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The Return of Lake X

In 2004, Mercury shuttered its top-secret test facility.
The company recently reopened Lake X and offered a glimpse at how far outboard technology has come.

In the late ’50s, Operation Atlas—an endurance trial that saw two runabouts circle Lake X nonstop for 35-days—bolstered Merc’s reputation for gutsy engineering. Fueling was done on the fly (shown here).

In the late ’50s, Operation Atlas—an endurance trial that saw two runabouts circle Lake X nonstop for 35-days—bolstered Merc’s reputation for gutsy engineering. Fueling was done on the fly (shown here).

Arriving at the guard shack early that morning was pure nostalgia. Here I was again, after all these years, staring down that long cypress-sided avenue at what had always seemed like an ineffably mysterious compound; a place where extraordinary happenings were simply part of the deal. Through my windshield, I could vaguely make out the assortment of beige concrete-block buildings in the distance, with the big, round, signature spaceship windows, and the observation tower way out on the water’s edge, looking like it came straight out of a science-fiction thriller.

How many years had it been? Twenty? Twenty-five? It didn’t matter, really—certainly the last time I’d visited Lake X, I’d arrived long before the 2004 shutdown, long before anybody at Mercury Marine or Mercury Racing had even countenanced the possibility of pulling the plug on arguably the most famous, most sophisticated, and most confidential marine testing facility in the world.

The gate trundled back, thanks to an early-rising Mercury employee. And as I drove on through, I was constrained to reflect on just how much pulse-accelerating excitement my initial visit to the lake had generated. I’d been in my early 40s then, itching to become a marine journalist of the first water, an admittedly high-falutin’ goal that, at the time, seemed to at least partially involve driving lots of boats at very high rates of speed in order to create the liveliest, most detailed, most hands-on accounts of such enterprises ever to appear in print.

The wildlife was still prevalent—turkeys and deer this morning, mostly. I eased past the empty slips where the big Travelift used to be and parked behind a building that, if memory served, had once housed an office as well as a dining hall and an enormous shop with several large, well-protected rigging bays. Because it was so early, nobody was around. The festivities—a press event scheduled to both introduce a new 3.4L V-6 FourStroke outboard from Mercury and publicly announce the reopening of Lake X—would not start for more than an hour. So, I decided to take a stroll down memory lane.

The dock at Lake X had a paradisiacal look back in the day. Merc would later add a lagoon with boathouse and a shoreside observation tower.

The dock at Lake X had a paradisiacal look back in the day. Merc would later add a lagoon with boathouse and a shoreside observation tower.

The Ultimate Cornering Machine

As I approached the old, three-story, lakeside observation tower in the reddish sunrise light, I began to entertain a question I’d never entertained before. Back in the late ’50s, when Carl Kiekhaefer, the founder of Mercury Marine, had guided a small plane over the watery wilderness that would become Lake X, he’d undoubtedly done so with great seriousness and intensity. Kiekhaefer, after all, was by reputation an exceptionally competitive man who, although boldly innovative as an engineer, was also obsessively preoccupied with the threat of industrial espionage, primarily from Outboard Marine Corporation, his main competitor at the time. But given the playfully futuristic look of the very remote (and therefore very confidential) facility he would soon build on the edge of Lake X, and the infectiously spirited, fun-loving style of life he would nurture and encourage there, wasn’t it likely that the old boy sported a subtly playful, rambunctious side to his personality, too?

I’d certainly felt shivers of it zoom up my spine on that steamy July afternoon, probably back in the mid-90s, when I’d squeezed into the driver’s seat of a 120 mph Formula One tunnel boat. And, from what I could remember, the solemn presence of paramedics leaning against a colorful ambulance parked along the shoreline, and the sight of a couple of rescue divers mutely drifting in a small boat near the buoy at the first turn of the race course—waiting—had done virtually nothing to dampen my enthusiasm.

“What you’ve got here, Bill, is the ultimate cornering machine,” my driving coach Kevin Miller had explained via my helmet intercom as I repeatedly nudged the foot throttle to gauge the level of acceleration I was dealing with. The steering wheel in my hands was already slimy with sweat. The safety capsule into which I was so thoroughly harnessed felt tight, cramped, hotter than a two-dollar pistol, and offered surprisingly limited visibility through a small tinted-plex windshield.

“Run the course a few times before you open ’er up,” Miller had concluded in a confident, down-home southern drawl. “I’ll walk you through it. You ready?”

The sun was now gilding the old observation tower with golden light. Ospreys were circling above it. Other members of the press were fanning out from the parking lot where I’d left my car, checking out various iterations of the new FourStroke, each one mounted on a boat from a different manufacturer. I had to get back.

But still and all, for just a moment, I squinted off toward the pancake flat expanse of the lake beyond where I stood and imagined seeing a 17-foot Formula One rocketship out there, equipped with a tweaked-to-the-nines, 245-horsepower, high-performance Mercury outboard, streaking into a turn so tight that no fun-loving amusement park ride anywhere in the world could come remotely close to the experience. Ah, yes!

