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article number 358
article date 07-08-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
The Golden Age of Air Racing, Part II, 1935-1939
by Robert Hare

From April 1958 Model Airplane News.

In 1935, the Thompson Trophy Race began to take on a new complexion as far as aircraft were concerned. While some of the older types continued to qualify for the race, there was an amazing display of ingenuity and practicability in many of the new designs.

Benny Howard’s “Mr. Mulligan,” for example, fooled many a patron who bought tickets at the Cleveland box office that year. Here was a high-wing cabin monoplane, with a bold No. 40 painted on its sides. It may have looked racy, but it did not look like any racer that had been seen before.

In appearance it was more in the Stinson class, but it had certain earmarks that set it aside from a purely commercial craft. Its short span wing—strut braced—with elliptical tips; its slim tail lines, long-legged landing gear and large engine cowl gave only a hint that here was a fast airplane.

Skeptics were satisfied at the start of the race, when Roscoe Turner, in his hopped-up Wedell Williams, took the lead. At the time, Mr. Mulligan was in a poor fifth place. However, before the last lap, Harold Neumann, piloting Howard’s ship, had fought up to second place. At the beginning of the last lap, Turner was forced to land, and Neumann flew on to win.

This was indeed tough luck for Turner, because only a few days before, he had lost the Bendix race by just 23 seconds!

Neumann’s speed was just over 220 mph, which surprised the entire crowd. Another surprise was Steve Wittman, taking second in his Curtiss D-12 powered “Bonzo” at a little over 218 mph.

“Bonzo”, with its barn door-like wings and square fuselage fooled just as many people as did Mr. Mulligan. They compared these two ships with the more “racer-like” Rider, No. 131, which was flown to third place at 214 mph by Roger Don Rae, or Joe Jacobsen’s DGA-4 “Mike”, another Benny Howard design, which took fourth at 209 mph.

Another thrill was the performance of the de Seversky SEV-3 which came in fifth at 193.5 mph under the able pilotage of Lee Miles.

This was a Thompson first—an amphibian aircraft competing with race designs! Power was part of the answer—the SEV-3 had a Wright Cyclone in the nose. Finishing the field was the Brown B-2, with Marion McKean at the stick, at 188.86 mph.

Ben Howard’s Mr. Mulligan, first place winner in 1935 (Harold Neuman flying), a top favorite with modelers. Cowling was removed in this shot because the new engine was being run in.

The 1936 Thompson got off to a bad start as far as Roscoe Turner, perennial contender, was concerned. He piled up his Wedell Williams flying to New York for the start of the Bendix Race. This took out of contention one of the race favorites.

Generally, it was to be a bad race for the American racing pilot, because a Thompson entry was a French plane—the Caudron C-460—piloted by Michel Detroyat. When this entry was announced, a big howl went up from the American air racing fraternity.

Here was an airplane that was practically an advanced military fighter. It featured such refinements as skin type oil radiators, retractable landing gear and a two-speed Ratier propeller.

Moreover, the Caudron was thoroughly wind-tunnel tested and was designed and built under France’s nationalized aircraft industry, which meant that probably hundreds of thousands of dollars of French government money and the best engineers and designers in France were behind it.

There was no wonder American pilots objected to being pitted against such an airplane, when their own ships were home-built with limited funds and with no government financing behind them.

Thus Detroyat was a natural favorite, with Turner cracked up. Detroyat won the Thompson at 264 mph, setting a record for the event. Second place went to Earl Ortman in a Wasp Jr. powered Rider racer which originally had been built for the Mac Robertson London to Melbourne race of 1934. Third place winner was Roger Don Rae in another Rider, racing No. 70.

An outstanding new aircraft to gain the starting line was the Folkerts racer, with Harold Neumann at the controls, which took fourth place at 233 mph. Larry Brown’s model B-2, piloted by Marion McKean, came in fifth at a shade over 230 mph.

Sixth place went to Harry Crosby in a racer of his own design that held promise for the future but was not completed at the time of the race. The cockpit had a makeshift windshield in place of the streamlined canopy its design called for and the landing gear was permanently extended instead of retractable as originally planned. At that, it finished sixth, with a top speed of 226 mph, powered by a Menasco C6S engine.

The 1936 races at Los Angeles were colorful from a Thompson spectator’s point of view, but as far as the American pilots were concerned, there was much to be desired.

