Don Campbell- 1955, World Speed Records


Donald Campbell

Campbell prepared to run his jet-powered Bluebird for the world’s record, a record previously held by his father, Sir Malcolm Campbell. We spent about three weeks with Don Campbell at Lake Mead, Nevada, during the winter of ’55.

At one time Sir Malcolm held both land and sea records with Bluebird racers. He was the first man in history to achieve ground speed of 300 mph, driving his Bluebird car on Utah’s Salt Flats. Later he recorded 141 mph on water, also a first and a record that held for many years.

When Henry Kaiser announced to the sports world he was preparing a boat to break Sir Malcolm’s record Donald angered, decided to give Kaiser a run for his money and defend the family name. He designed and built the Bluebird jet boat with little financial assistance, a serious and dedicated undertaking which required everything Don could give. Like a brave ancient nobleman with fierce clan blood boiling under a gentleman’s exterior, he was ready to do battle .

Campbell and his crew arrived in Nevada with the exotic craft and took up quarters at the Sahara hotel, a comp deal that the Sahara hoped would garner world-wide publicity to the then hungry infant gambling town. NBC promised coverage, which sweetened the pot. In return Don would attempt a run for record in the Bluebird on live television for the Wonderful World of Sports.

Remote cameras were set up on the rim of Lake Mead covering the longest course running north and south. Newsreel cameras pooled: one man on land for theatrical reels; the other in a small power boat for coverage from the water for tv news. Campbell would make two runs in the Bluebird for the record. The first heading north, he’d refuel at a floating dock at the north end, then return to the south end for the second run.

Engine and fuel problems, choppy conditions and wind currents delayed Don from getting the Bulebird into the first run time after time. NBC aired static pictures of people standing around waiting and their producer kept begging Campbell to make a try. He clammed up. It was his boat, his life and he would damn well judge when to make the run, a run that would take him over two hundred miles an hour on a heartless body of water. Finally, on a split second decision, Don roared down the course at a pretty good speed. Film cameras rolled, but NBC live TV had cut to commercials out of sponsorship desperation and missed the run.

The lengthy refueling process got underway at the north end and the network people became impatient and again flipped to commercials. Campbell unexpectedly fired up and started the return. Before NBC got back on the remote, the jet flamed out and the boat sank. Well, so much for “live” TV coverage of the sports spectacular. The network wound up using our film coverage on later shows.

Everyone packed up, went back to their home base. A handful of us stayed while they retrieved the boat and dried it out. We still had a commitment. After a couple of weeks, the PR rep at the Sahara Hotel became very nervous. In an attempt to reassure him that he’d get the coverage he wanted, I dreamed up sidebar stories about the hotel for the news shows. It was pretty dull stuff but it worked.

Race officials also had accommodations at the hotel, including the aging, spindly, red headed course timer, who had a penchant for Salty Dogs. I made several trips back and forth from L.A. during the layoff period knowing all I had to do when I returned was to head for the bar, find Red, the guy with his nose in a Salty Dog, and he’d fill me in on what I’d missed, if anything .

By mid-November Don was ready. He was sure of the Bluebird this time and said he would make a run before dawn or at dusk as long as there was available light. NBC sent me back, but live TV couldn’t afford another shot and had to bow out.

The weather snapped freezing cold over night. I was waiting on the deserted beach at sunrise when Don emerged from his trailer looking confident. He reached out with two fingers touching my bright red jacket, “Touch red for luck, Gene.” he told me he had a fitful sleep and that he dreamed a fortune teller told him he would have the water record today.

Don had chosen the short five-eights of a mile course running east and west this time due to water conditions. I set my camera up on the beach with the start/finish line to my right, located at a small craft anchorage; the refueling barge backed by steep palisades to my left. Due to a design feature the Bluebird could only turn left and there was only fifty feet in which to make the turn or the Bluebird would smash into the palisades. Though more dangerous, he chose this course because it was less likely to have a chop in the early morning.

Don’s plan was to cruise to the start line at 110 mph, turn sharply, reverse direction, get the heavy craft up on her steps while banking and enter the course planing, barely touching the water on the tips of hydro-planes. The most significant part of contact between boat and water was a few slender inches of rudder protruding into the lake’s surface. Next he had to accelerate over 300 mph then, almost as quickly, he had to dump the speed hoping the heavy craft would offer enough resistance to rapidly deplane and slow down so he could make the tricky turn instead of skimming into the jagged palisades like a high speed missile.

Only a few of us were left on the beach covering the run. No one took the event casually. There was no idle chatter, no jokes, we all sensed something important was about to happen.

Dawn cracked the high desert horizon on this crisp, cold morning. We saw water rising at the start line, then heard the roar of the engine. I shouted, “He’s running!” I could see the Bluebird coming toward us looking deceptively slow because of the camera angle. The speed was quite evident as she passed straight out in front of my lens. I had to whip the camera as the blue craft hurtled down the course. I knew the first run was record speed. I had never panned a boat that fast. Don completed the dangerous turnaround with ease and stopped to refuel for the return.

The jet ran as fast on the return, maybe faster. I was moving with her when to my amazement a bunch of ducks began swimming into frame. I prayed they were not in the path of the boat. I continued to pan realizing the telephoto lens tends to flatten and foreshorten the field of view, which puts foreground objects close to those in the background.

Then I became alarmed when my lens picked up a brand new chop on the surface. I opened my other eye and saw it was directly in the path. Before I could react the Bluebird was into the chop directly in front of me, the nose bobbing ominously. Don had told me the danger point is when the craft undulates more than thirty times a second. I thought it was undulating too fast, he was going in. But suddenly the chop disappeared and the boat rode it out smoothly at record speed, an average of over 290 mph. Twice the speed of his father and practically the same speed his father achieved on land.

I hurried to the dock grabbing shots of the boat coming in and of Don getting out of the Bluebird. Everyone was excited. Though previous records had been established with conventional engine powered crafts, the world’s water speed record had been shattered.

Don removed his harness straps. He was in pain. When I asked how the chop affected him he grinned wryly and peeled back the top of his jumpsuit. Both shoulders were covered with massive black and blue bruises where the harness had dug in. He said he felt like he was going to be pitched through the windshield in spite of the harness.

Several years later Don Campbell went for a new record on Loch Ness in Scotland. It brought back many memories. The British documentary film showed Don in preparation with his lady and chief mechanic, the same man in Vegas; some water stuff and a run for time. This time Don had a throat mike and was able to talk to his crew chief.

It was a misty morning, eerie and quiet, without crowd or fan fare. Don was taking the craft up to speed. The camera captured the tell-tale bobbing of the nose. It looked like it was undulating more than I had witnessed on Lake Mead. Then he hit a stray piece of wood. Don’s voice announced; “We’re losing her–she’s going in!!!”

The Bluebird did a complete loop in the air and dove nose first into the Loch carrying Don Campbell to his death. They never recovered the Bluebird or his body.

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