The House of Horsepower

Chris Beattie | VOLUME 30, ISSUE 3

A peek behind the walls of the world’s premier marine racing operation.

If, as they say, racing improves the breed, then there is a place in the US that is packed full of some pretty potent DNA. Occupying the top of a hill in a tranquil rural setting overlooking Lake Winnebago in Taycheedah, Wisconsin, is a building that could easily pass for a local agricultural business, save for the Mercury Racing logo displayed on its otherwise nondescript walls.

Apart from the signage, there are no other outward clues as to the significance this building plays in terms of the world-wide boat racing and high-performance community.

Initially known as Mercury Hi-Performance, Mercury Racing was established as Mercury Marine’s racing and high-performance arm in 1973. Its mission was to design, manufacture and sell high-performance and racing products in order to promote the Mercury brand amongst performance-minded boaters.

But Mercury’s racing activities precede the establishment of Mercury Racing by some years, dating back to the 1940s when Mercury founder Carl Kiekhaefer, a notorious perfectionist and racing visionary, encouraged employees and customers to race his products. And the company also threw its considerable engineering muscle behind several successful early world water speed record attempts.

“Our goal was to just wipe out everybody,” recalls Larry Lohse, one of the company’s early engineers. “There were times we raced with such passion that we took the first 10 places in a race, either with our own boats or people using our equipment.”

RACING PIONEER

Kiekhaefer saw marketing potential in land-based racing too, setting up and running his own Mercury Outboards NASCAR racing team, which became dominant in the late ‘50s, winning three championships with Chrysler cars. He was considered a pioneer at the time, being the first team owner to introduce matching team uniforms and pitstop practising.

While a separate entity to Mercury Marine, the racing arm works very closely with its parent on a variety of projects at any one time. Some racing products are manufactured by Mercury, and some hi-performance and racing products are assembled at Fond du Lac, but most of the really serious stuff takes place within the walls of the Taycheedah facility.

Our visit was hosted by Mercury Racing’s Senior Marketing Manager, Rick Mackie, who while very accommodating with his time, made it abundantly clear that what went on inside the factory, stayed within the factory walls. Cameras were surrendered at reception as security is a prime consideration in an organisation whose prime focus is being the best in the world at what it does.

There is a very real sense of esprit de corps amongst employees, with many wearing Mercury Racing apparel, proud to display evidence that they are amongst a select few who work for the world’s leading marine racing organisation.

Just over 100 workers are employed at Mercury Racing, spread over various departments, including Marketing, Sales, Service, Engineering, Procurement and Manufacturing.

Primarily most activity is centred on engine development, assembly, and testing, although there is also an area for sterndrive assembly and a specialist propeller department.

There are two basic product ranges: Consumer and Racing, the various engines and accessory components in each calibrated and built to match their intended usage.

HORSEPOWER HIGHWAY

Famously, there is a special assembly line known as the ‘Horsepower Highway’, where all of the supercharged Big Block V8 engines, from the 600hp SCi up to the 700hp SCi are put together by specialist expert assemblers as long block engines.

These, and the outboard engines in the range, are based on production powerplants that are then enhanced by the racing department to various levels of performance.

The outboard range includes the racing and high-performance OptiMax two-strokes and the recently released 400R supercharged six-cylinder Verado four-stroke. While these engines have been developed in-house at Mercury Racing, actual assembly takes place down the road at the main Mercury plant in Fond du Lac.

But occupying pride of place in the racing facility in terms of sheer unadulterated power output and size is the company’s gargantuan, but somewhat clinically named, QC4v engine. These 9lt V8 giants feature the very best in racing hardware, including four-valve, twin overhead cam cylinder heads, massive twin turbochargers, and generate 1650hp (1230kW) in racing spec. Unlike all other inboards in the range, they are not based on production engines and were designed entirely from scratch as a no-compromises, all-out racing engine.

“The QC4v is relevant not only for its engineering excellence and impact as a true game-changer in the performance boat market, but also for Mercury’s commitment in maintaining its leadership position within the marine industry,” said Mackie.

“QC4v development began at the start of the GFC and was launched at the 2010 Miami International Boat Show during the peak of the economic downturn.

“The decision to develop an all-new engine platform of our own design under the worst possible financial conditions is a testament to Mercury’s vision for the future and dedication to enhancing consumers’ boating experiences.”

THOROUGH WORKOUT

Each QC4v is assembled by hand and none leave the factory without getting a good workout on the dyno to ensure they will deliver the massive horsepower and torque expected by their mostly racer buyers.

“All products produced at Mercury Racing, including both our consumer and race lines, are run on the dynamometer prior to shipment,” explained Mackie. “All go through a one-hour run time, going through the complete engine operating rpm band. Sparkplugs are then pulled and all cylinders are inspected with a bore scope camera to ensure proper cylinder wear.”

The QC4v is also being touted as a possible automotive powerplant, with Mercury Racing working with some of the world’s leading supercar and custom manufacturers to identify potential applications for those who believe there is no such thing as too much horsepower.

One of the most fascinating areas we visited was the propeller department, where around a dozen workers apply their skills to finishing stainless steel propellers. In a highly-technical industry typically involving the very latest computer-driven equipment and automated processes, it’s almost refreshing to see the staff, clad in safety glasses and long protective aprons, polishing and grinding propeller blades by hand in a process that can take years to master. Using large belt linishers, they then sit the props on static balancing rigs to ensure that all are within the fine tolerances expected.

Mercury Racing remains committed to powerboat racing and high performance in all its forms, offering a wide variety of engines, drives and propellers to suit just about any application. In Australia and New Zealand you’re likely to see the bold Mercury Racing logo displayed prominently in pretty much all forms of powerboat racing, from ski racing to offshore powerboats and even on high-performance fishing rigs.

And if the dedicated tech-heads of Taycheedah have any say in it, their products will continue to be seen at the front of the pack for a long time to come.


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