In 1934, Turner won with No. 57 Wedell-Williams, forced landing in last lap of 1935 race. Big air-cooled engines were a streamlining problem—later jobs, like Folkerts, Caudron, went with in-line engines.
3-view drawing of the Caudron C-460 of 1936.

Cleveland, Ohio, hosted the Thompson Trophy race of 1937. During the year, American pilots and designers had their sights on beating Michel Detroyat, who they fully expected would enter the contest.

It wasn’t so much a personal animosity toward Detroyat as a pilot as it was against the socialistic system his airplane represented. Detroyat was considered a fine pilot and worthy competitor. But whatever technical revenge the American pilots had in mind came to nought when Detroyat much to be desired.

No doubt the most eager contender was Roscoe Turner, smarting under the fates of the previous two races. In the meantime he had acquired a Wasp-powered racer which was being built by Larry Brown, but which was not completed in time for the 1936 races. The ship eventually was completed by the famous old-time designer-engineer, Matty Laird of Chicago, for the 1937 Thompson.

But Turner, also an entry for the Bendix race of that year, suffered a setback when the gas tank of his ship, the Laird-Turner LTR-14, exploded while a leak was being welded. In the same Bendix, Clyde Allen, flying Gee Bee #7 out of Burbank airport, crashed fatally about a mile from the field because his ship was heavily overloaded.

These accidents, and other similar ones that had occurred in previous races, added to the growing objection from the National Air Race Committee to racing planes being entered in both the Bendix and Thompson competitions. Results of the 1937 races justified the need for establishing such a rule.

Results of the 1937 were a bitter disappointment to followers of the classic. Speed was little above the winning pace of 1932.

One bright spot was Rudy Kling, piloting the Folkerts FK-1, racing No. 31, who completed the race in first place at 256 mph. The Folkerts was an unusual but beautiful ship, with highly streamlined fuselage and cantilever wings. The output of his Menasco engine was little more than one-quarter of that of his higher powered competitors.

3-view drawing of Rudy Klings Folkerts “Speed King” Racer of 1937.

Steve Wittman, flying his “Bonzo” was the crowd favorite. He took the lead early in the race and held it until the 17th lap, when he is believed to have hit a bird with his prop, forcing him to rev down to reduce vibration. At the time, he was about one-half lap ahead of Turner, in his Laird-Turner LTR-14 and Earl Ortman, in the Marcoux-Bromberg, but by the end of the race, he had slipped back to finish in fifth place.

Meanwhile Turner took the lead, with Ortman on his tail. Again under the impression he had cut a pylon, Colonel Turner played it safe and circled the second time, thus losing first place to Ortman.

For a while it appeared Ortman had the race in the palm of his hand, but Rudy Kling, in the Folkerts, had been gaining on him steadily. In perhaps the most dramatic finish in Thompson history, Kling dove on the finish line to win the classic at 256.910 to Ortman’s second place speed of 256.858 mph!

Turner rocketed into third place at 253 mph with Frank Sinclair, in a Seversky, No. 63, going for fourth place at 252 mph.

Despite his bent propeller and reduced RPM’s, Steve Wittman jockeyed his No. 6 to fifth place at a shade over 250 mph. Ray Moore, in a Seversky SEV-52, came in a long sixth at 238 mph and C. H. Gotch, flying the Schoenfeldt “Firecracker,” finished the race seventh at 218 mph.

Casualties of the race were Joe Mackey, in Wedell-Williams No. 25, who performed well until he dropped out in the 17th lap and Marion McKean, in the Brown B-2, who landed in the 13th lap.

Laird-Turher, foreground, second in 1937, first in ‘38 and ‘39. Turner’s old No. 57 Wedell-Wilhams (No. 25, flown by Joe Mackey), background. Modeler R. J. Hoffman figured in design.

Cleveland again hosted the Thompson races in 1938. Here the rumored new rule—prohibiting entry of a Bendix racer in the Thompson event—came into being. Also, the racing course was increased to 300 miles—10 miles per lap.

Of the 15 planes which attempted to qualify, only 10 succeeded. And by the time the race was to start, the field had been reduced to eight ships because of two crashes among the qualifiers.

Earl Ortman, in his Marcoux-Bromber No. 3, took an early lead but developed engine trouble in the fifth lap and was overtaken by Roscoe Turner in the Laird-Turner, LTR-14, No. 29. By skillful flying, Ortman maintained second place throughout the race, in spite of what was later learned to be a loss of oil pressure.

