We chat to father and son team, Ken and Dave Warby — one is the current world water speed record holder, the other is attempting to beat his old man and set a new world record, despite there being an 85% mortality rate in doing so...
Australians love a good sporting hero and victory, especially when it involves the perilous pursuit of a global record. Ken Warby, from Warby Motorsports, has not only smashed two international records but retained his title as the fastest man on water for over 41 years. The living legend is the only man in history to design, build and drive a boat to an outright unlimited world water speed record. Many have attempted to break the 41-year-old record, but all have failed or perished attaining greatness in this insane sport — it carries an 85% mortality rate.
Ken’s son Dave, who shares his total dedication and passion for the sport, now plans to set a new world record later in the year by reaching speeds of 550km/h and giving his old man a run for his money. Here, the lovable and larrikin Aussie duo share their incredible story — so far.
G’day, Ken and Dave, tell us a bit about yourselves and your brief life story to date.
KEN: I was born in Newcastle in 1939 and grew up in your typical Aussie backyard suburbia. My fascination with speed and boats came from watching the exploits of men like Malcom Campbell — who set the water speed record in his Bluebird K4 and then after the war experimented with jet engines. His son, Donald took over from his dad in the ’50s and was a true source of inspiration to me. Donald set numerous water speed and land records including the land speed record in his car Bluebird on Lake Eyre in South Australia. He met his untimely death in 1967, after a run, when instead of refuelling and waiting for the wash of the run to subside he made the run immediately. This resulted in his boat experiencing bouncing episodes at 300mph and finally an almost complete somersault. The boat was smashed to pieces and the Donald’s body wasn't found until 2001... some 34 years later. However, the gruesome reality didn’t deter me. By the tender age of 13, I had built my first boat and raced it at Lake Macquarie. I continued to make improvements to this boat — it was a labour of love. I never did it professionally and it was all self-funded. I made the State Championships, then National, continuing to work towards my goal of being the fastest man on water. In 1970 I designed a new boat ‘Spirit of Australia’ which I built it my backyard in Concord. This was the boat I ultimately drove to my first world record in 1977. DAVE: I was brought up around water speed racing and it has been the passion of my life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my Dad tried to deter me from following this path — he preferred I race on land, but I never got the same satisfaction. There's something quite hypnotic and trance-like about racing alone on the water. I watched my Dad design and build boats in our backyard with nothing more than three power tools and the mocking judgment from the rest of the world. It only fuelled my ambition more, to follow in his footsteps, and by the time I was 13 I was designing, building and racing my own go-karts. I became a professional boilermaker at age 20 and this funded my boat building dream. To make a million in this sport you have to start with five! Sponsorship tends only to come once the boat is built and there is real evidence a world title is potentially viable. Prior to that, you’re self-funded and Dad and I got really good at sourcing scrap metal to shape dreams. We’ve both struggled financially to build and race our boats. This, coupled with everyone telling us it’s not possible, would deter most. It’s had the opposite effect on my Dad and I. Now I spend my time designing, building and racing my boat — I’m in a unique position where I live my passion every day.
What made you get into this sport?
K: What did it for me was seeing Donald Campbell break the world record when I was 10. My fixation with the sport was cemented at this point and I knew I wanted to win the world title. It was November 20, 1977 when I set my first world water speed record. This was in my wooden jet-powered boat, Spirit of Australia. My home-made wooden hydroplane boat reached 488km/h that day – the second attempt was 511km/h and I was the first man to achieve this. I broke the previous 10-year-old record by American Lee Taylor. I think Taylor’s record set him back about $1 million in 1967 whereas the hydroplane I built in the backyard with a military surplus jet engine cost me a grand total of 65 bucks!
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