I do like the ocker image and believe in it - Ken Warby 18 January 1981 The Canberra Times
By Philip Castle
Australians traditionally idolize their best sportsman, but Ken Warby is a paradox.
He goes largely unacknowledged in Australia today, yet he is the world's water-speed champion.
No one has travelled faster over water than he has and those who have come close to his speed have died in the process.
The most notable of these is Donald Campbell, who reached 328mph (water record speeds are traditionally kept in miles per hour) on the first leg of his final run on January 4, 1967, and only a few weeks ago American Lee Taylor died in a $3-million attempt to retake the world record from Ken Warby.
Warby had taken the record from him on November 20, 1977 at Blowering Dam, near Tumut, with an average speed of 288.60mph, one leg of which included a run exceeding 300mph.
The blase attitude Australians have to what Warby is doing was typified on that occasion at Blowering.
To confirm a record, a return run must be completed within a set time, and Warby's return run might have been faster had the water not been disturbed by a water-skiing boat, the occupant of which was unaware that only a short distance away an Australian was making history.
Ken Warby was not perturbed, and came back in less than 12 months and proved it was not a fluke.
On October 8,1978, at Blowering Dam he set a new record with an average speed of 317.596 mph (511.1 lkm/h), the first time anyone had officially broken the 300mph or 500km/h barriers.
One run was timed at 329mph, and Ken said he had pushed the beat, up to 350mph.
He is the first Australian to hold an unlimited world speed record.
He is the first person in history to design, build and drive his own boat to take the record.
Last Sunday in Canberra I was able to interview Warby at 8am, a few hours before he set a new track record of 7.28 seconds for the standing quarter-mile at the Fairbairn Dragway. He has only just recently moved into jet cars.
When arranging the interview I thought it might have been too early or that he might have been too tense prior to the run.
He said, "I'm always up before 7am, and if 1 ever got. knots in my stomach before a run I'd give it up".
'David Andrew, the manager of the Castlereagh International Dragway, in Sydney, who is behind a new venture of promoting the jet-car challenge between Ken and the American champion Tom Brown, said, "That's the thing about Ken, he just doesn't get nervous".
I can confirm this. He was as calm as a sunbather, and when I asked him about it said, "At Blowering there was a two to three hour delay. There was nothing I could do, so I laid down on the mudguard and went to sleep ..."
What about the danger? He said that he could never work a nine-to-five job, but said that what he did was, "... really the most dangerous sport on earth.
Since World War II, 80 per cent in the profession are dead.
Over 300mph, on the water, if anything goes wrong - you're dead".
What about his family then? He has been married to his wife Janette for 17 years and has three sons aged 11,13 and 15.
"I have a policy that I never let my family watch the boat run", he said. "My wife watched the video of Lee Taylor's death.
She saw what his wife had to go through .... I recently broke that policy, though, when I let my eldest son Peter come.
They have been working on me for years. I finally gave in. I wish I hadn't. Now the others want to come too".
When I asked about his own sons taking up a dangerous sport, he said, "My own father never objected. He could have stood in my way, but he never did .... I don't want to hold my own kids back, but they shouldn't be compared to me.
They should try something different, because the moment they get into a boat they will be compared to me ..
How does he feel when he is in the boat having a go at the record?
"Once I get going all I'm concerned about is that I am doing everything mechanically right", he said. "It is purely a mechanical thing.
I never think I could get killed or ask, 'what am I doing out here?'
I have never got my guts in a knot before a run. I do perhaps get a little tense when I'm running down to the start, but I can relax. . . afterwards I feel good. It's a bit like going through a couple of rounds with Muhammed Ali!"
About his own personal philosophy, he said, "I believe there is something out there.
There is a God. It's very personal and I don't have to go to church on Sunday to find it.... I don't believe in luck. If I walk across a street and I'm hit by a truck, it's because I didn't look".
About superstitions or mascots, he said, "No, I don't have any ... like Alan Jones's red underpants or Donald Campbell's teddy bear in the cockpit.
Did you know that's all they found of him — his teddy bear, one shoe and his helmet?
If something happens it's usually mechanical.... There has to be something out there, though... religion is looking after mankind.
This means not hurting anyone, and living in peaceful co existence with others.
Death is a stage everyone goes through.
I believe I have achieved things on earth. I have tried to live a good and honest life. The world isn't going to stop when I die.
There is a time and a place mapped out for me. I'd rather go with my foot on the throttle than rotting in a bed. My mother is lying unconscious right now.
I'd rather not that.... Yes, we have a close bond. She has watched every race, but she now has had a second stroke.
My moving to cars has been kept from her". Anyone who saw the ABC-TV coverage of Ken Warby's record-breaking at Blowering would not forget Ken's mum, Evelyn — a real Aussie mum.
Ken is intensely nationalistic. He calls his boat the Spirit of Australia and his car Advance Australia, and it is not just bunkum to him.
