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SPEED bumps

Gene Whipp handed me a helmet and a vest that looked more like a flak jacket than a life preserver.

"It's plated with Kevlar," he said. "Just in case."

The mechanic checked the 700-horsepower engine one last time. Then he turned the key and the beast roared to life.

"It is not as easy as it looks," Whipp added. "It takes a lot of concentration and skill. Physically, it takes its toll."

Years of racing high-performance powerboats have left Whipp a battered man. His legs bear the scars of the surgeon's knife; his ears, adorned with hearing aids, are casualties of the motors' deafening noise.

"Those long ocean races bounce you around a lot," Whipp said. "Your knees are the first thing to go."

But this test drive on a rainy Tuesday morning in Sarasota Bay would be a pleasure cruise compared with the old days of screaming across the waves offshore.

With the 11th annual Suncoast Offshore Grand Prix just around the corner, Whipp welcomed the opportunity to test a troublesome new synthetic oil in a recently rebuilt engine in a controlled environment. So why not bring a reporter along to play guinea pig?

"We'll be running so fast only the middle section of the V-bottom hull will be touching the water," he said. "Your job will be to keep the boat level and, of course, stay on course."

Lose concentration for a moment, relax at the wheel, and the boat will start rocking from side to side. Powerboat racers call this phenomenon "chine walking," and at 90 mph it will make you wish you'd taken up badminton instead.

"I'll work the throttle," Whipp continued. "If you get the hang of it, I'll open it up a little."

As storm clouds gathered on the horizon, I pulled out of the slip and motored out onto the empty Intracoastal Waterway. A quick scan revealed no other boats.

"Good nobody to hit," I muttered inside the helmet. "I can't possibly cause too much damage."

Whipp started off slowly, but when he realized I was enjoying myself, he gave it the gas. The 26-foot Kevlar-carbon fiber boat lurched forward, slamming me against the back rest.

A few seconds later, the boat running at 60 mph plus, began to rock.

"Uh-oh chine walk," I said. Whipp reached over and grabbed the wheel, and started moving it a half-inch one way then the other, each time perfectly in synch with the rocking hull.

"Got it," I signaled with the fighter pilot's thumbs-up sign.

Following Whipp's direction, I turned in a wide arc, then headed toward the photographer's boat, a white dot in the distance.

With the boat under control, Whipp trimmed the tabs and custom-made Thoroughbred Velocity picked up momentum. The speedometer hit 70, then 80.

Speed thrills. It's addictive. Once you taste it, you have to have more 85, 86, 87.

"Oh, no!" I yelled. "A pelican."

The bird flew off just in time, but its departure was followed by a loud thump!, and the engine died.

"Did I hit a bird?" I asked in a panic.

"No," Whipp said solemnly. "That was the engine."

He opened the hatch that covered the motor. A grayish substance covered the wall of the box. A hunk of metal, the size of a silver dollar, lay on the deck.

"Threw a rod and blew a hole in the oil pan," he announced. "This is going to be an expensive repair."

"How much?" I asked.

"Probably about $10,000," he said.

The figure raced through my mind. A one followed by four, count 'em, four zeros. I checked my wallet _ a little short. This wouldn't be an easy one to hide in the old expense account.

In fact, it would probably be better just to avoid the place for a while, maybe take the next five to 10 years off, head south, see if Robert Vesco needed a roommate.

"We just rebuilt this engine," Whipp said. "We've been having problems with this synthetic oil."

A wave of relief bowled me over like a tsunami.

"You mean it wasn't my fault?" I whimpered.

"No," Whipp answered. "It is all part of racing."

The photographer's boat attached a tow rope to the bow. Whipp consulted with his mechanic. There would still be time to fix the engine before the race. I handed back the helmet and decided to leave racing to the professionals.