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article number 354
article date 06-24-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
The Golden Age of Air Racing, Part I, 1930-1934
by Robert Hare

From March 1958 Model Airplane News.

Since the earliest day of aviation, plane designers have streamlined and whittled resistance here, added power there, in order to increase the number of miles an hour an airplane could travel. Pilots have risked their lives pushing their planes to—and sometimes beyond—structural and control limits to be just a few tenths of a mile faster than their closest competitor.

Straightaway timed speed runs, while perhaps more revealing of a plane’s performance to a designer or engineer, lacked the daring and bravado that accompanied a hard fought closed course race, as far as the public was concerned. Aviation’s pioneers found out early in the game that the sight of a dozen bamboo and wire contraptions wheeling inside one anothers’ arcs on sharp pylon turns was something the public was willing to pay to watch.

Devil-may-care pilots, as well, liked this sport. Engine or parts manufacturers and wealthy patrons of the flying art were willing to finance new designs and generally make air racing worthwhile to themselves as well as to the pilots.

Prior to World War I, air meets were established as a stylish sport for the thrill-seeking society crowd that took a fancy to the struggling, oil spattered aviator. War soon stopped that, however, as pilots and their sponsors both turned to more serious things.

Following World War I, air racing as a sport in which the private pilot could participate, fell to a pretty low ebb. What racing there was, took place at county fairs or at small air shows. Surplus World War I equipment, with clipped wings or oversized engines, failed to recreate the color and thrills of pre-war races.

The post-war Pulitzer Trophy Races, however, satisfied the speed hungry to some extent. The Pulitzer was dominated by government financed designs and the pilots were service pilots. These races had the broad objective of developing racing designs that could form the basis of military fighters. In this respect the Pulitzer succeeded and by 1925 the winning speed was a respectable 248 mph over a closed course.

Curtailment of government funds for development of high speed racers in the late 1920’s put an end to the Pulitzer, although standard service type ships still were entered by the Army and Navy in closed course racing. Service types still dominated, however, but at the 1928 National Air Races, the best closed course speed was a disappointing 141 mph.

A number of business leaders in the aviation and allied fields became alarmed over the lack of interest in air racing on the part of the private pilot, the backyard designer and the frustrated but imaginative engineer. One of these industry leaders, Charles E. Thompson, founder of Thompson Products, Inc., decided to do something about it.

He announced that the Thompson Trophy would be put up for competition during the 1929 National Air Races. This “no holds barred” race was for planes of unlimited horsepower, a free-for-all event of five laps over a ten mile course. Best of all, from the participants’ standpoint, was a cash purse of $5,000.

Here was the shot in the arm the sport needed, a race that would allow the ingenuity of American designers to compete, with their pet ideas and theories, in the development of racers as best their minds and pocketbooks could conceive.

3-view drawing of the Howard Racer “Pete” Model DGA-3 of 1930.

The Golden Age of Air Racing

There was little opinion, in 1928, that the 1929 Thompson Trophy Race would be much more than a repeat of the previous rather dull closed course races of the late 1920’s. There was a big surprise in store for the doubters, however.

When the Thompson competition was announced, a group headed by the late Walter Beech, rolled up its sleeves and went to work on a revolutionary “dream” airplane. The lines of this ship that went down the boards was to set a pattern for both racing and military configurations for years to come.

Behind closed doors, Beech, head of the Travel Air Company, developed the new racer in the greatest secrecy. Closely guarded, it was called the Travel Air Mystery “S”, and for good reason.

Piloted by Douglas Davis, the Mystery “S” led its competition over the finish line of the first Thompson at a speed of 194 mph. It was the first time a privately built civilian airplane had beaten a military type in a closed course race! With this victory of the “S”, we can say that the age of private, free-for-all, unlimited horsepower air racing on an organized basis—the Golden Age of Air Racing—was born.

The “ho-hum” public attitude that had tired of poor performance suddenly changed. The popular cheer that greeted Davis was heard across the nation.

