing, however, consumed his life, leaving little room for friends, family or hobbies.

"I wouldn't change one thing," he said. "I've been so lucky. I've been fortunate enough to live life almost exactly on my own terms. I just feel really, really lucky."

Now, Hanauer has the time and financial means to do other activities he loves such as studying classical guitar, rebuilding a 25-year-old Pelican sailboat, traveling, spending more time at his house in Port Townsend and with his dog, Bella Noche, which means "beautiful night" in Spanish.

The Seattle-area native gives motivational speeches about teamwork and finding balance in life, mostly to corporate clients. He also helps broadcast the Seafair races every year.

Hanauer, who retired from racing in 1999, recently talked to us about his first jobs, his career in racing and what he learned.

"The hardest job I ever had"

Against his father's wishes, Hanauer made his first paycheck flipping hamburgers at Jack's Drive-In in Newport Hills Shopping Center in Bellevue when he was about 15.
"My father did not want me to work. He had this philosophy that he didn't want us to work until we absolutely had to," he said.

A couple of years later, Hanauer found a different gig working as a "lot boy" at a Seattle car dealership, where he washed cars, installed spare tires and charged batteries. While a student at Washington State University, he spent two summers helping build the Kingdome as a laborer.

In 1976, he landed a position as a special-education teacher in Port Townsend.

It was "the hardest job I ever had," he said, adding he earned $632 a month.

"I had some kids who could read at college level and some who could not read at all in the same classroom," he said.

"Your work is a statement"

The most powerful life lesson Hanauer said he ever learned happened while he was working on the Kingdome.

He and another worker were assigned to pile pieces of wood. Hanauer, however, threw the wood into a messy pile. The co-worker stopped him and told him they needed to stack it neatly.

The man told him that he knew Hanauer would finish college and go on to other jobs, but he would not — construction was his livelihood and he wanted to do it as best he could.

"I learned from a guy who couldn't read or write that whatever your job is, you have to do it right and your work is a statement about who you are," Hanauer said. "I will remember him until the day I die, and I'm very appreciative of the lesson."

From then on he realized the value of physical labor and how some of the lowest-paying jobs are the hardest to do.

"It's given me a great empathy for the hard work people do without a lot of reinforcement," Hanauer said.

"This culture seems to put so much value on so few jobs and doesn't seem to realize how little value we put on the majority of other jobs.

"I learned how valuable, how critical those jobs are and how hard those are to do well. It's amazing how much trust we put in people who are preparing our food, taking care of children and building the places we live under.

"It's kind of funny to become a sports figure and be fawned over for doing so little. It always seemed weird to me the difference there was. I'm appreciative for all the work people do."

"It was totally consuming"

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Hanauer's childhood dream was to become a racer. He didn't know what kind, just that he wanted to race.

He started driving small hydroplanes at 10 and toiled for a year doing odd jobs and yard work to save enough money to buy his own boat.

As a teenager, he raced mostly for fun. His first real compensation came when he was 17 and the owner of a boat gave him a 10-speed bike for winning a competition.

Hanauer left his teaching career in 1979 to race full time. But for him, full time meant much more than eight hours a day. His off-seasons were full of visits to the gym six days a week, working with the boat crew or reading books on mental preparation.

"To me, it was totally consuming — I dedicated everything to it," he said. "Everything took second place to racing.

"I think to really truly excel at anything, whether it be an art, science or business, if you want to be the best you can be, you make sacrifices. ... That was the only way I knew how to race. Racing was so important to me. I was only going to race if I could put everything I had into it."

"I value all those difficult jobs"

Even after he started making a living racing hydros, Hanauer continued to do odd jobs on the side.

Once, a friend who owned a landscaping business asked him to do some work on a house in a wealthy Bellevue neighborhood.

When he first arrived, the woman who lived at the home didn't pay him any mind. Then her husband came home and recognized that a sports star was trimming his bushes.

The man asked Hanauer, "What the heck are you doing here?" After that, the woman became interested in talking to Hanauer and getting to know him.

"I thought, 'What's changed, what's different?' " Hanauer said. "We tend to value people by work we happen to be doing. There are people of great value and great humanity doing difficult jobs that our culture does not value because of what they happen to be doing."

Hanauer said that although his first jobs were menial, they have been an important influence on his life.

"I value all those difficult jobs I did as much or more than my college education," Hanauer said. "My college education would not have had as much value with those jobs. I think people need to be well-rounded and have a college and work experience. I think they're equally as valuable."

Many professional athletes don't seem to appreciate their talents because they have never done anything else and take their abilities for granted, Hanauer said.

"This is bizarre"

"The only thing I never got over, is how much I got paid for something I love to do," he said. "I would think, 'This is bizarre, I'm getting paid money to do something I love and would do anyway, and I got paid so little to do what was so very hard to.'

"It made me appreciate so much of what I had and appreciate my career in racing and the gift that I had. I don't think I would have that appreciation had I not had those other jobs.

"I was always appreciative because I knew how hard it was to make a living the way 99.9 percent of people make a living. Doing those jobs was such a good thing for me.

"Even now, if I drive by a field and see someone bent at the waist picking fruit, it makes me stop and think of the reality of what it is to do those jobs.

"It makes me appreciative that I didn't have to work that hard all my life and that the food on my table was put there by the hard work of a human being."

Winning titles and big paychecks brought him a sense of pride for many years, but eventually his success began to seem hollow.

"In our culture, we confuse success with joy," Hanauer said. "We make them synonymous. You can be unbelievably successful and not happy. It's a lot in the fabric of our culture — we're a goal-oriented culture.

"We are always told to seek more and never be satisfied. Sometimes when we accumulate success, it doesn't amount to the happiness."

"I saw everything in jeopardy"

Hanauer started losing his ability to speak sometime around 1992. For years, he did not know what the cause was, only that he could communicate less and less and felt more isolated each day.

He was embarrassed to do interviews after races or take part in social situations.

"I saw everything in jeopardy," he said. "I had been so much in control of life all my life and of all of sudden now, I couldn't speak. It was frightening not knowing what was wrong with me. I was afraid to ask for help and then did ask for help, that's when things started to get better."

In 1996, he was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological disease that prevents his nerves from carrying the right signals to his vocal cords when he wants to speak.

The disease is incurable, but manageable. Hanauer now receives an injection of Botox into his Adam's apple that allows his vocal cords to function normally. His treatments happen every three months. "I joke that I look like an old man, but I have the most youthful-looking vocal chords on the planet," he said.

Although the disease is under control, it made Hanauer realized how vulnerable he is.

"You never look at life the same way again," he said.

"It's a constant balancing act"

People often ask Hanauer if he misses racing, and his answer is a solid "No."

Even though his racing career dominated his life, he said he knew it needed to end.

"Chapters in your life end and you move on," he said. "Some professional athletes don't want that chapter to close and when it does, they end up pretty unhappy. It happens to people in all walks of life."

The end of racing corresponded to the beginning of a new life for Hanauer.

"One led to the other, there's no question," he said. "But if I stayed on that track, it wouldn't have been good."

He recognizes that he is lucky to be able to retire at 48.

"Maybe not everybody can just quit what they're doing, but then on a daily basis, we can find balance," he said.

"That means learning to be conscious of what we're doing, not just living on automatic pilot, and always being conscious of asking 'Am I getting the success from my career that I want, but am I also getting the joy and happiness out of my life that I want?' ... It's a constant balancing act. I believe it's very doable."

Blanca Torres: 206-515-5066 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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