Mercury Closes Lake X, Transfers to Watson Bayou
By IBI Magazine
Lake X has been a legend in the US boating industry, and for 47 years, it served as the secret testing facility in central Florida for Mercury Marine's latest products. Lake Conlon, as it is officially known, is about 30 miles outside of Orlando. It was the site where the company often ran engines 24 hours a day, six days a week, to test their endurance. Mercury also set many endurance records there. Infested by alligators and surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, it quickly developed a mystique among boaters, and within the industry itself.
Last weekend, Mercury closed its facilities in Lake X in order to open a new one near Panama City, Fla., called Watson Bayou. It will have an engine laboratory and better facilities for the Mercury Racing division.
"Mercury has a rich history from decades at Lake X, but we have simply outgrown it," Fred Kiekhaefer, president of Mercury Racing, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Kiekhaefer is the son of Mercury founder Carl Kiekhaefer, who established Lake X. "As a kid, I remember that it took about an hour to get around the lake. At today's speeds, it takes about four minutes, even in a recreation boat."
Mercury first came to remote Lake X in the 1950s, locating it through aerial photographs. Carl Kiekhaefer wanted a hidden spot where he could run his engines, away from the prying eyes of rivals like the former Outboard Marine Corp. Competition between the two outboard giants was so intense that, at dealer meetings, Carl Kiekhaefer would hang Johnson motors over bonfires and watch them melt. Dealers were expected to chant with Kiekhaefer slogans like "kill the enemy."
"It's every bit as intense today, but we are a bit more professional about how we slash one another in the fire pits," Fred Kiekhaefer told the paper. "Back then Lake X was in the middle of nowhere. The only thing here was a small mobile home and a junk car buried up to its chassis."
Mercury took over the facility in 1957, and built test facilities as well as a small hotel for workers and guests. New recruits were told stories about oversized alligators, including one named Elvis. "We told them to take 'gator sticks' and bang the bottom of their boat to scare the alligators away," Kiekhaefer told the paper. "They did that for a couple of days before they realized it was a joke."
Kiekhaefer has both good and bad memories of the lake. "I have seen boats go careening into the trees, and I have seen boats burn to the waterline," said Kiekhaefer. "But I also have seen performance records set here and beautiful photo shoots for new products."
Mercury will move into the Watson Bayou test site early next month. The company chose the location because it had saltwater and freshwater with a variety of test conditions. It is bordered by a military base and is somewhat secluded, although not as private as Lake X.
"We will have to be more cautious about how we handle new products at Watson Bayou, perhaps covering them up better," Kiekhaefer added. "But any problems will be outweighed by the benefits of having more room and more varied conditions. It's time to move on, even though it's bittersweet."
(30 March 2004)