Harry Taylor — Contributing Writer
Odell Lewis lives in Macon County and has owned land here since the 1960s. As of July 4, 2016, he will be 83 years old. He doesn’t walk 83, doesn’t talk 83, doesn’t act 83 years old, however old that is supposed to be. Lewis is a strong man, a man of quick wit and a huge sense of humor. Compared to most people, he has managed to pack at least two or three lifetimes of experience into his 82 years thus far.
His daughter, Terri, tells this story about her father. She said that many times, Lewis would meet someone and get knee deep in conversation in about two heartbeats (Conversation is not one of his weak points). In the natural progression of people getting to know each other, especially with retirees, one question inevitably pops up. What did you do? Lewis’s stock answer is “boat racer.” End of discussion. Seems that the sport of power boat racing doesn’t rank in to the top 10 important sports fields here in the North Carolina mountains, being that it’s a far piece to the nearest ocean.
Yet, when encouraged, he revels in weaving tales of his experiences as a hard driving, highly successful boat racer, who was a true pioneer in his field. This excerpt from the Classic Raceboat Association newsletter sums up the Odell Lewis persona: “The single most audible characteristic of OFF [Old Friends Forever] is laughter, the kind that develops when guys have raced nose to nose against each other over decades and continue that air of competition with seemingly endless, hard-nosed but good-humored ribbing. At the center of this fracas and probable the single most amazing prince at the ball is the indescribable wit and genius known as Odell Lewis. For those who weren’t around during his days of triumph, Odell was Carl Kiekhaefeer’s original No. 1 gun in racing. Half Italian and half Native American, this is a guy who could test all week at Lake X, wrestle alligators as a sideline and dominate on the race course each weekend. He was equally at home in Powercats, Switzer Wings, Bertrams, and Magnums while racing in closed courses, the Gold Coast marathons and major Offshore venues like the Bahamas 500. He rigged, raced, developed hardware, and partied up a storm of mythic proportions. Lewis also is the guy who gave Don Aronow his toughest battles and won as many times as he lost. But all of that doesn’t begin to describe the size of Odell’s heart and good nature. For every time you hear a roar at OFF, you’ll more than likely find Mr. Lewis at its center.” The article later refers to Lewis as an “Iconic Figure” in powerboat racing.
Lewis’ story began July 4, 1933, when he was born at Siesta Key in an area called Midnight Pass near Sarasota, Fla. During his growing up years, he was always around the water and in his words it was then he learned how to read the water ― an attribute that probably saved his life more than once. He learned how to watch the waves and to know how to approach them.
As a teenager, he had not yet begun to race boats but had an 18’ boat powered by a four cylinder Willy’s Jeep engine ― a world removed from the equipment that he would later help develop and race. This homemade rig would get about 18 mph.
In 1952, he went to work for Kiekhaefer Marine, later to be renamed Mercury Marine. He began working for Mercury at their proving grounds on Siesta Key as a test driver. The test drivers would make runs from Midnight Pass to Sarasota and Midnight Pass to Venice. Then he got his first taste of actually competing in boat races. The first race he ran was in a lightweight boat powered by a 7½ horsepower Mercury engine, a far cry from the 1250 horsepower monster engine that powered the boat in his last race. Yet, that little 7 ½ horsepower engine would run 26 to 28 miles per hour, which was pretty good for an outboard engine in 1952. Soon after, he graduated to a 10 horsepower engine that would run 46 to 48 mph.
From 1953-1955, Lewis got a break from boat racing when he went into the Army. He was in the 31st Dixie Division, doing basic training at Camp Carson, Color. He spent the remaining two years of his Army career with the 7th Army in Germany. Then, it was time to return to Florida and Kiekhaefer Mercury.
In 1956, he got E.C. Kiekhaefer’s attention when he won the McCullough Trophy in a 15’ Reveau boat powered by a 60 hp Mercury engine. For that he got a thank you letter. Mainly though, he was a test driver. They kept records of the engine performance and sent reports to the manufacturing facilities.
Winning the Miami to Nassau Race in 1963 catapulted him into international prominence. This 180 mile race was the most prestigious off shore race in the world. Lewis finished the race in 3 hours and 20 minutes.
The real defining moment of his career came later in 1963 while he was racing in the Around Miami Beach Power Boat Race. He was leading the race when he crossed a pleasure boat race that threw his boat up into the air. When the boat went up, Lewis went face down on the engine of his boat. His hospital stay was somewhere between four and six weeks. He said his jaw had so much wire in it that it looked like chicken wire. His collarbone and breast bone were broken along with several ribs. His lung also collapsed.
Associates and competitors alike doubted he would be able to race again, or at least that he would not be able to compete at the high level of intensity he was used to. Would he lose his nerve? The answer to that was a resounding, “no.” Within six months of leaving the hospital, he was back to racing again. Then in 1964, he won the same race in the same boat he wrecked in. He did say that the most success, the most important wins of his career came after that accident.
From 1964 until he left Keikhaefer Mercury in 1970, he entered 15 major off shore races. He won 12 of the 15, finishing second in one, third in one, and fourth in one.
When he left the Mercury team, he moved his family to Tirrenia, Italy, where he helped to start up a competitive racing team. He did not drive any of the boats in races, but ran the racing team. He was in charge of getting the boats ready to race.
After a couple of years, he returned to Mr. Kiekhaeffer and his new venture called Aero Marine. He worked there setting up racing boats for about two years, before moving on to establish his own marine construction company building docks and seawalls. In 1981, he made his final move to Franklin and made it permanent.
In 1969, Lewis was inducted into the Gulf Marine Racing Hall of Fame. He was recommended by Allen Brown, a competing driver. He had said that, Odell was the only driver he competed with that he didn’t think he could beat.
Other than a large picture of his boat on the wall of his living room, his home is conspicuously devoid of racing trophies and other memorabilia from his outstanding career. His answer was simply, “I’ve never been one to throw it out there in front of everybody.” By the way, his boats’ name was the Mona Lou III, his wife’s name. She thinks his wisdom in choosing that name was as important to his career as his skill.
Lewis was a key player during the pioneering years of off shore power boat racing. He has even been called a super-star of his sport. He had that unique intuitive sense about his driving and the water in which he was racing. Legend says he would wrestle alligators barefoot, then come in and drive his boat barefoot. He didn’t admit to wrestling alligators, but he did drive his boat barefoot. He said he could feel the vibrations of the boat when he was barefoot. He also wanted his hands on the throttle and the steering. It’s almost like he and the boat became one entity against the ocean and elements of nature that faced them.
From the CRA/OFF meeting in November, 2014, entitled “Forever Relevant: Vintage Raceboat and Racers Still Standing Tall,’ Rich Luhrs says, “I was honored to introduce two people I admire greatly: off shore racing legend, Sammy Jones (who started out driving Inboard Hydros by the way) and the amazingly gifted and talented Odell Lewis, who was on of Carl Kiekhaefer’s favorite drivers and development guys. Both men could, and still can, drive anything on the water at speeds equal to our current competitors.”
Lewis said he did one thing that no other person will ever be able to do and that was to win the inaugural 1967 Bahamas 500. Then he went out and won it again in 1968. To see the 28 minute documentary about the 1967 race, go on You Tube and type in Bahamas 500 or Odell Lewis and you can see highlights of race preparation and the race itself.