In 1929, the nation was still thrilled over the trans-Atlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh; the Dole Hawaiian flights still were in the public mind as were the San Francisco-Australia flight of the “Southern Cross” and Jackson and O’Brien’s 17½ day endurance record aloft in a Curtiss “Robin” using aerial refueling.

Davis’ achievement and the design of the Mystery “S” put pilots and designers in a mood for more of the 1929 Thompson fare. Sensing the extreme interest in a continuation of the Thompson Trophy Race as a regular National Air Races feature, the race committee approached Thompson Products to establish a permanent trophy. In response, the Charles E. Thompson Trophy was set up as a perpetual trophy beginning with the 1930 National Air Races.

The ten Thompson Trophy Races run from 1930 through 1939 constitute an era of aircraft design and performance highly-significant in the development of high speed aircraft. The first five races saw the birth of a handful of new designs that were developed to their maximum potentials.

The second five races witnessed the emergence of brand new designs incorporating innovations and refinements representing the finest mechanical and aerodynamic practice in the world.

Travel Air Mystery ship was only tried-and-true racer in earlier contests and it exercised a great influence on military designs.

The 1930 Thompson, held in Chicago, was preceded by an almost feverish rush of building and testing practically up to the close of qualifying trials. Interest was high on part of both spectators and air-craftsmen.

Favorite of the race was Ben Howard’s diminutive “Pete”, a slight, slim racer with only 90 hp turning its prop. The crowd loved this little wisp of an airplane literally flitting through the air in competition with such high powered brutes as the Laird “Solution” carrying a 470 P & W Wasp powerplant.

The incomparable Benny Howard and his Pete. A great crowd pleaser, the tiny 90-hp Pete fought it out with such high-powered brutes as Super Solution. Pete was modeler’s favorite. Underwood & Underwood photo.

The only tried and true racing plane in the contest was the Travel Air Mystery “S” design, of which three examples started with the field. James Haizlip flew one sponsored by the Shell Oil Company to second place with a speed of 199 mph; Paul Adams flew an “S” to win fourth place at nearly 143 mph and Frank Hawks, flying his Texaco 13 was forced down and did not finish.

In view of the Travel Air hands-down victory the year before, there was considerable surprise that the winner of the race was Charles “Speed” Holman at the stick of the only biplane ever to win a Thompson. His Laird LC-DW-300 #77 edged Haizlip out by only a slim margin at a speed of 201.91 mph.

The only biplane to win the Thompson was a Laird Solution, flown by Holman, Glenview, Illinois.

Ben Howard, flying his “Pete” #37 finished third at nearly 163 mph. A special Cessna racer, with Everett Williams at the controls, dropped out in eighth lap.

The only military plane entered in the 1930 Thompson was the often modeled Curtiss XF6C-6, a parasol monoplane that was virtually a Curtiss Hawk biplane minus the lower wing. Pilot Arthur Page was killed when the ship crashed during the race.

Charles “Speed” Holman wins Thompson Trophy in 1930 with an average speed of 201.91 mph. Underwood & Underwood photo.

Thompson Trophy participation at Cleveland in 1931 was spurred by the prospect of substantial prize money—$15,000.— which sent designers and pilots to the drawing boards early. Two outstanding racing designs emerged, which, with modifications, were to remain prominent in air racing for several years.

These were the Gee Bee 2 racing #4, flown to victory by Lowell Bayles at 236 mph and the Wedell Williams Special, racing #44, flown by Jimmy Wedell to second place at 228 mph. Bayles’ Gee Bee was a Wasp powered design based on the speedy Gee Bee Sportster, while Wedell’s ship was brand new from prop to tail, similar in low-wing, fixed-gear arrangement to the Travel Air “S”, but unlike it in detail.

Third place in 1931 was won by Dale Jackson flying Holman’s 1930 winner at 211 mph. Robert Hall, co-designer of the Gee Bee’s placed fourth at 201 mph in a Gee Bee model “Y”.

