It was not long after I moved to Oshkosh, Wis., in 1995 that I found myself in the office of “Boots” Spellman at Spellman’s Marina on the Fox River. Located just two blocks from my house, Spellman’s was handy when I needed to make a photo for a magazine story – portable outboard fuel tanks on the gas dock, the VIN sticker on a boat trailer – and Boots was always accommodating. This photo of the Switzer Craft Wing race boat #T-125 Wet and Wild was hanging on the wall in the office, and when I inquired Boots told me it was a Mercury factory race boat, was fast and scary as hell. What he never told me was that he was in the cockpit at the Parker Enduro when this photo was taken. I didn’t figure that out until a few years ago.
Francis Spellman got the nickname Boots while serving in the Marine Corps from 1961 to 1965, because I guess a Marine can’t be named Francis. Spellman Fuel and Supply in Oshkosh was a business started by his grandfather and later owned by his father, and was the biggest and last coal supplier in Oshkosh. Coal would be delivered by rail car to the business, and when everyone heated with coal Spellman’s would deliver 50 tons a day, according to Boots. When the coal heating business died out Spellman’s converted its riverfront location in 1965 to a boat storage facility and in 1969 to a dealership featuring Johnson outboards.
The Lake Winnebago area was a hotbed of boat racing activity in the 1950s and 60s, hosting 100-mile marathon races, first from Neenah to the Wolf River as far as Fremont and back, and later from Fond du Lac to Fremont.
“I started racing in that marathon in a Speedliner 13 kneeler with a 40-horsepower Mercury KG9 outboard,” Spellman told me recently. “In one of those races Jim Merten flipped in front of me, and that’s how we were introduced and became friends.”
The late Jim Merten, also of Oshkosh, would become a champion boat racer, and later a racer and test driver for the Mercury factory team who set an outboard speed record of better than 136 mph in 1973 on Lake Winnebago. When Spellman came home from the Marines he and Merten began racing the Switzer wing boat together. I recently sat down with Spellman at an Oshkosh diner to get the story behind this photo. Spellman is 79 years old and retired after selling the marine dealership in 2001. He has some trouble recalling exact dates of all his exploits, but he remembers the experience of piloting the Switzer Wing with vivid detail.
(Read the story of the Switzer Craft Wing boat in our Bob Switzer obituary)
“I think the way it worked was I bought the boat from Mercury, which had acquired all rights to the boat design from Switzer Craft,” said Spellman. “Merten bought the outboards, which were a pair of 125-horsepower Mercury stackers, called stackers because they had the megaphone exhaust stacks sticking out of the cowl. This was a 20-foot Switzer. They also built an 18-foot model earlier. I think Mercury gave us fresh powerheads for every race.”
Spellman and Merten raced Wet and Wild in endurance events, including the 9-hour Parker Enduro on the Colorado River in Parker, Arizona. Spellman is pretty sure the photo was taken at Parker in 1969, a time when the Parker Enduro was a key event in the epic battles between Mercury and the Evinrude and Johnson brands of OMC.
“We raced at Parker, and also at Lake Elsinore in California,” said Spellman. “I learned to drive that boat by the seat of my pants. When you started it just plowed through the water and the cockpit would fill with water and I’d get soaking wet and my goggles would fill up. Then it would plane off and pick up speed and you could start to use the wing to air it out.”
The boat had a wing between the sponsons that could be adjusted from the cockpit with a foot pedal to control the angle of attack. In the right conditions the boat could run well over 100 mph with only the props in the water.
“It was the prettiest thing in the world to see that boat come flying down the river all aired out,” said Spellman. “The challenge was getting it turned. You had to set the boat down at least 100 yards before the turn buoy and fight your way through the turn, being very careful because the boat could spin, and then take off again down the straight.”
Spellman raced for three years and then quit to run the marine dealership in Oshkosh. He crashed the boat in a race on Lake Havasu; he recalls another boat pulled out of the pits and ran over his bow. The Wet and Wild boat was destroyed in a crash in Galveston with Merten at the helm after it spun in a turn was run over by another boat, a very close call for Merten.
There are still people around Oshkosh who remember Spellman dropping Wet and Wild into the Fox River and running it up to Fremont, docking at the Fin and Feather supper club like it was a family runabout.
“I might have done that a few times,” admits Spellman, “just for the adrenalin rush. You had to get it out of the water right away because people complained about the noise.”
Spellman later bought a tunnel hull race boat that I recall seeing around the boat yard. Boots still needed to blow out the cobwebs once in awhile, and when he did I could hear it from my house.