|GeeBee R1, the most famous of American racers, it won the 1932 Thompson setting a speed record of 296 mph for land planes. Pilot: Jimmy Doolittle. "I gave her the gun," he said, "and she flew like a bullet|
In the late 1920's and 1930's the American public's imagination was captured by the sport of air racing.
It began with the mushrooming excitement that followed Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic, and ended as the second World War was exploding in Europe.The colorful, sleek racers and skilled pilots who "polished the pylons" became household names. The talk was of aircraft named GeeBee, Wedell-Williams, Laird, Lockheed, Folkerts, Travel Air, and Howard. And of pilots Jimmy Doolittle, Roscoe Turner, Jimmy Haizlip, Pancho Barnes, Roger Don Rae, Lowell Bayles, Harold Neumann, Jacqueline Cochran, Louise Thaden, Charles "Speed" Holman and others.
The Cleveland Air Races opened in 1929. From August 24 - September 2,the engines roared and the fans howled. On the program was 10 days of racing, stunt flying, spot landing contests, efficiency races, and parachute jumping. The forerunners of two classic events of American air racing: the Non-Stop Air Derby, which would eventually become the Bendix Race, and the Free-For-All which became the Thompson Trophy were held.
The star of the 1931 races was the fierce yellow and black GeeBee Model Z flown by Lowell Bayles. It captured the imagination of the crowd and of the nation. The GeeBee (designed by the Granville Brothers of Springfield, Mass) was all business and powered by a Pratt & Whitney R985 rated at 525 hp. Bayles won the Thompson Race by almost a full minute ahead of Jimmy Wedell in his No. 44 racer as they averaged 236.2 mph and 228.0 mph. Bayles passed the fast starting Wedell on the fifth of 10 laps, while Jimmy Doolittle was gaining fast in his Laird "Super Solution" until he blew a cylinder on lap 7. But it was not a total loss for Doolittle as he had won the Bendix Race by more than an hour over five Lockheeds.
For 1932, most of the major competitors were on hand with improved versions of what they had raced the year before.
Improvements came so fast that there was no time for anyone to get bored. This year is probably remembered as the greatest of all, for it was the year of GeeBee vs. Wedell-Williams.
The Thompson Trophy, was the most sought after trophy in aviation in the 30's. The Thompson race was for racing planes with unlimited horsepower engines. The two new GeeBee Super Sportsters and three Wedell-Williams Racers made a shambles of the opposition, sweeping the Bendix and the Thompson. In the 2,000 mile Bendix from Burbank to Cleveland, it was all Wedell-Williams, with first going to Jimmy Haizlip at a record 245 mph, second to Wedell at 232 mph, and third to Roscoe Turner at 226 mph. Lee Gehlbach was fourth in GeeBee No. 7 at 210 mph, which wasn't bad for an airplane most people remember as a pylon machine.
The Thompson Trophy went to Doolittle, as he made the GeeBee's reputation for all time, winning with a 253 mph record that would stand for years. Wedell, Turner and Haizlip followed with Gehlbach fifth in the other GeeBee.
The final pre-war Cleveland Air Races turned out to be far more historic than anyone realized. The last day of the time trials was September 1, the same day the Wehrmacht rolled into defenseless Poland to start World War II. The races went on as planned with Frank Fuller winning his second Bendix, jumping his old record from 258 mph to 282 mph. The last pre-war Thompson saw Roscoe Turner pitted against the world, as his qualifying speed of 298 mph was 9 seconds per lap better than his closest rival. It was Turner all the way with a winning speed of 282 mph. Roscoe Turner formally retired from racing, an era ended and a world war began. Racing airplanes were quickly shoved into dark corners of hangars as their pilots, builders and mechanics prepared to enter the war. --- None of the airplanes raced again.