Ira Eaker, later a general in W. W. II, placed fifth in a commercial Lockheed Altair low wing with a speed of 193 mph. Sixth and seventh positions were taken by Ben Howard with his “Pete” and William Ong in a J-6 Laird biplane.

The 1931 Thompson provided some thrills other than the running of the race itself. Dale Jackson, pushing hard for second place skidded low on one turn, brushed the tops of some trees. In recovering from a near crash, he lost considerable time getting back on course and lost position.

Ira Eaker, the race completed, could not get his landing gear down on the final approach and belly landed. Jimmie Doolittle, of W. W. II fame, pushed his new Laird “Super Solution”, racing #400, to a possible money winning spot, but was forced down in the 7th lap with engine trouble.

3-view drawing of the Laird Solution Model LC-DW300 of 1930.

In 1932, the Thompson was again held at Cleveland. It brought out a mixture of brand new designs and some reworks of previous ships. The race was highlighted by a series of pre-race crackups and pilot changes at the last minute that made the outcome hard to predict.

Two famous Gee Bee designs, the R-2 racing #7 and the R-1, racing #11, powered by Wasp Jr. and Wasp Sr. engines, respectively, were almost identical in appearance. They were built for the Springfield Mass. Racing Association, headed by famous pilot Russell Boardman. He was slated to fly the higher powered Gee Bee, #11, but was injured in a crackup in another ship shortly before the National Air Races.

Meanwhile, Jimmie Doolittle cracked up his redesigned Laird, with clipped wings and retracting landing gear, in a test flight. Doolittle was chosen to fly Gee Bee #11, which he pushed to first place at 252 mph.

The most exciting aspect of the 1932 race was the fight for second place, staged by Jimmie Wedell in his #44, taking the spot at 242 mph, and Roscoe Turner in Wedell Williams racing #121 who finished third at 233 mph. Jimmie Haizlip, in Wedell Williams #92, finished fourth at 231 mph. Gee Bee #7 came in fifth at 222 mph under the skilled handling of Lee Gelbach.

One of the most unusual new designs of the 1932 Thompson was the “Bulldog” racer, “dream ship” which Robert Hall of Gee Bee design fame flew to sixth place with a speed of 215 mph. This high-wing “gull” monoplane powered by a Wasp Jr., engine did not live up to its expectations. It has been a popular design with model builders over the years.

William Ong, flying a new Howard racer, the DGA5 “Ike” came in seventh at a relatively slow 191 mph. Ray Moore, piloting a Rider R-2, qualified in contention but dropped out in the second lap with engine trouble.

Except for the Rider R-2, all the contestants were aboard wire or strut braced monoplanes. The Rider was the only cantilever wing, retractable landing gear plane among the starters. While notable for new designs, the winner of the race was pretty well determined during qualifying trials.

During the Shell Dash, qualifying event for the Thompson, Doolittle set a new world’s landplane speed record of 296 mph with Gee Bee #11.

Famous 7-11 Gee Bee, Jimmy Doolittle up, rockets by during a Thompson Trophy race. Can any eye witnesses say which side of the pylon?
3-view drawing of the Gee Bee Super Sportster Model R-1 of 1932.

The 1933 Thompson, held during the National Air Races in Los Angeles, was somewhat of a disappointment. Pre-race activities claimed the life of Russell Boardman, who was killed in Gee Bee #11 when it crashed taking off from a re-fueling stop at Indianapolis in the Bendix Race. Gee Bee 7 also cracked up and was out of the running.

This left the field free for two of the oldest—but among the fastest—planes of the day, the Wedell Williams #44 and #92.

What was tragedy for one was triumph for another. Jimmie Wedell, whose planes had been making air race history, but with someone else at the controls, finally won the Thompson of 1933 in his #44, with a speed of nearly 238 mph. Lee Gelbach, flying Wedell Williams #92 took second at 225 mph and Roy Minor, flying Ben Howard’s “Ike” captured third place at nearly 200 mph.