Wittman, in trusty “Bonzo,” No. 2, held third place through the finish and Joe Mackey, in the old Wedell-Williams, No. 25, held fourth until the last lap, when Leigh Wade, in the HM-1, No, 41, a ship new to the Thompson, passed him to finish fourth.

There was definite satisfaction in Turner’s and Ortman’s respective winning speeds of 283 mph and 269 mph in that they both beat Detroyat’s 1936 winning pace. These marks were accomplished with the same planes flown in 1936 and with obvious improvements.

Leigh Wade’s ship was Frank Hawk’s special speed job “Time Flies” which had been re-built with a sliding canopy and was re-designated Military Aircraft model HM-1.

Other entries were Mackey’s Wedell Williams, which finished fifth at 249 mph; Joe Jacobsen, sixth, in a Rider R-8. Art Chester, in his “Goon,” dropped out in the 20th lap and Harry Crosby in his CR-4 dropped out in the 10th lap.

Roscoe Turner, the matchless, was frequently a winner and always in the public eye. A great showman, he always had a good airplane. Underwood & Underwood photo.

In 1939, one might say the curtain dropped on the “Golden Age of Air Racing.” For one thing, there wasn’t a single new airplane in the Thompson Trophy starting line-up. Even the range of winning speeds was lowered by several miles per hour on the average.

One of many reasons for the decline in interest was the extremely high cost of developing a new racer. War clouds in Europe were diverting money and attention to more serious things, as they had done a generation before.

Then there was the general consensus that the National Air Races—home of the Thompson Races—was about to expire as an annual event, simply because it was no longer a profitable proposition for its backers and supporters.

Although the planes entered in the 1939 Thompson were the same ships as those of 1938, there was some anticipation of increased competition. Qualifying speed for the race was increased to 240 mph.

Perennial money winner Roscoe Turner won the 1939 Thompson at 282 mph in his now old Turner-Laird, in spite of the fact that he re-circled a pylon on the second lap to avoid disqualification. Tony Le Vier, flying the Schoenfeldt “Firecracker,” No. 70, on a close race, moved into second position.

An exciting situation developed when Turner, continually gaining on Le Vier after falling behind in the pylon re-circling, passed him in the ninth lap and thus regained first position.

Art Chester Goon.

Art Chester, in his speedy “Goon,” worked up to third place and Steve Wittman, in “Bonzo,” moved into fourth.

It was nip and tuck for several laps, until speeds of the planes and skills of the pilots finally settled out.

Tony LeVier took second at the finish line with a speed just 10 mph slower than Turner’s; Earl Ortman, in his Marcoux-Bromberg, took third at 254 mph, while Harry Crosby finished fourth at 10 mph less.

Wittman, who for a time looked as though he would be in the top three, lost ground to the others and finished fifth at 241 mph. Mackey, again in his old Wedell Williams No. 25, came to sixth position at 232 mph.

Steve Wittman Bonzo. Always competitive.

The National Air Races and the Thompson Trophy Race’—in the old tradition—expired in 1939 when, at the end of that year’s event, Cliff and Phil Henderson resigned as managers of this outstanding air event.

The Henderson brothers, who had promoted the National Air Races since 1928, had contributed tremendously to aviation in America. Their action was justified because the NAR was a business, and when a business could not show a profit because of rising costs and lack of support, it simply could not exist.

Thus ended the “Golden Age of Air Racing.” In 1946, the Thompson Trophy Race was resumed, but it never was the same again.

The year following World War II saw the entry of surplus fighter aircraft—high powered, wonderfully engineered ships—that nevertheless lacked the backyard originality of the prewar racers.

Free-for-all air racing has today returned to its position of the middle 1920s. It is dominated by the military.

Although we have our “Cosmic Wind” class ships, the days of the free-for-all racing for the private racing pilots are gone. Construction and maintenance costs today are too great for the would be Roscoe Turners or Steve Wittmans of the present to finance. Air racing—on the grand scale—has again become a project for the military.

There’s nothing wrong with military speed records, but somehow they lack the color and glamour of the backyard racer of the 1929-1939 period, “The Golden Age of Air Racing.”

3-view drawing of Laird L-RT Racer of 1939.
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