July 17, 2006

Today In Automotive History

1964 Campbell follows in fast father's footsteps

Donald Campbell, the son of Britain's most prolific land-speed record holder, Sir Malcolm Campbell, drove the Proteus Bluebird to a four-wheel, gasoline-powered land-speed record with two identical runs of 403mph at Lake Eyre, South Australia. Campbell contracted rheumatic fever as a child while accompanying his father to South Africa for the elder Campbell's assault on the 300mph barrier. The fever nearly cost Campbell his life, and reshaped his childhood, confining him to a wheel chair for almost three years. Young Campbell lived in his father's dark shadow, as Sir Malcolm was said by some to be a proponent of tough love, and by others to be a cruel-hearted disciplinarian. Whatever the case, the relationship between father and son was strained, with Malcolm expecting too much from his son, and Donald avoiding the expectations as best he could. With the breakout of World War II, Donald seized his chance to live up to his father expectations by signing up for the Royal Air Force (RAF)--Malcolm had flown in World War I. But he was refused when the RAF learned of his history of rheumatic fever. Instead Donald became a constable in England. Meanwhile, his father was a successful military attaché in the Middle East. Donald recalls the trying time, "It appeared I was something of a failure. The Old Man was doing a real job of work and here I was playing policemen and getting into bloody silly accidents." The "accident" was a motorcycle crash with a truck that Donald suffered while on duty. After the war, Sir Malcolm continued to pursue speed records until his death. It wasn't until after his father had passed away that Donald considered pursuing speed records. When it became known his father's water-speed record was in danger, Donald asked his father's long time chief mechanic and close family friend, Leo Villa, to help him set a new mark. It was his chance at redemption. Donald had trouble raising money for his pursuit as his father had left nearly his entire estate to his future grandchildren. Donald raced his father's old boat for nearly six years before breaking his first water-speed record. He broke 200mph, a barrier man thought unbreakable on water, and then proceeded to raise the mark to over 260mph. His single-minded quest for records left behind two failed marriages. Progressively more ambitious, Donald set his sights on the more prestigious land-speed record. He crashed badly, nearly dying, in his first attempt in the Proteus Bluebird at the Bonneville Salt Flats. After undergoing physical rehabilitation and the struggle to raise money for a new car body, he was ready to try to break the 400mph mark again. Many, including some of his crewmembers, thought the crash had ruined his nerves. Donald appeared to be driving too cautiously. But when American Craig Breedlove set an unofficial record of 404mph in a rocket car, Donald knew he had to act. His record run at Lake Eyre, in the face of so many doubters, was his defining moment. Still he wasn't satisfied. Worried by Breedlove's record and his father's ghost, he decided to go for the double, holding both land and water speed records at once. Months later on Lake Dumbleyung in Western Australia, Donald tested his own limits for the last time. "Full power... tramping like hell... I can't see much and the water's very bad indeed. I can't get over the top... I'm getting a lot of bloody row in here... I can't see anything.. I've got the bows up... I've gone." His last words.

Posted by Quality Weenie at July 17, 2006 07:01 AM | TrackBack