When a man loves a boat, there's no getting between them.
Nearly every weekend of the powerboat racing season, Wheeler Baker has a rendezvous with Miss Aquamet, a 2.5 liter modified hydroplane with half of a 302-cubic-inch Ford engine. That's the boat he raced to sweep the first annual Kent Narrows Power Boat Challenge last year, and the boat he'll race at the same meet this year, which takes place this weekend.
"She's a sweetheart of a boat," Mr. Baker says over a plate of pancakes at Holly's on Kent Island. "That's my baby."
During a race, that "baby" flies around a 5-mile oval course at terrifying speeds, eluding the blinding roostertails and avenging wakes of hydros left behind.
"It's a wild, exhilarating high," says Mr. Baker, his bay-green eyes flashing.
"Try to imagine," he says, "riding on a couple pieces of plywood about 1 inch off the water at 130 mph."
Once in a while, Mr. Baker vows to leave the sport. "Quit? I say that about every two or three years. I tried to retire. I can't. I can't find anything else that satisfies me. Of course, I never have done any sky-diving."
Mr. Baker, 45, is perhaps the most visible member of the Kent Island family that once dominated the local hydroplaning circuit. Mr. Baker's grandfather and father began playing with the boats on the Wye River in front of the family home in the early 1950s. Soon the entire family was involved. "Pop said water was good for two things, to put in scotch and to race boats in," Mr. Baker says.
As a kid, Mr. Baker was happy to stick to the pits, washing down boats and hauling gasoline. As a teen, he discovered the sublime joy of making a good boat go fast.
His mentor was Alton Pierson, a Maryland Hall of Famer, legendary for his winning way with hydroplanes. Mr. Pierson raced the Baker boats, notably Little Barb, Bo Bo, Bo Bo Too and Nudder Bo. The latter boats were christened when a family company was the local distributor for National Bohemian beer.
From Canada to Florida, the fabulous Baker boys -- Wheeler, Tom and Teddy -- hydroplaned their way to a slew of national and regional championships.
Today, Teddy Baker works behind the racing scenes, and Tom Baker sticks primarily to the Canadian circuit, where he races a grand prix hydroplane with a full blown Chevy engine that can hit 170 mph, no problem. To make a living, the two brothers run R.B. Baker & Sons concrete company.
Wheeler Baker, owner of Baker's Liquors & Deli on Kent Island with his wife Holly, races for most part on the East Coast from New Jersey to Florida. Often, he goes up against pals, such as neighbor Larry Lauterbach, another hydro champion, in friendly but fierce rivalry.
Mr. Baker used to race his own boat, but sold it after deciding to run for county commissioner in 1986. Besides, hydroplanes are expensive -- between $10,000 and $50,000 -- prize money is minimal and the Bakers had two children to put through college.
These days, Mr. Baker is a hired gun for other hydro owners. His favorite boat, of course, is Miss Aquamet, named for a product made by the boat's sponsor, Baltimore Specialty Steels. The boat, which sports a retooled engine that runs on methanol, was made by Mr. Baker's buddy, Carter Parrish, a racing boat builder based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "I'm having more fun now than I ever had in my life," Mr. Baker says.
Over the years, Mr. Baker has racked up some impressive stats. Seven times, he has been national high-points champion for the United States -- accumulating more winning points over a season than anyone else in his class. Mr. Baker has also been national champion five times and set five world records.
He's "an institution," says Bill Novitch, editor of the Racer's Edge, a powerboat racing monthly out of Lantana, Fla. "He's always in contention."
Racing so fast, and so consistently without stuffing the boat into thewater, requires a rigorous mental sea change. "When you set a record, you are absolutely engrossed and concentrating and tense. . . . You're right on the edge of destruction any time you set a record," Mr. Baker says. "You know you're insane to do it, but you do it anyhow."
It's a matter of respect, Mr. Baker says. "You see a guy who wants to beat you; you can't let him." If you let him, later on in life, you'll mull over it, and let it get to you, he says.
Winning a hydro race takes more than nerves of steel. It helps to have a good piece of equipment, "but if you screw up driving you're still going to lose," Mr. Baker says.
At first glance, it's hard to imagine this laconic, self-effacing man as a speed demon. "The funny thing about Wheeler," says his his wife Holly (for whom her father named his restaurant) "he gets DTC out there on the water and drives 150 mph, but [on the road] I have a terrible time getting him to go 55. . . . He really likes to abide by the law. He's a very law-abiding citizen," she says.