air racing

It is difficult to imagine nowadays that before the Second World War, air racing was the No 1 outside spectator sport. Many folks these days do not even know that the sport ever existed or indeed still exists. When the aircraft was still in rapid development and represented the cutting edge of technology the ever increasing speeds of the air racers captivated the publics' imagination.

The tradition of air racing, closed circuit pylon course and cross country, began in America in the 1920's and carried on through the 1930's and early 1940's at Mitchell Field, New York, Chicago, Kansas City and Cleveland Ohio, to name a few, by the likes of racing legends James Doolittle, James Wedell, Jacqueline Cochran, and Roscoe Turner. After war's end, 1946 saw a new era and return of closed course air racing at Cleveland led by fresh faces, Paul Mantz, Tex Johnston and Cook Cleland, flying the more powerful single engine surplus ex-military fighter planes of World War Two.

Racing continued until 1949 when cancelled due to a tragic and fatal accident at Cleveland and the onset of war in Korea. Piston powered Unlimited air racing went into a deep sleep for over a decade, during which time only small aircraft and United States Air Force jets were favoured to race. In 1964 a fellow by the name of Bill Stead, veteran flying ace of World War Two, Nevada rancher and sportsman, organized a closed course pylon air race at the Sky Ranch airport, near Reno Nevada giving birth to the National Championship Air Races.

Bill Stead, unfortunately, was killed in a Formula One race in Florida shortly after the 1965 Reno Nationals, but his spirit certainly lives on. The early race years featured four classes of planes: Formula One, (previously Midget), Sport Biplane, Ladies Stock Planes( Piper Cherokees) with women pilots, and the Unlimited. The annual event including an airshow met with great success, and was only interrupted once - in September 2001, when all aircraft in the United States were grounded following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

The star attractions are the aircraft of the unlimited class. These are usually old warbirds that have been modified, in some cases, almost beyond recognition. The engines, which can costs millions of Dollars have been modified to produce power outputs which would have been unthinkable when they were built fifty years ago. As a consequence, reliability has been compromised and engine failure at 50 feet above ground is often fatal. The Reno series is truly thrilling and is still a perfect spectator sport.

To reduce costs, other racing classes have over the years been formed and in most parts of the World are no longer racing. Formula 1 aircraft are restricted to only 90 hp and the tiny airframes could easily fit into most peoples' living rooms. While this is still an active class in the USA, it seems to have died in Europe. Formula V is another US class that seems to be thriving.

The costs of flying in Europe are considerably higher than in the USA, and air racing seems only to be enjoyed in the UK. Here, any aircraft capable for flying at more than 100 mph is eligible to compete and placings are computed by a handicapping system that attempts to arrange that all aircraft pass over the finishing line at about the same time. The races are not really watched by the public but offer great fun to participants.

A new series of international air racing has been launched by the drinks manufacturer Red Bull. A select number of pilots travel around the World to race around a course individually. They also have to perform certain aerobatics en route. It is hard to accept that this format is in the true spirit of air racing. The series is televised and shown when most folks are asleep in bed.