Badassery: Living in the Fast Lane
Each week we highlight badasses throughout history doing the unthinkable in celebration of human potential. This Week: Donald Campbell, a British speed demon who broke both the world land and water speed records in 1964.
British stuntman Donald Campbell broke eight world speed records on water and land in the 1950s and ‘60s and is the only person to ever set both world land and water records in the same year: 1964.
Campbell was the son of Malcolm, who held 13 world speed records of his own in the 1920s and ‘30s. Both Campbell men used Bluebird cars and boats in their stunts. However, it wasn’t until his father’s death that Campbell was inspired to set records of his own.
Campbell’s first record attempts occurred in the summer of 1949 using his father’s Bluebird K4 boat. That first attempt was unsuccessful even as he closed in on his father’s time. However, in 1950, American Stanley Sayres raised the record to 160 miles per hour from 141 mph, which Campbell’s team realized would be impossible to beat with substantial upgrades to the boat. They vastly reduced drag with modifications and Campbell and touched 170 mph before the boat malfunctioned.
When Campbell upgraded to a Bluebird K7, a jet engine-powered hydroplane, it was his time to shine. He set seven world water speed records in the K7 between July 1955 (202.32 mph) to December 1964 (276.33 mph). Early on in that streak, Campbell set his sights on additionally breaking the land speed record of 394 mph, set by John Cobb at Utah’s Bonneville Speedway in 1947.
The Bluebird CN7 was Campbell’s vehicle of choice. At its release in 1960, the car was designed to reach speeds of up to 500 mph. During an attempt at the Bonneville Salt Flats that year, Campbell lost control traveling more than 360 mph. He survived the crash with a fractured skull and burst eardrum, but decided not to return to Bonneville.
Instead, when the CN7 was finished being rebuilt in 1962, he shipped it out to Australia to make the attempt at the salt flats of Lake Eyre in South Australia. Two years later, in 1964, he posted a new land speed record of 403.10 mph. On the last day of that year, he achieved his seventh water speed record (also in Australia), becoming the first and so far the only person to set both land and water records in the same year.
Campbell consistently attempted and succeeded in breaking his own records. In 1967, he was attempting his eighth water record at a lake in England when the Bluebird K7 launched 50-feet into the air and crashed to pieces. His body wasn’t recovered until 2001.