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Clearwater company feeds boat racing world's need for speed

CLEARWATER

Brendan Power has a man's dream job. He owns a business that builds things that go way too fast and make way too much noise.

Power, 40, a native of Australia, is the owner of Power Performance Engineering in Clearwater, one of only four companies in North America that produce engines for the Formula 1 powerboat racing circuit, basically the water equivalent of Formula 1 car racing.

Power parlayed a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Sydney into an internship with a racing team in Australia. Connections he made there brought him to the United States, where he started his career in St. Louis in 1997 designing engines for the Bud Light F1 team.

He moved on to another St. Louis team, but when that team dissolved a year later, he started his own engine company, Power Performance Engineering, in 2002 in St. Louis.

In 2004 he moved his business to Clearwater because it provided his two main requirements: good weather and water.

His shop, located in a small warehouse in an industrial park west of U.S. 19 and north of Ulmerton Road, has a small office, machines for milling and measuring parts, and a dynamometer to test engine performance under racelike conditions.

Power said the mill, which can automatically machine parts he creates on computer design software, cost between $80,000 and $90,000. He bought his precision measuring device at auction for $4,000 in inoperable condition; new, he said, the machine is worth about $150,000.

Photos of boats line the walls of the office. Power has been a boat enthusiast since he was 10, growing up in Sydney across the street from a waterway used for racing. He was a driver in college, racing boats smaller than those in the F1 class, but has since given it up.

"I felt it was better to be an engineer than a driver," Power said. "Or, I was better at engineering than driving, let's say."

These days, Power and his wife, who also used to race boats, are recreational boaters. The couple, who met at a race in Arizona, live on the water in St. Petersburg and own a fishing boat, which they and their two young children use frequently.

In Power's Clearwater shop on a recent workday, more than a dozen engines were scattered on shelves and work benches, some stripped down to the block. Others were nearly assembled — 2.5-liter, 150-cubic-inch, 400-horsepower monsters that propel 1,100-pound, 20-foot catamarans to speeds of 130 mph and from 0 to 60 in under 4 seconds.

Two University of South Florida mechanical engineering students — Sam Steele, 23, and Jon Gravenstreter, 25 — labored over a set of engines. A third USF student, Jeffrey Michalski, 21, also works for Power.

"I've been into cars, motorcycles, anything that goes fast, for as long as I can remember," Gravenstreter said.

The students get paid $15 an hour. "They also have the opportunity to make more if they can show they produce more," Power said.

Steele began working at Power Performance a year and a half ago after USF's Society of Automotive Engineering team, of which he was the lead engine developer, approached Power about a sponsorship. Steele works in the shop after classes six days a week and will become the company's second full-time employee once he graduates in the spring.

"One thing about this business is you can't just hop out of college and do it correctly," Power said. To pay an inexperienced certified engineer would be a waste of money, he said, because there is such a steep learning curve upon entering the shop. That's why he began taking on local engineering students — to groom talent early and at a fraction of the cost of hiring a graduate.

Power Performance has an exclusive contract to manufacture the engines for the Qatar team in the F1H20 World Championship series, which has six to nine races in countries all over the world, including Brazil, China, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Team Qatar has won the past three world championships, with its two boats finishing as the top two points leaders in 2013. One of the drivers, Shaun Torrente, is from the Fort Myers area.

A few weeks in advance of a race, Power sends four motors to the venue — one for each of the team's two drivers, plus two spares. He arrives a bit closer to race day to install the engines and to be there in case anything goes wrong. After each race, Power returns to Clearwater with the engines. He and his team then strip, inspect and rebuild them.

Engines last 10 races or so and can get better or worse as they age — unless an engine blows a hole through a cylinder wall, as one resting on a work bench in the shop had done. Small adjustments, like filing down the block or beveling the edge of the cylinder sleeves, can mean big improvements come race day.

The whole overhaul takes about 125 hours per engine. Power Engineering typically builds and rebuilds about 30 engines per year — enough for two drivers who each compete in nine races, plus some spares. The unit price on each motor is about $25,000, Power said. He declined to provide information about his company's revenue and profit.

Completed engines are tested in the shop dynamometer, housed in a sound-insulated room with an exhaust duct leading outside.

Testing is critical. On the day of a race, each team must install a uniform computer chip provided by the racing series that limits fuel intake and engine speed to 9,600 rpms — similar to the kind of electronic restrictions imposed upon teams by NASCAR.

It's important, Power said, to design the engines with the limitations of the chip in mind. Power can rev up the engines on the dyno to more than 11,000 rpms when not electronically limited, creating a deafening, high-pitched scream that registers at 130 decibels, close to levels created by jets as they take off.

Power hopes to expand his business into general engineering, coming up with solutions to engineering-related problems other companies can't solve on their own.

"There are a lot of opportunities in Qatar, specifically," said Power, adding that he has plenty of contacts in that region. "They have a lot of money but not the resources or skills."

Power has just weeks left to ensure his engines breathe fire before he reunites with the champion racing team for the first race of the 2014 series in Doha, Qatar, on March 15.

Josh Solomon can be reached at jsolomon@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4155. On Twitter @JSolomonTIMES.

Clearwater company feeds boat racing world's need for speed 02/14/14 [Last modified: Friday, February 14, 2014 5:39pm]
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