George Hague, flying the Rider R-2,. racing number #1, which was piloted by Ray Moore in the 1932 Thompson, finished fourth with a speed of 183 mph. Coming in fifth was Z. D. Granville, one of the co-originators of the Gee Bee line in a Gee Bee “Y” Senior Sportster at a speed of 173 mph.

Roscoe Turner, flying a Wedell Williams that was to figure prominently in subsequent races, and one of the favored contenders, fell victim to the pylon rule.

If a pilot cut inside a pylon, he was required to re-circle the missed pylon on the same lap. Turner apparently did not realize he had cut the pylon so closely, but the judges ruled he did cut inside. Since he did not re-circle in the same lap, he was disqualified. Although he finished the race his fine performance was ruled out.

Jimmie Wedell’s well deserved victory in the 1933 Thompson was short lived. As nice a fellow as ever jockeyed a throttle, Wedell was killed in June, 1934, in a crash that occurred while he was teaching a student to fly. He had pinned his hopes of another Thompson victory on a completely new ship, a low-wing cantilever job with retracting gear.

Wedell Williams No. 44, took second in 1931, 1932; first, 1933, Los Angeles, where picture was taken. Doug Davis crashed it in ‘34.

Enthusiasm of the Wedell-Williams organization died with Jimmie—his new ship never did become a Thompson contender, hard luck dogging it all the way.

The No. 7 Gee Bee didn’t do much in 1932-33 but its higher-powered sister ship, No. 11, had a future. The Gee Bee was fast but forgave no errors.

Wedell Williams aircraft, however, remained important factors in the Thompson. In the 1934 race at Cleveland, Roscoe Turner, flying his Wedell Williams #57, won hands-down at a speed of 248 mph. Turner’s ship was his 1932 #121 with some structural and aerodynamic modifications and a P & W Hornet engine instead of the original Wasp Jr.

Turner’s strongest opponent during the first half of the race was Doug Davis in Jimmie Wedell’s #44. It was pretty much a toss-up whether Davis or Turner would win until the 8th lap, when Davis crashed.

From there on, it was Turner’s race. His next closest competitor was Roy Minor, who came in second with a speed of 214 mph.

Minor flew one of the new ships that year, Larry Brown’s “Miss Los Angeles”; a Brown B-2. Although powered by only 300 horses, delivered by a Menasco C6s engine, it had a winning speed potential as demonstrated two years later. But in 1934 it was a new ship, with considerable experience to be gained in its maintenance and handling.

Third place went to J. A. Worthen, who piloted Wedell-Williams #92, Gelbach’s 1933 second place winner, at a speed of 208 mph. Ben Howard’s perennial “Ike” placed fourth at a mile-an-hour slower, piloted by Harold Neumann. Keith Rider’s R-1, racing number 111, with Roger Don Rae at the stick, nosed in fifth at 205 mph. Art Chester, flying his famed “Jeep”, came in sixth at 191 mph. Besides the non-finisher Davis, Lee Miles in his Miles and Atwood Special came down in the 12th lap.

An important change took place in the course laid out for the 1934 Thompson. Higher horsepowers, heavier ships and wider turning radii, as the result of higher speeds, brought a change in the Thompson course to 20 laps of 8½ miles each. Controllable pitch props also were coming into general use. They enabled the planes to get off faster and accelerate out of turns more easily.

The purpose of the Charles E. Thompson race was coming into being—development of high speed aircraft. Designers were beginning to use genius rather than ingenuity; the job of piloting was becoming more difficult. The results of this trend in American closed course, free for all racing, will be continued in the second part of the “Golden Age of Air Racing.”

The late Jimmie Wedell made famous the Wedell Williams racers. Ironically, he was killed in a crash when a student froze at the stick.
3-view drawing of the Wedell Williams Racer of 1934.
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