It has cost him sponsorship and money. Few Australian companies have backed him, although that is changing now. He speaks
highly of Speedo, which is now his main spon-sor. But until a year ago his wife was working as a tracing clerk in Telecom to support the family.
They sold their home to buy the boat. Ken himsielf visited shopping centres selling his own oil paintings to continue to pay for it.
He said, "When I was in America I received a very tempting offer. I was sitting in the board room of a big company and they said I'd have to change the name Spirit of Australia to include their name. I couldn't do that. I can't sell my soul . . . I'm as nationalistic as they come.
If there is any country better than this then God has kept it: for himself.
Australian companies are notoriously conservative, and one told him blandly that it did not want to see its motif disappearing into the water on the tailfin of his boat. Ken is a bit surprised that more companies, such as the breweries, haven't come forward.
But he is extremely grateful for the assistance he has received from the RAAF at Wagga and Fairbairn. The apprentices at Wagga helped tune his engine, which is an ex-Neptune Bomber J34 Westinghouse.
He said, "I took the bull out of record-breaking.
I used to drive around in an ex-Sydney Council truck, and the engine I used to break the record with was in fact a spare that had lain for months out in the rain and dried in the sun.
The other two blew up and the one that I literally broke the record with cost me sixty-five bucks.
That really bugs the Americans. They spent three million on Lee Taylor's boat and all they built was a three-million dollar coffin.
The other thing that bugs them is that, my boat can handle choppy water. None of theirs can.
Lee Taylor said about me that every time I said I would do something I did it. You see, I can take my boat out even when it is not mirror-calm and still run. The others can't do that yet.
I have proved that if you want something badly enough you can do it. Really I'm a very ordinary bloke".
With his beard and Army bush hat from his National Service days in 1958 he does look the dinky-di Aussie, and it seems like a myth come true that he has taken on the world's best and beaten them at it and survived.
He said, "Yeah,, I have been referred to as the Harry Butler of the water.
I do like the ocker image and believe in it ... no, I don't drink beer, but I enjoy a champagne after a run and I really like a nice white wine.
I like good food and a good wine but at forty-one I'm having to watch my weight, and last year went on a low-carbohydrate diet and lost four inches off my waist.
I used to play sport but now only go for a bit of a run around the oval and walk briskly. I do try to look after my health ....
I don't read much, other than spending a lot of time keeping up with the technical books on the subject".
As well as having a challenge jet-car drag series with American Tom Brown, Ken is building another boat. I asked why? He said,
"We hope to have the boat ready by the end of the year. No, I don't have anything more to prove, but the team who put the first boat together have learnt so much in technology that it has to be applied. I had a safety mark in red on the boat set at 350mph but we believe it can go to 450mph.
The engine in Advance Australia is actually the one we will be using in the new boat, so this is a good chance to try it out.
Yes, I am interested in cars.
They are a lot safer, because you can be surer of the surface than you can on water. You can flatten out the hills or fill in the holes.
No, I'm not anxious about today. It's like going to the shops.
"I'll go out and just burn up some of Mr Shell's kerosene .. . I've achieved my life's ambition. I'm building the new boat purely to put technology into practice. I just hope I don't lose interest.
You can't afford to get complacent ... I can't afford to be reckless. I believe in doing my homework right before I get onto the water. I write down every problem and then work out how we can eliminate each one of them"..
Ken says a lot of others have contributed to the record success. The government's interest has always been very low-key, and "... I have never sought it. They are using me on the promotional tour through the US at the moment and Bob Ellicott and Malcolm Fraser have shown an interest".
Professor Tom Fink, Aus-tralia's Chief Defence Scientist, formerly Dean of Engineering at the University of New South Wales and now resident in Canberra, has helped extensively in advice on the design and wind tunnelling tests.
A former army major, Bob Apathy, also of Canberra has been of great assistance in arranging the land operations.
Ken said, "At Blowering we joked that general apathy wasn't a problem, it was only Major Apathy. He did an incredible job".
Ken Warby fought his way up almost in a mythical Aussie sort of way: he proved that it could be done and that millions of dollars aren't always the answer.
He pursued a mechanical engineering course at Newcastle Technical Col-lege, at the same time working for BHP.
He was a keen Scouter and gained the Queen's Scout Badge. "Scouting taught me self-reliance and independence, yet teamwork as well ... I owe my thanks to scouting . . .".
He built his record-breaking boat on the veranda, covered by makeshift canvas to protect it from the weather.
"The people in the street are beginning to know who I am and identify with me", he said. "That's important to me, When I was passing through Holbrook we stopped for fuel and we were in a rush.
A kid on crutches came over to the truck with a model of the boat.
He was very proud of it and he really broke me up. I spent about half an hour with him.
That's the real Australia. Per head of population Australians can match it with anyone.
I'm not really a hero: the people I admire and respect are the people who adopt crippled children and look after them, those who are dedicated to looking after their invalid relatives.
My heroes are those who never get recognition. In the US I saw a guy interviewed on TV who had adopted five crippled kids. He's a hero".