Founder of Mercury Marine, legendary Carl Kiekhaefer (with hand on Mark 75 outboard), stands with “his boys,” the crew at top-secret Lake X.

Founder of Mercury Marine, legendary Carl Kiekhaefer (with hand on Mark 75 outboard), stands with “his boys,” the crew at top-secret Lake X.

A Tale of Radical R&D

Once the press event got rolling, the day turned out to be a spectacular one for test driving a variety of vessels, from sporty speedsters to pontoon boats, all showcasing one or two of the new FourStrokes. Conditions were mild, with little more than a light chop on the water, see-forever visibility, and cool, bracing temperatures.

There was a social side to things, of course. And somewhere between wringing out a sporty little Scout 275 LXF (Luxury Sportfisher) equipped with twin 200s and a test drive of a Boston Whaler 270 Dauntless with the same powerplant, I fell to talking with John Litjens, a Mercury employee for decades and Lake X’s head honcho for many years. We compared notes for a while, reminiscing about raceboat drivers and other friends we had in common. Then we discussed what it had been like to “refuel on the fly,” the way Mercury boat drivers used to do during the fabled endurance runs that exercised new motors nonstop, day and night, for literally thousands and thousands of unbroken circuits of the lake. Then finally, in order to slake a pause in the conversation, I brought up my Formula One adventure decades before.

John listened with amusement. Then he asked, “You wanna know something about the safety capsule in that boat you were driving way back when?”

“Sure,” I said.

The author takes a spin on the fabled lake.

The author takes a spin on the fabled lake.

“As you know, the point of the thing,” John continued, “was to keep a guy from getting pitched out of the boat if he flipped the darn thing over—that was the cause of the real bad injuries that would sometimes occur with tunnel boats, getting pitched out. We designed the capsule here at Lake X, you know. Made of Kevlar mostly. We realized there was a need. Very good thing to have for any raceboat driver. But do you know how we tested it, to make sure it would work the way we wanted it to?”

“No,” I replied, sensing the imminence of a good story, most likely featuring a characteristically radical, but altogether practical testing methodology.

“Well, one way or another,” John went on, “we were able to come up with a C-130. You know—the cargo plane with the hinged loading ramp at the rear? I can’t remember if the thing was military or civilian. But anyway, we loaded our safety capsule on board and brought the plane in over the lake, about 50-feet off the deck, at 150 miles per hour give or take, and kicked the capsule out. The darn thing came through unscathed, so we figured it was probably okay.”

I shook my head, smiled, and nodded off toward the water.

“I wonder if you guys’ll ever do that kind of highly creative testing again out there, now that this place has been reopened,” I asked, in a tone that mixed humor with genuine admiration. After all, Mercury’s research and development work on safety capsules and canopies at Lake X—as well as on many other projects during the glory days—did much to improve and advance the realm of motorboating for us all.

“Oh,” said John after a bit. “Probably not. We’ll probably stick with the more conventional type of product testing methods.”

Video: Superblast from the Past ▶

hand drawn rule

Merc's Latest OB

Based on a series of test drives I recently did at Mercury Marine’s recently reopened test facility at Lake X, I’d say the company’s new 3.4L V-6 Mercury FourStroke outboard (225-horsepower, 200-horsepower, and 175-horsepower versions are available) is not only exceptionally quiet, but fuel-efficient and powerful as well. I ran performance numbers on one of the Lake X boats—a Boston Whaler 270 Dauntless, equipped with two, 200-horsepower FourStrokes—and got head-snapping torque out of the powerplant whether accelerating from the get-go or from mid-range. Moreover, I recorded a fuel burn of just 13.7 gph at a cruise speed of 30.8 knots, a combo that yields 2.6 mpg, a truly stand-out level of efficiency. Top speed for the Whaler was a blistering 47.8 knots. And, thanks to what Mercury calls Adaptive Speed Control, I noted that the motors did not lug down in turns, even sharp ones, but maintained their rpm settings quite steadily.

Merc's Latest OB

Other features that distinguish the new Mercury FourStroke include a pop-open service door at the top of the engine that facilitates oil checks and fills without cowl removal; color-coded maintenance points you can easily spot once the cowl is removed; a battery management system that boosts idle speed and alternator output should battery charge get low; and noticeable noise reduction thanks to fuel-injector covers and tuned air intakes that cut airborne noise.

It’s worth saying that while I test drove another boat—a Scout 275 LXF with 200-horsepower FourStrokes—Mercury’s top product-development guy David Foulks and I shot the breeze in normal conversational tones while I drove the boat across the smooth expanse of Lake X at a 37-knot clip. And I measured just 61 dB(A) at idle [65 dB(A) is the level of normal conversation], with my sound meter only inches from the motors. Not too shabby!

Mercury Marine, 920-929-5040;