Lee TaylorThe Growl of Thunder
The trouble with records is that they tend to be fleeting; there always seems to be someone fighting to climb to the top and claim a new Mount Everest. Three months after [Donald] Campbell was killed [on January 4, 1967], his old record was superseded by a new one of 285.2 mph set by Lee Taylor of Bellflower, California. Taylor's fascination with speed began when as a teenager he saw a raceboat in a movie. A 1964 crash before his first record attempt left him in a coma for eighteen days, but his desire remained intact. By 1978, Taylor's record had been replaced by Ken Warby of Australia, who upped the ante to 317.6 mph.
On November 13, 1980, Taylor was poised to snatch the record back. His 40-foot rocketboat called Discovery [II] was constructed of aluminum and stainless steel and powered by hydrogen peroxide fuel that could generate 8,000 pounds of thrust, developing an amazing 16,000 horsepower. The forty-six-year-old Taylor, in fact, believed Discovery [II] was capable of speeds surpassing 600 mph. In tests the spring before with his remarkable $2.5-million boat, which he described as "a piloted water missile," he was clocked at 350 mph; he believed he was close to 400 mph. On that November day on Nevada's Lake Tahoe, the incredible missile-shaped boat was demolished in two, maybe three, seconds. Traveling at 330 mph, the boat disintegrated and disappeared under the lake's smooth surface.
"In five seconds, everything was gone," said an observer. "Lee's helmet was floating in the water. The helicopter flew right to it, but there was nothing else to see but some bubbles."
Films of the accident show that the left sponson seemed to rise and then land hard enough to submerge. Hooking the water at that speed, the boat barrel-rolled, turning over and simultaneously going backward. "Danger is something that goes with the territory, and Lee probably knew it as well as anybody," said Dave Severson, Taylor's longtime friend.
(Reprinted from The Guide to High Performance Powerboating by Joanne A. Fishman, 1989)
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