Lake X marks the spot

E. Carl Kiekhaefer, president of Kiekhaefer Marine (which would become Mercury Marine in 1971), took to the skies of central Florida in 1957 in a small, single-engine plane in search of a site away from prying eyes – and complaining neighbors – where he could secretly test his marine engines day and night. The result of his search, like so many other Kiekhaefer projects, would become the stuff of legends.

From the air, the team spotted 1,400-acre Lake Conlin in a parcel of woods and swampland, inhabited by alligators, snakes and panthers. What better place for a secret test facility? And to throw would-be spies off the trail during purchase negotiations, Kiekhaefer’s team referred to the site only as "Lake X." Much to the delight of boating writers everywhere, the name stuck. Teams of workers from Fond du Lac traveled to Lake X for months at a time to build seawalls, boat launches, work buildings and even a six-room "motel." The crew slept in trailers, ate meals in tents and was under strict orders to reveal nothing regarding activities at the lake.

In time, Lake X would become a temporary home to race teams and boat builders everywhere who sought improved performance by their boats. The six-inch "Dialed in at Lake X" decal was, and remains today, coveted by serious performance boaters. Perhaps the most legendary project at Lake X was the historic "Operation Atlas." To counter criticism aimed at the longevity of his products, Kiekhaefer conceived a non-stop, "around the world" endurance run using two boats powered by Mercury Mark 75 outboards. After 34 days, 11 hours, 47 minutes and 5.4 seconds, the lead boat completed its 4,526th lap of Lake X for a total distance of 25,003 miles. It was followed only minutes later by the second boat, enshrining Operation Atlas as the most exotic of all endurance events in marine history.

In 2017, following a 17-year absence from Lake X, Mercury returned to the famed lake for testing on its new V8 and V6 outboards.

The man behind the legend

Elmer Carl Kiekhaefer was a uniquely successful individual. He was born in 1906 in Mequon, Wis., graduated from Cedarburg High School, attended the Milwaukee School of Engineering for one year, took extension courses in electrical engineering from the University of Wisconsin, was hired in 1927 by Evinrude Motors, was soon fired by Evinrude for alleged "frequent, disquieting and brazenly insubordinate arguments concerning design and product development," received 200 patents, won 52 NASCAR races that resulted in championships in 1955 and 1956, and founded Kiekhaefer Marine, the company that would become Mercury Marine and change the boating industry forever.

Additionally, Kiekhaefer was extremely innovative: The Kiekhaefer Corporation manufactured small "drone" motors for "target aircraft" and developed two-man chain saws for the U.S. military during World War II. Just as Kiekhaefer set standards in outboard manufacturing and performance, he also introduced the concept of "professional teams" to auto racing.

Kiekhaefer died in 1983 and is buried in St. Charles Cemetery, Fond du Lac.