Airplane Racing: A History, 1909-2008
by Don Berliner, McFarland, Jefferson, N.C., 2010, $35.
This handy reference serves as the ultimate scorecard for the sport of air racing. It summarizes the particulars of virtually every major air race since the very first such contest, near Reims, France, in 1909. Don Berliner, editor of the Society of Air Racing Historians newsletter, leavens the profusion of raw data with astute observations, based on a lifetime of involvement in the sport.
The earliest meets featured fragile contraptions that struggled simply to remain aloft, let alone dash to a finish line. After World War I, military pursuit planes dominated racing, but a new era unfolded at Cleveland in 1929, when custom-built racers beat the fastest Army and Navy contenders. In the ensuing decade, both the transcontinental Bendix race and the closed-course Thompson galvanized the air-minded public. Records were repeatedly smashed by a thrill-seeking band of aviators flying flashy, one-of-a-kind planes in what became known as the Golden Age of air racing.
In 1946, following the hiatus occasioned by World War II, racing resumed at Cleveland. At first war surplus fighters held sway, but to spur a rebirth in custom-built racers and lend greater diversity to the racing lineup, a new “midget” class was initiated, limited to aircraft with 190-cubic-inch engines.
Multiple fatalities at the 1949 contests, coupled with a confluence of other factors, ended Cleveland’s longstanding racing tradition. It would be reborn in 1964 in Reno, Nev., thanks to the efforts of WWII veteran and hydroplane racer Bill Stead.
In all, Berliner’s book is a heartfelt tribute to a great sport. While he bemoans the current absence of local and regional racing events, those who love watching planes whisk around pylons can still look forward to an exciting show each year at Reno.
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.