Flying on water


Sports editor

t is an experience that Michael Hanson can’t really describe.

Floating over chopped-up water at over 200 mph in a boat powered by a helicopter engine spewing out a 60-foot rooster tail isn’t something the average person can comprehend.

“That is the question I get asked the most,” Hanson said. “I just tell them there is nothing else like it. There is nothing I can compare it too. People want me to tell them what it is like, but I can’t. I can’t refer it to anything they have ever done.

“The closest thing I can think of is maybe snowmobiling on hardpan ice at 60 mph and your skiis start chattering. But there is no good analogy.”

Hanson, a 1979 graduate of Federal Way High School, knows what he is talking about. He has been driving hydroplanes for the past 23 years and his Jones Racing U-9 Miss Skyway Park Bowl and Casino boat will start the Northwest swing of the HydroProp National Series at the Budweiser Columbia Cup in the Tri-Cities tomorrow. The annual SeaFair General Motors Cup on Lake Washington is scheduled for Aug. 2.

“I just fell in love with the sport,” Hanson said.

Hanson’s inauguration into boat racing isn’t the classic story, which a bulk of the drivers, crew chiefs and mechanics on the circuit share. His family wasn’t involved at all in boat racing, or any type of racing, for that matter. His love of hydroplanes came as a spectator. The Hanson family would make their way over to the Columbia River in Richland to watch the yearly Tri-Cities race every summer.

“It is just something that I picked up,” said Hanson, who currently lives in Bonney Lake with his wife and two kids. “We had family over there and we would just go over there during the summer vacation and we would catch the boat races.”

It was his junior year at Federal Way High School in 1978 that Hanson took his love of watching hydroplanes to the next level.

“I saved up all my money and bought a junior, small-class limited boat,” he said.

Hanson then started vocational school part-time his senior year and got a job working for renowned hydroplane builder Ron Jones when his class made a field trip to Jones’ shop.

The rest is history.

He has raised a family while working solely as a hydroplane driver and mechanic. He goes into the Jones Racing shop in Enumclaw everyday and tries to get the U-9 Miss Skyway Park Bowl and Casino boat more horsepower.

“It’s my job,” he said. “That’s what I do. I work on boats and fix what I break. I just want to go faster.”

Hanson’s driving career has included four wins on the national unlimited hydroplane circuit. The biggest of those victories came in 2001 on the Detroit River when Hanson won the prestigious Gold Cup — a title most drivers will say is the most important race of the season. He also won last season in San Diego and finished third in point standings in 2002 behind Dave Villwock and the Miss Budweiser and Nate Brown in the Miss Elam Plus.

This year, after two races, Hanson’s team sits in third entering tomorrow’s Tri-Cities race.

“We have been really running good,” he said. “I think we are going to pick off one of these two races (Tri-Cities or Seattle).”

Unlimited hydroplane racing is a sport that is at a crossroads, according to those in the know.

Fans aren’t flocking to the race courses like they used to, there are less and less boats running races every year and less and less races for them to run.

“Twenty years ago it was a really big deal,” Hanson said. “The sport has been struggling for quite a while. We just need to draw our base back.”

A big part of drawing those fans back might be going back to the piston-powered boats that gave the hydroplanes the nickname of “thunderboats.” Only one team on this year’s circuit is running a piston-powered boat, with the rest running the helicopter turbines, which are much quieter and sound more like a loud blender than watching a Metallica concert next to the speaker.

“It is probably a possibility,” Hanson said of mandating piston engines. “But it is not a definite thing. Turbines make a lot more horsepower and they don’t cost as much so we would need a lot more sponsor money. The turbines are a lot more cost-effective.”

Working on the turbine engines is also easier, as far as the mechanics go. There are less moving parts in the helicopter engines, which makes them more reliable in the results-driven sport.

Also pulling fans away is more things tugging at a family’s entertainment dollar. In Seattle, for example, there is now the Mariners, Seahawks, Sonics, the Entertainment Music Project, Wild Waves and the list goes on and on. Things weren’t around during the hydroplane hey days in the 1960s and 70s.

“It was a really big deal back then,” Hanson said. “Now there are a lot more things to do on Sundays. Thirty years ago SeaFair was it.”

That is why tomorrow’s race in the Tri-Cities is a favorite for a lot of the drivers and owners. The hydroplanes and the events surrounding it are the only thing to do in town during the weekend. The Tri-Cities Water Follies, as they are called, bring out 100,000 people to the Columbia — a huge number considering the population base in the area.

“It is like the Super Bowl,” said Mark Giles, a longtime hydroplane fan from Auburn who has been to 15-straight races in the Tri-Cities. “They need to develop more race sites like Tri-Cities. There are only six races this year.”

During the 1980s, the hydroplane circuit was running double that amount. Places like Virginia, British Columbia, Honolulu, Texas, Kansas, Utah, Acapulco, Miami, New York and Missouri, among others, were regulars on the circuit.

“We just need to get more sponsorship money and get the fans back,” Hanson said.

Bringing the piston motors back and more things to spend your money on aside, Hanson sees the best way of bringing the racing fans back is simple — beer. Officials at race sites now require all alcohol to be consumed in crowded beer gardens off the race course or in private, expensive suites.

“That’s the biggest drawback,” Hanson said. “When they got rid of the booze, that was the biggest hit we took. That’s when the fans left. I’ve been to Nascar races and it was a drinking blitz in the infield. It was a big party. That’s why the fans came.”

With the future of the sport of hydroplane racing a little bit unsure, Hanson isn’t positive how much longer he will climb into the cockpit.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “I think I’m kind of winding down. I need to find somebody that can drive for me. Maybe my son (14-year-old Trevor)? He would love to race boats. But not at this point.

“He is a little young.”

Until then, Hanson will keep feeling that feeling he can’t describe — the experience of racing a hydroplane at 200 mph.

Sports editor Casey Olson: 925-5565,

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