Viewport: Amazing Racers
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, January 2009
"Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the December 2008/January 2009 issue of Air & Space.
Airplanes have been racing almost as long as they’ve been flying, and that long history has produced some of the most colorful pilots and honored traditions in aviation—not to mention some really great airplanes. Probably the most famous racing craft in the National Air and Space Museum hangs in the Pioneers of Flight gallery on the second floor of the Museum on the Mall. The Curtiss R3C-2, a dashing black biplane on floats, won the Schneider Trophy seaplane race in 1925, the same year its landplane version won the Pulitzer race trophy. A young Army lieutenant named James Doolittle startled the judges at that seaplane race by attaining an average speed of 232.57 mph. The next day he flew the racer on a straight course to set a world speed record of 245.7 mph.
Remembering that record makes the performance of Jon Sharp’s NemesisNXT at this year’s National Championship Air Races all the more astonishing. Breaking 400 mph in a Sport Class kitplane—at the September 2008 event in Reno, Nevada—was a historic achievement and is the “milestone” in this issue’s Moments & Milestones (p. 80). Sharp and his team made history at Reno with an earlier racer, Nemesis, which won in the Formula One class (for 100-horsepower homebuilts) for nine years in a row. Nemesis is now on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.
Air racing obviously still attracts talented people and extraordinary airplanes, and this issue of Air & Space magazine includes a few other highlights from the 2008 Reno races. In Sightings (p. 66), you’ll see three Grumman F7F Tigercats. One of them competed in the Unlimited category, the only twin-engine aircraft in a field dominated by Mustangs and Sea Furys. The other two were in Reno for a different kind of contest, one that the Museum has participated in for several years. The National Aviation Heritage Invitational encourages the preservation of aviation history by hosting dozens of restored vintage aircraft at the Reno races each year and awarding trophies to the most historically accurate. The trophy, sponsored by Rolls-Royce and engraved with the names of the winners, resides in the Udvar-Hazy Center.
A final item in this issue (p. 11) should make race fans optimistic about the future of what they like to call “the world’s fastest motor sport.” Since the late 1980s, Steve Hinton, an exceptional pilot and president of the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, California, has been the pace/safety pilot at Reno, flying a Lockheed T-33 jet. This year, Hinton’s son qualified in the Unlimited class, which his dad won in 1978 and 1985. It looks like racing runs in the blood.
There’s no doubt that air racing has fostered aeronautical progress, but what keeps fans coming back year after year, besides the speed and the spectacle, are the personalities. We at the Museum protect and preserve the airplanes, but when we tell their stories, we talk about the people who built and flew them.