The Big Race of 1910

How the first U.S. air race launched an aviation tradition.

With Lincoln Beachey at the controls, a Curtiss design dashes past the crowd, but not fast enough to earn points from the judges. (NASM-9A03618~A)
Air & Space Magazine

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Curtiss may have feigned indifference, but he was under enormous pressure at the time, says Ken Pauley, a retired aerospace engineer in San Pedro who has produced a photo book about the meet in conjunction with the centennial. "He was due in court in New York the next month to answer the Wright brothers' lawsuit [over patent infringement]. The Wrights had clamped down lawsuits against both Curtiss and Paulhan." Curtiss, in fact, used the meet to try to gather witnesses to bolster his defense. He "seized every opportunity, when the field was free from program events, for demonstrations calculated to disprove the claim of the Wrights that the control of his machines, like theirs, depended on a combination of the rear vertical rudder with the action of the ailerons," Rosenberry wrote.

Although the Wrights did not accept an invitation to attend the meet, they were kept well informed about it. Before it was over, Wilbur Wright had cabled Roy Knabenshue, asking him to come to Dayton, Ohio, to discuss managing a flying team (see "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Aeroplane!," Apr./May 2008); by mid-March, Knabenshue was on the payroll.

"The meet really had a tremendous impact on how people thought about transportation," says Pauley, who worked on the Apollo heat shield for North American Rockwell. "Aviation was something new for them and no longer a joke or a fantasy. I remember my grandfather's skepticism about going to the moon. It was the same thing here with the airplane."

Air racing today generally involves similar airplanes forming up and tearing wingtip to wingtip around pylons. In 1910, such behavior was simply unheard of. The most popular challenge then was to set the fastest time for a single lap around a six-pylon, 1.6-mile course. Four pilots, flying one at a time, made at least one attempt at that at Dominguez Field, with Curtiss making five separate laps on four days. His fastest speed was 43.9 mph, nearly as fast as his winning speed at Reims, where the course was much longer and thus enabled higher speeds (Curtiss had won the Gordon Bennett Trophy with a speed of 46.5 mph). His nearest rival was Paulhan, almost nine seconds slower. The only other airplane race to attract more than one pilot was a 10-lap circuit, which Curtiss also won over Paulhan.

Curtiss again was crowned the "king of speed" after a wind-aided dash in front of the crowd at an estimated 60 mph. But his was a solo run. What brought the crowd to its feet was a head-to-head dirigible race around the oval by Knabenshue and Lincoln Beachey. It was the most exciting air race yet seen—even though both were chugging along at less than 20 mph. Beachey, who won by a few seconds, sensed the end of the airship era at Dominguez Field and "wondered how long his dirigible career would last," wrote Frank Marrero in Lincoln Beachey: The Man Who Owned the Sky. Beachey went on to become one of America's greatest acrobatic airplane pilots and the first to fly a loop.

A wealthy Seattle timber man named William Boeing was so impressed that he asked nearly every pilot to take him up for a ride. Only Paulhan agreed. The 28-year-old Boeing waited three days, but discovered on the fourth that the Frenchman had left the meet. (Four years later, a friend gave Boeing his first ride, in a Curtiss hydroplane that he found noisy, unstable, and terribly uncomfortable. He decided he could build a better airplane.)

Though Paulhan was slower than Curtiss, he won more in prize money—$19,000 to Curtiss' $6,000. More than 200,000 people had turned out over the 11 days, and gate receipts were $137,520, against expenses of $115,000. (The Gordon Bennett Trophy race wouldn't be held until the year's last big air meet, at Belmont Park, Long Island, New York, from October 22 to 31; cold winds kept all but a few thousand people from attending.)

Today, there's little left of what the Los Angeles Times in 1910 called "one of the greatest public events in the history of the West." Where the hilltop grandstand once stood is now a five-million-square-foot warehouse complex called the Dominguez Technology Center. Tenants include aerospace firms TRW and Northrop Grumman, and streets around the center are named after the pilots who flew in the meet. The nearby Dominguez Rancho Adobe Museum is planning displays, lectures, and other activities throughout 2010 to mark the race centennial.

The biggest legacy may be the continuing presence in southern California of the aerospace industry—the state's biggest employer. From Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works in Los Angeles to Boeing's sprawling space system offices in Huntington Beach (named for L.A.'s railroad king), the leading aerospace companies help prime the nation's economic pump near the city that welcomed America's first air race.

Don Berliner is a writer in Alexandria, Virginia.

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