When Glenn Curtiss edged Frenchman Louis Blériot at the world's first air race, in Reims, France, in August 1909, few Americans had seen an airplane, let alone an air race. Curtiss won them the opportunity. By bringing home air racing's first important award—the Gordon Bennett Trophy—Curtiss also won the right for his country to host the next international air meet. And thus America got its first air race, held in the city of Los Angeles 100 years ago.
In October 1909, airship pilot Roy Knabenshue, from Toledo, Ohio, and Charles Willard, the first man Curtiss taught to fly, met and decided to use southern California as a winter base for their aerial demonstrations. They contacted Curtiss, thinking his fame would help draw crowds as big as those that attended the event in Reims. Curtiss agreed to the plan, though he had no intention of using the venue to defend the trophy; that race would be months away and held in New York, where he believed more money was to be made than in California. Knabenshue contacted Los Angeles promoter Dick Ferris, who in turn, got the Los Angeles Merchants and Manufacturers Association on board for financial support, and persuaded railroad magnate Henry Huntington to pledge $50,000. (For Huntington it was a no-brainer; his trains, after all, would haul spectators to the meet.)
"No one knew who would come," says Judson Grenier, a history professor retired from California State University at Dominguez Hills. "But there was a great economic optimism, with the city bringing in water [by funding a $23 million aqueduct] and getting a port [by annexing nearby San Pedro], both in August 1909. So the feeling was: If we can do that, we can do anything."
One of the first to see economic opportunity in air racing was newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst, who flogged the event in his Los Angeles Examiner, one of the city's four daily newspapers. Hearst, who had traveled down from San Francisco, arranged for a hot-air balloon to be tethered on the grounds during the meet. On the balloon's side were the words "It's all in the Examiner." And it was, including fashion tips for women spectators.
The races—along with demonstrations—took place at Dominguez Field, just south of Los Angeles, on land loaned by the family of Manuel Dominguez, from January 10 to 20. Workers had erected a grandstand capable of seating 26,000, and pitched large tents for the pilots to store and work on their airplanes. The advertised prize money was $70,000. Much of it was for specific tasks, such as $10,000 for a nonstop balloon flight to the Atlantic coast, which went unawarded. More realistic were the prizes for breaking major world records, although many of those too were never claimed. But all helped achieve the goal of bringing together some of the most skilled and daring pilots in the United States.
Skilled and daring pilots were not plentiful in 1910 America. Although 43 flying machines were officially entered, only 16 showed up, and not all of them flew. One five-wing "multi-plane" built by a local high school teacher, for example, participated only as a static display; it couldn't get off the ground.
Despite the nearly empty skies, the meet caused a sensation in Los Angeles. Fans clambered aboard Huntington's streetcars, which left the city for the field every two minutes. More than 20,000 packed the stands each day. To draw out-of-towners, the meet's executive committee, of which Ferris was a member, had cleverly arranged for each day to honor a different city: "San Diego Day," "San Francisco Day," and so on. Schools in the honored districts were closed on those days, so when it was Los Angeles' turn, a 13-year-old named Jimmy Doolittle (who himself became a famous race pilot, before gaining even more fame for leading a World War II bombing raid on Tokyo) got to see his first airplane.
"The city was turned on," says Grenier. "I don't think any other event has had that kind of effect of shutting down the city for two weeks. You had businesses closing, schools letting out, women's groups coming in en masse. Anybody who could walk, and some who couldn't, made it to the meet. Cars were pretty primitive then, with canvas tops, so only a very small number of people came in cars. Most of them rode the train, then walked the half-mile to the field. It was kind of the climax of boosterism that's so characteristic of Los Angeles."
The star of the show was a charismatic Frenchman, Louis Paulhan, who had brought two Farman biplanes and two Blériot monoplanes and was guaranteed $25,000 to appear. Described in newspapers as "the wonderful little Frenchman," he had worked in a military balloon factory and taught himself to fly airplanes. Paulhan's appearance qualified the meet as "international," and he set new world records for endurance and altitude. He took to the air at the slightest encouragement, often appearing to plan his flight as he went along. Paulhan's 45-mile round trip between the field and the Santa Anita racetrack brought thousands of people to rooftops and farm fields in hopes of seeing the fearless aviator.
Curtiss, who was the first in the air over Dominguez Field in his Reims racer, was not bothered by all the applause for Paulhan, according to C.R. Rosenberry's book Glenn Curtiss: Pioneer of Flight. "I am satisfied to let Paulhan have the applause, providing I am able to take the prizes," he was quoted as telling a colleague.