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The Risk Takers And Record Breakers

The Risk Takers And Record Breakers
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By Doug Ford
April 27, 2013
Stories of those that tried,
and sometimes died
chasing the Absolute Water
Speed Record

Book review by Richard Parks,
Photographic consultant
Roger Rohrdanz


I reviewed another of Doug Ford’s books, WHAT WERE THEY THINKING, and found the writing style easy to read and the material well researched from an engineer’s perspective.  Ford understands the mechanical aspects, but his writing is not overly technical.  In THE RISK TAKERS AND RECORD BREAKERS the author tells us about the men and woman involved in trying to set the absolute fastest time on water by a motorized boat.  That record stands at over 317 miles per hour (mph) for the water speed record and 763 mph for the land speed record.  But if you only look at the numbers and draw a quick conclusion that land speed racing is tougher or more dangerous, then you would be mistaken.  Water speed racing at any speed can be inherently more dangerous, more exciting and harder to achieve.  Wind velocity affects cars as it does boats and the land surface can sometimes be a little bumpy, but water is an utterly slipper beast.  Not only can boats slip and slide, hit choppy water, and react to wind, but they can dive and catch wind and fly; and that isn’t good.  Hitting the water at 200 plus mph is like driving into concrete; it breaks boats and drivers.  I think those that attempt to master water speed records must have no fear in them, or no sense.  But I admire them for the effort and acknowledge their skill and courage.

THE RISK TAKERS AND RECORD BREAKERS has the same overall look and construction of Ford’s other book; WHAT WERE THEY THINKING.  It is a six by nine inch paperback book, with 262 pages on non-glossy paper.  There is no index, and in a book that lists a lot of names, is a distraction for the historian or avid fan.  However, the Table of Contents suffices in getting the reader to the right chapter.  There is an Acknowledgment, Testimonials, Introduction, two appendices and a fine Bibliography to help the reader find other sources on the subject.  There are 24 Chapters, a prologue and an Epilogue.  The Appendices give records attained and attempted for propeller and non-propeller driven boats.  There are 224 black and white photographs and six color photographs.  All of the color photos are small and located on the cover.  The quality of the photographs varies depending on their age and on the quality of the paper, which is adequate, but not of the high quality you see in coffee table pictorials.  In addition to the photographs there are 16 drawings or diagrams.  The ISBN # is 978-0-9847589-1-3 and was printed in the United States by 48HrBooks.  THE RISK TAKERS AND RECORD BREAKERS is also available from the author and from the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum at or call 206-764-9453.

The reason for adding this book to your library is the stories in the book.  Another book on the subject is RUN TO GLORY, By Donald W. Peterson.  That book is only a third the size of THE RISK TAKERS AND RECORD BREAKERS.  Ford’s book takes us back to 1928 and then up to today’s attempts at the record, while Peterson’s book covers a shorter period of time; 1967-89.  Ford’s book is what I refer to as a cornerstone book; a book to build your library around a certain subject.  Motorized boat racing has been around longer than motorized land racing if you broaden the scope of the subject by including steam powered boats.  Ford doesn’t take us there though, or include the Harmsworth Trophy racing (circular or oval course).  He does include hydroplane racing material for often the records set were by hydroplane racers in between racing dates.  The propeller driven boats dominated from the very earliest attempts, but by 1955 purpose built boats superseded the old hydrofoils, and they began using turbojets a full decade before the cars did.  Boat racing technology always seemed to be ahead of the land racing kind. 

Gar Wood and Malcolm Campbell had dominated the 1930’s, pushing the water speed record from just under 100 mph to around 141 mph.  Stanley Sayres drove the Slo-Mo-Shun IV to 178 mph in 1952; the last propeller driven boat to set the water speed record. Donald Campbell, Malcolm’s son, set and reset the record seven times and increasing the mark by almost one hundred miles per hour in the process.  He revolutionized water speed racing with his radical design and turbojet powered engine; freeing the boat from the constraints of a propeller and drive shaft.  Donald was killed in 1967, the same year that Lee Taylor drove the Hustler to a new record at 285 mph.  Finally, Ken Warby from Australia upped the record to an unbelievable 317 mph in 1978 and there the record has stayed to this very day.

The increase in water speeds have come about due in the power source; jet engines.  On land the jets first began to appear in the 1960’s and they revolutionized land speed racing as well.  Ford also includes propeller driven records in his book.  The value of THE RISK TAKERS AND RECORD BREAKERS lies in the fact that the major players in the quest for the water speed record are portrayed in clear, concise and understandable content.  Their stories are heroic and often tragic.  Men like Malcolm and Donald Campbell, both who set multiple records and perished in trying to set more.  There are the better known racers and owners; Lee Taylor Jr, Stanley Sayres, John Cobb, Lee Schoenith, Kitty O’Neil, Les Staudacher, Art Arfons, Guy Lombardo and Ken Warby.  Then there are the stories of lesser known players; Hickling, Fahey, Verga, Hanning-Lee, and others. 

Ford tells us the story of the rivalry between teams and countries; that played out on water and on land.  There are stories that end in death; a great many deaths of those that we admired.  Ford gives us glimpses into attempts that almost made history, but fell short.  Each story and each chapter stands alone and is interesting in its own way, but the book, taken as a whole, captures the real essence of what it is like to speed over that slippery water, defy the air currents, eddies, wakes and turbulence; and push boat and man to the edge of sanity.  For many, they died trying to do just that.  I recommend THE RISK TAKERS AND RECORD BREAKERS, as a pivotal part of your boat racing library and rate it a 7 out of 8 sparkplugs.

Gone Racin’ is at [email protected].