Hydroplane racing pioneer Glenn Campbell Part II

Episode 309

March 29, 2020

Back home in Maine

After his two-year stint in the Army in 1958, Campbell went to work with his father and grandfather. He however suffered from the racing bug from his younger years and that boat at the sporting goods store in Paris.

Somewhat grainy photo of Gary DeMerchant in one of the runabout racers typical of the type that the group ran at Monson Pond in Fort Fairfield before expanding their adventures to other racing venues. (Glenn Campbell collection)

Campbell and a few of his friends from the Fort Fairfield area had a little money, time, and desire to go racing. His list of racing friends included Fred McDougal, Hudson Ketch, Hardie Ketch, Gary Locke, Gib Beckwith, Jerry Bishop, Phil Christensen, Gary DeMerchant, and Richard Duncan, all who drove hydroplane racers at some point in their racing careers. Norm Grant never drove, but did provide support for the guys racing. When Campbell presented those names, he noted several of his racer friends had passed away which seemed to make him sad.

Gary Locke’s Dodge decorated for the Potato Blossom Festival Parade in Fort Fairfield announcing an upcoming race the next day at Monson Pond. They pulled the trailer which was typical of those used by hydroplane racers. This one contained Locke’s # 77A and Campbell’s 54A. (Glenn Campbell collection)

The Fort Fairfield racers acquired boats and eventually organized local events centered around Monson Pond and the Potato Blossom Festival, a highly popular annual event held in Fort Fairfield. Campbell recalled one race drew nearly 10,000 spectators and racers.

Gary Locke in foreground locking back, Gib Beckwith with orange racing life preserver looking out on the river on left, Jerry Bishop with his shirt off, and Glenn Campbell at the take out for the races in Fredericton, New Brunswick. (Glenn Campbell collection)

Long Lake in Sinclair as well as Nickerson Lake in Houlton were hot spots for hydro racers. The lure of races in other parts of Maine and the Maritimes drew Campbell and several friends to try their skills away from the friendly confines of the County.

Fredericton, New Brunswick, Jerry Bishop shirtless in front left, Gary Locke is behind him and Gib Beckwith is in his boat. (Glenn Campbell photo)

Richard Duncan (left) is congratulated by Glenn Campbell (right) for winning a trophy at Moncton, New Brunswick race on the North Shore. Duncan’s boat is #4D a Marchetti-built boat. (Glenn Campbell collection)

Racing the Albany to New York City Marathon on the Hudson River

Pharmacist Oscar French, Houlton, was an avid hydro boat racing fan who had the itch to get behind the steering wheel. French and his family owned French’s Drug Store on the corner of Main and Court Street in downtown Houlton.

Throughout the summer of 1962, French followed the racers from venue to venue. In 1963 French asked them to help him buy a hydroplane racer. “He was a nice guy. You just don’t say, ‘I’m gonna go boat racing or say I’m going to go ride a horse,’” said Campbell. “That’s when people get hurt or killed.”

“That is what he wanted to do, so we trained him and talked him through it. He just didn’t have the background for it.”

“Anyway, Oscar had some money so he bought a brand-new 16 ½ foot Speedliner with 85 hp engine.  He was bound and determined we were going to go down to race the 135-mile Albany to New York City Marathon race on the Hudson River. The Hudson Marathon started in 1928 and was held of and on until 1963 when it was once again revived. This time it went from 1963-1966.

In 1963, French drove and Jerry Bishop was the designated co-driver. Eighty-nine boats started from the Dunn Memorial Bridge in Albany with 83 finishing at the Manhattan 79th Street Marina. The team finished fourth in the HH Class only 2 minutes behind the third-place boat. French had 35 gallons on board at the start and finished with a mere cupful of fuel after averaging 38 mph.

Campbell accompanied French and Bishop to the June 21, 1964 race which would finish across the river in Edgewater, New Jersey. The New Jersey finish meant the race was 131 miles down 4 miles from the ’63 race.

“My wife wasn’t too crazy about me driving this race”, said Campbell, “I originally went as a pick up driver to pick them up when they were down at the finish line”.

“Oscar took sick and said if he didn’t feel better that he wanted me to drive”. continued Campbell. “The next day Oscar was still sick,so I became the driver.”

The day before the race, French had a local outboard motor mechanic in the Boston  area with a good reputation, tune up the engine for the grueling race. The engine essentially needed to run at full speed for a majority of the time. One of the spark plug wires was not properly re-attached resulting in only five of the six cylinders working correctly.

Both Campbell and Bishop told Oscar they had the engine running fine, however, French wanted these hot shot mechanics to look over his engine before the big race.

Campbell’s first and only Albany to New York City Marathon race was a beautiful hot and humid day with relatively calm water at the beginning of the race on the Hudson River. The river did get choppy and much more difficult the further south he and co-driver Jerry Bishop went.

“We began the race and immediately noticed the boat was down on power with only five cylinders,” said Campbell. “I wanted to pull off the river and fix the engine but decided to keep going.”

“When we hit rough water, the others let up on the throttle, I never let off the throttle!” recalled Campbell. “In some places I should have. We did the race non-stop. I missed the fuel tank switch only once.”

Campbell smiled and remarked, “If we had all six cylinders, I would probably have flipped!”

“They had these big square stern barges that would send out a wave out about 200 feet or more. The first time I hit one of them waves, we went right over the top and went down under the water wave. Jerry was sitting in the back with hardly a seat to set on and got wet, but I did not even get wet because of the windshield.”

“Jerry hollered, ‘Some of those waves you should let up on!’”

“I am not taking my hand off that throttle,” replied Campbell!

