Unlimited speculation

January 1, 1993

Racing is a timeless, universal pursuit. Trees race upward to catch the light; seagulls race to a fish head. Predators and prey compete daily. (We draw the linguistic distinction between race and chase, but is there really a difference?) The prizes are as varied as the participants. To race is to be alive.

Small wonder that a good race draws a good crowd.

Air racing has been packing them in for almost a century. Just six years after the Wrights' first flight, the first air race near Rheims, France, drew 38 entrants and 250,000 spectators, including almost all of the European royalty. Glenn Curtiss won, taking the first International (Gordon) Bennett Cup for the United States with a speed of 47.65 mph. World records for altitude (508 feet) and distance (118 miles) were set as well.

With time-outs for world wars, annual international air-racing meets followed, including the Bennett Cup and the Schneider Trophy (for seaplanes). Nearly every meeting saw engines and airframes with corresponding improvements in power, speed, and efficiency. Similar things were happening with boats and automobiles. Men were discovering a Darwinian truism about machines that they already knew about horses: Racing improves the breed.

In this country, the National Air Races were begun in 1924 in Dayton, comprising several events and limited to civil aviation. The golden period from 1929 to 1939 saw the air races become the proving ground for some of the world's fastest aircraft. The Wedell-Williams and Gee Bee racers could beat the Army Air Corps' first-line fighters by 100 mph, and these ships were built by what could be characterized as homebuilders, individuals and tiny groups whose backyard engineering surpassed that of the military, industrial, and educational institutions.

With all available talent joining the World War II effort, it was inevitable that surplus military iron would dominate the postwar National Air Races, which resumed in 1946. The almost-new Mustangs, King Cobras, Corsairs, etc., were the hottest things around. Gas turbines were still largely experimental and top secret, and, of course, none were in civilian hands. Nonetheless, wings were clipped, canopies were cut down, and manifold pressures were bumped up so that "Unlimited" racers were capable of blowing off some pure jets of the day. The state of the art in racing was still advancing.

Then in 1949, during the Cleveland National Air Races, Bill Odom tragically crashed his modified P-51 Mustang into a house, and the resulting public outrage ended the race series. The quest for speed in the air was abandoned almost entirely to the military for the next 15 years.

In 1964, Nevada rancher-pilot Bill Stead revived the National Championship Air Races around a dirt strip in a desert valley near Reno. The event was a great success and soon moved to the former Stead Air Force Base (not named for Bill), where it has flourished every September since, drawing up to 50,000 fans per day to the week-long meeting.

The format includes an air show, three restricted racing classes (Sport Biplane, Formula One, and T-6), and, the big draw, the Unlimiteds. The latter is not constrained by any formula save two restrictions: The airplanes must have piston power and propeller drive.

My historical research failed to turn up a stated philosophy behind the limiting of the Unlimiteds, but several reasons suggest themselves. First, in the early 1960s, there were very few jet fighters in private hands, that due to the U.S. military's refusal to sell jets to civilians. Those available from foreign sources (mainly Canada) were prohibitively expensive to obtain and operate. Also, with the 150-mph edge held by, say, an F-86 over a P-51, competition would be eliminated and safety compromised. The races would become the purview of the super-rich and/or corporations. Gone would be the backyard racer with his fluids and tools strapped to the back of his pickup — the heart and soul of American racing.

So for the past three decades, the show hasn't changed much when viewed from the stands. To be sure, average winning speeds have — with endless tinkering — risen by about 100 mph, providing lots of excitement and interest for the crowds. But the economics have changed, and the guy in the pickup has all but disappeared.

Most of the airplanes are now antiques, older than a SPAD was in 1964. With a declining inventory, prices have naturally escalated — a lot for the airframes and dramatically for the more vulnerable engines. A race-prepared Rolls-Royce V1650 Merlin can now cost $100,000 and last for maybe 30 minutes at race power settings, then blow up, perhaps irretrievably, further decreasing the small supply and raising the price of its replacement.

Everyone agrees that this cannot continue, but no one wants to give up the annual privilege of hearing the visceral, banshee howl of a Merlin or the rolling thunder of a 4360 Pratt.

I offer a suggested solution: Let present conditions dictate — as they did in 1964 — a change of rules. How about dividing the Unlimiteds into two classes: Vintage and Open. The Vintage class could be further divided into stock and modified divisions, with the latter able to keep their clipped wings and tiny canopies, which have their own appeal. Both groups would run stock engines with manifold pressures limited by wastegates to stock settings.

The Open class would be more "run what you brung," with perhaps the only restriction being propeller drive. Picture a small, slim, sleek racer mounting an Allison turboprop engine, gearbox and prop from a Lockheed Electra. The relatively tiny engine makes about 4,000 shaft horsepower, weighs far less than a Merlin, and has residual thrust in place of cooling drag. The propeller is four thirds of that which revolutionized Lyle Shelton's "x"- time champion Rare Bear. Good-running examples of this setup — lacking only the extensive paper trail required for FAR Part 121 operations — can be had for a relative song (perhaps $50,000 or less), and prices are trending downward. Same story for the 2,000-plus-shp Rolls-Royce Dart, which, with its planetary gearbox, occupies an ultra-slim cowling. This class could get the homebuilder back in the game, and there would be no problem pleasing the crowds. (Look what turbines have done for tractor pulls and powerboat and drag racing.)

I say fly the old warbirds forever — just stop blowing them up. And let's get the good old American hot rodder reinvolved using the discarded turboprops (maybe pure jets too) for the same reason that he used the V1710 and R2800 in the old days: Because they're there.