Bill Price is a lanky, easy-going guy who used to get his kicks barreling around road race courses in an aging Cortina. But is cost him a fortune to keep up with the latest speed innovations and 50 hours a week of wrench-twisting in the garage.

Jay Donoghue learned all about adrenalin rushes when he was piloting Huey gunships in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in 1969. He's got the scars to prove it.

Both men have known high-speed terror, have seen the twisted remains of high-energy excitement gone awry.

These days they take their thrills slowly and silently in the gentle rush of cool air 3,000 feet above the fresh-turned conrfields near Warrenton.

They are converts to the timeless sport of soaring, where man pits his wits against the most unbending of natural forces, gravity, and always loses, sooner or later.

Soaring buffs like Donoghue and Price are having their moments in the sun this week. The annual Smirnoff Sailplane Derby winds up at Dulles Airport today with five of the top soarers in the world maneuvering their frail, unpowered craft onto the huge runways that normally accommodate 747s.

These one-seaters will have worked their way cross-country from Los Angeles in a two-week string of airport hops. The winner almost certainly will be Ingo Renner of Australia in a Libelle 301, who has put together a commanding lead on the 10 stops up to Frederick, Md., where they landed last night.

The derby is an amateur phenomenon and the public is invited to join activities in the Dulles cargo area at noon. On view will be sailplaning in its highest incarnation, with the best fliers handling ultra-high-performance ships.

It's world apart from Warrenton.

The Warrenton Soaring Center started off as a shoestring operation two years ago when it opened with two sailplanes and a tow plane to put them into the sky. The runway was and is a mowed strip for bumpy pasture.

Today there are four two-seat soarers and one single-seater, three tow planes and 20 privately owned sail-planes at the old farm.Some of the private planes are as needle-thin and fast as the competition aircraft at Dulles.

The ones the public gets to use, in lessons or going for a ride with an instructor, are bluntnosed two-seaters that look like miniatrue flying box-cars. Streamlined they're not.

But with a sink rate of 23 feet per minute, barring "holes" in the air, they can provide a half-hour of gentle drift to earth after the tow plane drops them off at 3,000 feet.

All but the final five of those 30 minutes are spent cruising the skies in a search of lift. The great achievement in soarting is to latch onto lift long enough to increase altitude.

Donoghue managed nicely last weekend. He hit a patch over a newly plowed field, where the sun was heating the ground more than it was the surrounding woods. That hot air wanted up, and as we soared along the gauges told us we were going up.

But lift is a tenuous thing and it goes away in a hurry. If you find a column of rising hot air you may end up steaming around in tiny circles to stay in it, because next to every lift there's a sink, and sinks take you down fast.

"What we're really looking for is a forest fire," said Donoghue. "We could scoot right up to 5,000 feet."

We found no forest fire and before long the altimeter was telling us it was time to head in. That's when things happen fast.

"We don't have any margin for error," Donoghue howled from the pllot's seat. "Without power you only have two safety features, altitude and speed. So you have to pick up air speed on the way down. That way if you hit a hole you can pull out. When guys go down off-field they usually run out of altitude, speed and ideas, all at the same time."

We didn't, clearing the trees at runway's edge nicely and dropping to a bumpy touchdown on the little craft's single landing wheel.

The old Schweizer boxcar was nice, but Price thought it wasn't enough. "I'd hate to have you go away with just a ride in a Schweizer 2.33 and think you'd been soaring. Let's go up in the Blanik."

The Blanik is the National Capital Area Soaring Association's new toy, a high-performance Czech two-seafer that's designed to do tricks in the sky. We took another tow to 3,000 and sprung the tow rope. Price did his stuff.

We rolled and twisted through the sky, testing the handling as the wind whistled through the vents.

On the way Price talked about the nice people he's met soaring.

"Well, there was the widow Bowman out in Maureton, Va. The tow plane dropped me off on a ridge lift in the Blue Ridge, but there wasn't any ridge. The widow Bowman was delighted to see me.

"And they'll nveer forget me down at Orndorff's pasture in Tom's Brook. The grandma, the mother and 3-year-old junior all came up hanging off a tractor when I put down there. The kid was shouting, "Oh good, oh good, he's not dead.'"

Price, the ex-speed racer, was chuckling at himself, which is something soarers seem to do a lot of.