The engine had run somewhat slow compared to others on the upriver stretch due to the non-attached spark plug wire so he decided to make up time and ran full throttle in sections where others may have used restraint.

“I think they might have been thinking ‘There go those crazy guys from Maine,’” chuckled Campbell.

When they got to the finish in New Jersey,they found out that they had finished third in HH Stock. They were only 46 minutes behind the overall winners John Culver and Cliff Reif in their Glastron 17 speedboat with two engines.

They noticed that Oscar was not driving at the take out point. It turned out that French planned to drive to the finish line but was unable to do so because of extreme pain.

When French and crew got back to Houlton, Dr. John Madigan, French’s friend and physician determined that the cause of the pain was phlebitis which is extremely dangerous if the blot clot gets to the heart or lungs.

French was flown to a hospital in Boston Sunday July 5 for treatment after the clot moved to his lung. He was accompanied by Dr. Madigan, who worked with the Boston team of doctors to alleviate the pain and get rid of the source of trouble.

French’s condition seemed to improve until the weekend when it deteriorated. It was decided that he would have surgery number two on Tuesday, July 21st. Dr. Madigan flew back to Boston to be with French. The surgery was delayed until Wednesday. French died during surgery at age 35.

(Information about Oscar French was provided by Hayley Jipson, Cary Library, Houlton, Maine)

Campbell’s most memorable hydroplane boat race

Richard Duncan’s Marchetti boat at a race in Canada. This is similar to the boat Campbell wrecked in the Pushaw Pond race. Marchetti was a top-of- the line boat builder from Bristol, Pennsylvania. He produced between 50 – 60 boats per year in his cellar. His fitment, material selection, as well as attention to detail made his boats 1-2 mph faster than other boats.The boat eventually was repaired and sold. The new owners had good fortune with the boat according to Campbell. (Glenn Campbell collection)

When asked what race during the Fort Fairfield man’s 12-year racing career stood out Campbell laughed and remarked, “The time I got run over in Pushaw Pond outside of Bangor!”

“We had an eight-boat pile up. We started with 12 boats and I am too close to the shore dodging wharfs (Glenn estimated speed at near 75 mph) and the 13th boat came out from the shore when he got the motor running. He was not even supposed to be in that race!”

“Coming out from shore he left a wave. A hydro on plane does not leave a wake to speak of. I looked at that wake and the guy beside me looked at that wake. I could see him gesturing like ‘That wake doesn’t amount to nothing’. I know the wake wasn’t any higher than that (showing me about a six-inch wave with his hands).”

“When I took off from this one, it was just the right distance to hit that other one. It sucked it in, the waves up here and the boats went down like that (Campbell once again described with his hands his boat in a near vertical, sharp nose-down angle which struck the lake bottom and stopped immediately). I went right down through the boat, tearing out the whole front of the boat.”

“Of course, that was quite a shock. The nose stuck in the bottom in water only about four feet deep. When I came up, I could hear the damnest noise you could imagine. I looked like that, and there was a prop about a foot from my head.”

I’m trying to get out of the water. All that was left was this sponson and the other sponson. It had prop marks all the way up the side. There wasn’t anything in the middle of the boat! Two of the boats hit my boat, one tore the top off the motor which landed 200 feet way. They could not find it.”

Campbell’s boat was a Marchetti built by Italian builder Nick Marchetti, Bristol, Pennsylvania one of the top hydroplane builders in America. Campbell’s Marchetti boat sponsons had two sets of prop marks that ran from back to front. That was how close they had come to the driver.

Glenn Campbell holds a two-blade racing prop typical of what was used in that era. Note how sharp the blade is. Combined with a high revving engine it is apparent the danger posed to him at the Pushaw Pond race. (HTF Motorsports photo)

“When I came back from the hospital, I had to give a kid five bucks to look for the engine top. It was all broke to pieces. Another guy had hit the boat near the engine and tore the engine off the transom. Two guys set their wheels and flipped. One guy had broken ribs and cracked sternum and was pretty banged up.”

“The biggest thing with me was my knee struck the wheel so hard going down that I cleaned it. I had no broken bones but I did have a hard time to walk a week or two. It is a wonder that knee has not bothered me through the years.”

A local man put Glenn in his car and raced off to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. He was driving so fast, Glenn had to shout at him to slow down so they would not crash the car. Upon arrival things were going a little slow in the emergency room.

“They had an accident on the 95. That hospital was pretty plugged. So, when the boys came to pick me up, I said, ‘let’s go”’.

The hospital personnel said, ‘You can’t do that.’

Campbell replied, “The hell I can’t. I had been there about an hour and a half. I had not been seen by the doctor, nobody. nobody!”

So away they went back to pick up the broken pieces at Pushaw Pond. The drive back home was a painful one with the knee throbbing. Campbell did not want his parents to see what a mess he was, however, driving into the yard with a mangled boat on top of the car was a sure indication that not all went well at the races. You will need to check back in Episode 310 for the “homecoming”.

Part III next week

Campbell continued racing until 1972. Stay tuned to read about how he was able to track down his most successful boat and restore it. Read also about another Aroostook County man who raced hydroplanes in the ’70’s, Van Buren’s Lyn Michaud.

Let’s go racing,

Tom Hale

Soli Deo Gloria (Joshua 1:9)




Tom Hale

About Tom Hale

Tom wrote 14 years as freelancer for the Bangor Daily Sports covering motorsports in Maine. Now blogging and concentrating on human interest stories about people and places in racing. He races Champ Karts and owns HTF Motorsports in remote Westmanland, Maine