The Bear Is Back

The winning-est Bearcat in air racing steps up once more to the starting gate.

Like a runner waiting for the starting gun, the famous Grumman F8F-2 (without wingtips) looks ready. (Tyson V. Rininger)
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In Reno, Redick has two mechanics, Keith Geary and Robbie Grosvenor, working full time on a boil-off oil cooling system and other Bear-related tasks. But the rest of the project is being farmed out all over the country. Crew chief Cornell is building a new engine in Oregon. Clark Thompson is designing a telemetry unit in New Mexico. Executive Propeller is overhauling the prop in California. If all goes well, the Bear will be buttoned up early enough to enable Penney to get in a few hours of flight testing before the mid-September races.

But prepping a warbird for Reno is always a crapshoot. As the crew members work through their scrupulously detailed checklists, countless gremlins wait to foil them. And when you’re talking about a warbird, no problem is small. Parts aren’t available at the local Sears. In many cases, just unscrewing bolts and prying apart components require special tools. As the race deadline approaches, the job almost inevitably devolves into a thrash. Work hours accumulate. Frustration grows. Tempers flare. Are we having fun yet?

But that moment, if it arrives, is several months away. On this sunny day in late April, everybody is all smiles as they watch the resplendent airplane being towed from the cramped hangar that had been its home to a spacious new Bear cave elsewhere at the airport. Watching the airplane move past a pair of MiGs, Cornell has a proprietary gleam in his eye. He started working on the Bear as a volunteer in 1978, then in the late ’80s served as the crew chief before getting crossways with Shelton and leaving to work on Mustangs and Sea Furys. Rod Lewis re-hired him in 2007, and he’s been on Bear patrol ever since.

“Since I’ve been on this project, I’ve pretty much worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says. “I’ve taken a few days off. But not very many. Maybe 10 in three years. So I’ve spent, and this entire team has spent, just a huge amount of time to get this baby back to where it used to be. And it’s back.” He laughs like he really means it. “The Bear is back.”

It’s hard to imagine now, when air racing is treated like an exotic curiosity, but there was a time, in the 1930s, when the sport attracted so much attention it made aviators such as Jimmy Doolittle and Roscoe Turner national celebrities. But after World War II, air racing faltered. In 1964, Bill Stead resurrected the sport, staging a race over a pylon-delineated course at a remote airfield near Reno. The spectators for the inaugural event included a 31-year-old U.S. Navy lieutenant who was there in part because he’d been so hungover he’d missed his flight to Hawaii. His name was Lyle Shelton, and in Reno, he discovered a passion that was to animate the rest of his life.

That first year Shelton worked as a volunteer on a couple of Unlimited aircraft. During the 1965 off-season, acting on the advice of Alby Redick’s father, he persuaded a warbird owner to let him race a stock P-51D. To drum up sponsorship, he flew the Mustang to Tonopah, Nevada, made a screaming low-level pass over town—inverted—then landed and passed the hat at the local businesses. According to Shelton’s good friend Dell Rourk, who wrote Racing for the Gold: The Story of Lyle Shelton and the Rare Bear, his biggest benefactor was the madam of the town cathouse. In her honor, he named the airplane Tonopah Miss. In his first race at Reno, Shelton finished at the back of the pack.

In those days, warbirds were selling for peanuts. Even so, Shelton couldn’t afford a flyable one. So in 1968, during a TWA layover at Chicago O’Hare Airport, he drove to Valparaiso, Indiana, to check out a wrecked Bearcat. The pilot had botched a landing and the airplane had cartwheeled. For six years, it had languished in two sections. The engine, wingtips, right landing gear, instruments, cockpit controls, and several other critical systems were missing. The owner was asking $2,500. Sold!

Toward the end of World War II, Grumman designed the Bearcat as a replacement for the U.S. Navy’s F6F Hellcat fighter, and the Bearcat was revered for its superb maneuverability and climb rate. The winner of the first air race at Reno was a stock Bearcat flown by Mira Slovak, and the Unlimited class, starting in 1965, was dominated by Bearcats flown by Darryl Greenamyer. (One of his aircraft, fittingly named Conquest 1, is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum.) Relying on the racing verity that there’s no replacement for displacement, Shelton planned to beat Greenamyer by replacing his aircraft’s original engine, a Pratt & Whitney R-2800, with a more powerful modified Wright R-3350.

On a rainy December afternoon in 1968, Shelton and Cliff Putman, crew chief at the time, trucked the Bearcat to an airport in Compton, south of Los Angeles. Bill Hickle, a Northrop structures engineer and wannabe air racer who rented a hangar at the airport, saw them roll up. When he walked over to investigate, Shelton asked him if he knew anybody with a welding rig.

“Well,” said Hickle, “I’ve got a welder over in my hangar.”

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