Sat, Nov 15, 2008 - Page 16 News List

For the love of speed on the sea

Powerboat racing, once dominated by tycoons racing far out at sea beyond view, was refashioned in the 1990s to draw spectators and advertisers. The boats cost about US$1 million to build and US$500,000 to take through the annual circuit

By Michael Brick  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , KEY WEST, FLORIDA

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The rescue boats put in Sunday at dawn. The radio was calling for 1.8m seas.

“A lot of people say, ‘Yeah, I like it rough,’” said the racing promoter, John Carbonell. “But I raced myself for 10 years, and you say: ‘Good Lord, what am I doing out here? Get me back. I’ll go to church every Sunday.’”

Under the big white tent, the drivers and the throttle men performed reflex tests. They took deep breaths for the stethoscopes. They stood pelicanlike and touched fingers to noses and they waited for the chief doctor, Jeffrey Frohock.

“Today, you don’t want to see me again,” Frohock said. “You don’t want to hear I’ve been used.”

When the physical examinations were done, the racers in their brightly colored shirts sat on plastic chairs. They drank weak coffee from Styrofoam cups. They bowed their heads. They looked to the preacher. Somebody lighted a cigarette and the preacher made a prayer.

The preacher wore a black shirt that bore his name, Jim Black. He wore a black ballcap, too. He told of how Saul came to be knocked down and how David slew Goliath of Gath when no other man would stand up. He told of the capriciousness of this earthbound life, and he likened it to powerboat racing.

“What is it that causes men’s hearts to fail?” Black asked, shouting to be heard above the idling motors. “What is it that makes us draw back?” Then the preacher made a blessing and said amen, and the racers clapped their hands. Two of their number were struck down in the Great South Bay off Long Island in August. Philip Dejana, 62, and Kevin Graff, 48, flipped their 11m catamaran at speeds exceeding 145kph, the police said. The force of the oncoming water crushed their protective canopy. They were memorialized together at St Peter of Alcantara Roman Catholic Church in Port Washington, New York.

A fter the tributes, the racers returned to the circuit. Through offshore contests held by three sanctioning bodies in places like Morehead City, North Carolina; Panama City Beach, Florida; and Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, 55 teams qualified to enter the Super Boat International World Championship here.

Their sport, once dominated by tycoons who raced far out to sea beyond view, was refashioned in the 1990s to draw spectators and advertisers. Courses were designed to run laps passing 30m from the shore.

The modern racing vessels were named for their sponsors, Cintron and Lucas Oil and the like. The smallest measured 30m with a single 525-horsepower engine; the largest 15m with twin engines capable of accelerating from a standstill to 305kph in 1.2km. They had no brakes. They burned a gallon [3.8 liters] of ultrahigh-octane fuel per engine per minute. They were piloted by teams of two, a driver to steer and a throttle man to accelerate.

“It’s all a guy can do to hold on to the steering wheel at that speed,” Carbonell said.

At the world championship, which began Nov. 2 in the Florida Keys, the racers tested themselves against boats of all classes for the title of Top Gun, fastest over all. Along the way, some spun out, choked out, caught fire or barrel-rolled. On alternate days, the crews repaired flooded engines, battered hulls and broken gearboxes.

Few stood a chance against the new turbine boats, capable of speeds exceeding 322kph but prone to immolation.

“If they make a mistake at that speed,” said Reggie Fountain, a retired racer, “they’re dead.”

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