Vintage Outboard Racing

Mercury film from 1953 depicts stock outboard marathon racing.

“Thick as a school of mackerel, fast as porpoises! In wave after wave the powerful little racers splash through the churning harbor, streaking for open water…”

1953 Winnebagoland Outboard Marathon
The late Bob Switzer crosses the finish line in the 1953 Winnebagoland Outboard Marathon.Courtesy Mercury Marine

Outboard runabout racing was wildly popular in the 1950s, and it was not a sport for the weak or faint of heart. This movie produced by Mercury Marine features the 5th Annual Milwaukee Sentinel Winnebagoland Outboard Marathon, run on an 88-mile course that started and finished at Riverside Park in Neenah, Wisconsin, on the shore of Lake Winnebago. Called “The Kentucky Derby of Outboards,” there were 285 entries in Stock Utility Outboard classes, and 7,000 spectators. Only 163 boats finished, led by Class D winner Bob Switzer of McHenry, Ill., with a time of 1 hour 47 minutes and 35 seconds, more than 9 minutes faster than the previous record.

Switzer ran a DU boat of his own design, powered by a Mercury Mark 40 outboard, a brand new motor that he’d just received from the Mercury factory. Post-race inspection found the motor had irregular reed stops, and despite the fact that the outboard’s factory seals were intact Switzer was disqualified. The victory went to Fred Snyder of Lancaster, Pa., in another Switzer/Mercury entry, according to an account in a period magazine, which said Switzer would appeal the disqualification. The article goes on to explain that the issue with the reed stops was a production error made to all 50 of the first Mark 40 outboards produced, many of which competed in the Marathon. However, because none of the other new engines placed in the top three, they were not inspected following the race. Of course, this part of the story does not appear in the Mercury-produced highlight film.