Think of him as the ultimate do-it-yourself-er: There’s no one else’s record to break? Then just break your own.
And so British land/water speed racer Donald Campbell — son of Sir Malcolm Campbell, who had set 13 land and water speed records before him — did just that in 1955, besting himself on Lake Mead 63 years ago.
On two runs in his Bluebird K7 — a then-revolutionary turbo jet-powered hydroplane — the daredevil recorded speeds of 239 mph (the record-breaker) and 193 mph on our own lake. And that was only one of a half dozen times Campbell rewrote the water-speed record books between July 1955, when he first set a record with a 202-mph run at Great Britain’s Ullswater Lake, through to a 276-mph run in Australia in 1964.
On the Lake Mead scene that day was pioneering NBC photojournalist Gene Barnes, who recalled the circumstances in I Witness, his collection of portraits taken in the 1950s and ’60s: “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 worldwide publicity to the then-hungry, infant gambling town. NBC promised coverage, which sweetened the pot. In return, Don would attempt a run for the record in the Bluebird on live television.”
Prepared to make the attempt over what Barnes termed “a heartless body of water,” Campbell, he wrote, emerged from his trailer looking confident and told Barnes that he had slept fitfully and had a dream that a fortune teller predicted he would grab the world water record that day.
“Dawn cracked the high desert horizon on this crisp, cold morning,” Barnes wrote. “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 (the Bluebird) 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.”
Triumph, though, took a toll on Campbell’s body, as Barnes further recounted: “Don removed his harness straps. He was in pain. When I asked how (it) 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.”
Before the world ever heard of Evel Knievel, Campbell was flirting with danger and death to etch his name in the record books — and in 1964, he became the only person to have held both land and water speed records in the same year. Despite his superstar speedster status, however, Campbell was thought by experts to be obsessed with enhancing the family tradition he took over from his father — at the expense of safety, which he was accused of taking too lightly.
Fate apparently agreed. In 1967, in Great Britain — while trying to top his own record yet again — Campbell was traveling at more than 300 mph when the nose of the Bluebird jutted out of the water, destabilizing the craft, which somersaulted into the air, then crashed back into the lake and disintegrated. Campbell was killed instantly.
Divers went 120 feet down to search for Campbell’s body and the Bluebird wreckage, but found neither — until 2001, when both were located. Yet the year he perished, Campbell was posthumously awarded the “Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct.”
Royal proclamations are nice, but they can’t compare to pop-culture immortality — say, a reference in a James Bond flick. As the villain in 2002’s Die Another Day cites Campbell’s achievements, he notes:
“He died chasing a dream. Isn’t that the way to go?”