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Teen boat racer leaving others in her wake

Leah and Jan Hoosick, a mother-daughter hydroplane racing team, at home in Amesbury with their boat, Chaotic Dream. Leah and Jan Hoosick, a mother-daughter hydroplane racing team, at home in Amesbury with their boat, Chaotic Dream. (Lisa Poole for The Boston Globe)
By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / September 15, 2011

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From the cockpit, it’s all a rush of water - a low, rumbling rhythm.

At 80-plus miles per hour, the clear surface is a blur below. Landscapes - trees, houses, docks - tumble by. Other boats pull ahead, behind, or glide deck-to-deck, seemingly just inches away, tailed by cascades of water 50 feet high.

“It’s an adrenaline rush; your heart’s pounding really fast,’’ said Leah Hoosick, a 16-year-old Amesbury resident who is learning to tame the open water in a sport known as inboard hydroplane boat racing.

“I just put my head down and go.’’

It is a defiance of speed and physics, the closest anyone can come to walking on water. In this intensely fast, demanding, and dangerous sport, drivers literally skim across the surfaces of lakes and rivers in ultra-light, aerodynamic boats, going anywhere from 80 to well over 200 miles per hour.

Hoosick, a curly-haired, freckled teenager with a quick smile, is one of the few female - and one of the youngest - racers to hunker down in the tight confines of the cockpit to take on the challenge. Driving a 1.5-liter engine in a purple-and-silver carbon-fiber craft she dubbed Chaotic Dream, with her mother, Jan, as her crew chief, she’s a young woman in a sport in which the majority of racers are male, and often several years her senior.

Still, she has established herself as a notable newcomer, earning Rookie of the Year honors last year from the American Power Boat Association, the US authority for the sport.

Now in her second season, Hoosick has garnered one second-place finish, four third-place prizes, and, perhaps the best trophy, the respect of her fellow drivers.

“She will be a winner. I’m certain of that,’’ said Steve Armstrong, a 31-year-old multiple-time champion from Brockville, Ontario, who races a 2.5-liter-engine boat with the ominous moniker Total Chaos!

Due to various factors - most notably the post-9/11 economy - there hasn’t been a hydroplane event in Massachusetts for more than a decade, according to Jan Hoosick, who recalled races being held years ago in Lowell and at Moore Dam in Littleton, N.H. There’s nothing notable in New England at large, either, making the closest contest about a 6 1/2-hour drive away.

But the mother-daughter team has a goal of reintroducing the hustling spectacle of a sport here; for starters, they’ve organized a race for Saturday and Sunday, “Thunder on Webster Lake,’’ at Memorial Beach Park in Webster. If all goes well, it will be an annual event.

“We’re doing all we can to bring it back to the area,’’ said Jan, who also reestablished the group New England Inboard Racing, which Jan’s father started decades ago when he was involved in the sport.

Clearly, it’s a culture in the family, a sort of hereditary speed-demonism. Leah’s grandfather got his first boat in the early 1970s, and her uncle has also raced; now, her cousin, Kevin Smith of Peabody, is finding success as he blurs across the water. Her 10-year-old sister, Anna, is the next racer; she’s counting down the years until she can sit in a cockpit.

Leah and her mother, meanwhile, are believed to be the only mother-daughter team on the US and Canadian circuits.

For Leah, a student at Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School in Haverhill, it all started two years ago, when she went to Syracuse, N.Y., to watch her cousin race.

She was hooked.

So last February, her family purchased a boat. Her first time in the claustrophobic cockpit, she was “on the verge of tears, so nervous,’’ as she described it.

But it didn’t take her long to get over her fear.

“I put my foot to the floor and didn’t stop,’’ said the teenager, who, in her landlubber hours, is a cheerleader, a second baseman on the softball diamond, and an actress in school plays. When at the wheel of a car, not surprisingly, she has a bit of a lead foot.

Indeed, as a rookie, she competed in 16 events, racking up 18,000-plus miles on the family’s Ram 1500 as she and her mother traveled across the United States and Canada. She has since picked up sponsorships from Go Fast energy drink and Wolfe Engines.

After upgrading to a second boat that can glide 90 to 100 miles per hour, she was expected to compete in 11 races this season, including the Webster event.

But because these hydroplanes can’t simply be backed up to a boat ramp and dropped in the water like any regular boat, there’s not much room for practice. “Your race day is your training,’’ said Jan Hoosick.

As the racers lap at ferocious speeds in elimination rounds, sending up enormous water streams, or “rooster tails,’’ the boats seem to hover above the surface.

Much like NASCAR or Motocross, drivers build up points over a season, striving for the title, and the prestige, of high point champion.

Leah’s aspirations? “As high as I can go.’’

Ultimately, the cosmetology student - who freely admits that she’ll take as much time getting her hair and makeup just right before a race as she will tuning up her engine and replacing parts - is bold, seemingly fearless, and rather nonchalant about her pricey and often hazardous hobby.

Hoosick has seen boats flip over, end-to-end; once she spun hers “like a top’’ after going into a turn at 85 miles per hour, emerging with a numb neck and requiring an MRI (she was OK). Getting and keeping a license addresses these dangers: Drivers have to regularly pass a “capsule test,’’ which requires them to extricate themselves from an overturned boat.

Meanwhile, the cockpit temperatures can soar above 100 degrees and drivers wear fire-retardant suits and shoes, strap on air masks, and buckle up in five-point harness restraint seat belts.

Ominous as this all sounds, though, Leah stressed, “If I wasn’t comfortable with it, I wouldn’t be out there.’’

Mom is approving of her daughter’s dedication.

“As a parent, you need to support your kid’s passion,’’ she said as the two sat in their dining room, wearing matching purple racing shirts and black capri pants, Leah’s detailed with lace at the calf and finished off with flip-flops exposing hot pink toenails.

Above all, she noted the rare bonding experience.

“We’re closer than any parent and child I know,’’ Jan said. “It’s a 16-year-old girl being cooped up with her mother all summer long. The time we spend together is just incredible.’’

Incredible, but certainly not cheap.

As Jan explained, a combination boat, trailer, and engine can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $250,000; on top of that, they outfitted Chaotic Dream with a $2,000 communication system and a $3,000 air system.

Then there are the repair costs - the engine has to be tuned up and parts replaced before every race, and overhauled once a season - and the gas: Their 2003 hydroplane takes Sunoco 93, “the highest octane without going aircraft,’’ according to Jan.

As for races, between travel, food, lodging, and entry fees, each runs about $1,000.

“And if you’re extremely lucky,’’ Jan said, “you come out with a plastic trophy.’’

Adds Leah: “And the glory.’’

“Thunder on Webster Lake’’ takes place Saturday and Sunday, in Webster, starting at 11 a.m. both days. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for ages 3 to 16, free for age 2 and under.