"Anybody can be beaten," Gunther Balz said quietly, and cycled away to oversee repairs on his skinned airplane. Somebody said in his wake, "Maybe we should make that Stupid Answer No. 41."
The night before the Unlimited finals, Balz hardly slept. "I knew I was gonna finish first or last," he said later. "I was gonna win that race or I was gonna blow the engine to pieces. It was unsettling." Out on the ramp early the next morning, he described his feelings to another pilot, Bob Mitchem, an AT-6 champion who was stepping up to Unlimiteds himself. "Bob," Balz said, "it's got to be everything or nothing."
"It's only a race, Gunther," Mitchem answered. "You don't have to go all out all the way."
"The hell you don't," Balz snapped. "There's only one way to beat the world's fastest airplane, and that's flat-out from start to finish."
Then, under a searing sun and a powder blue sky dusted with light puffs of cloud, bad vibes set in. In the AT-6 event a plane jumped the flag on a standing start, swerved into the stream of other racers and almost forced one of them into the jammed grandstands at full throttle. "That's the closest to a major tragedy I've ever seen," said a quaking race official. A few minutes later three automobiles and a camper drove blithely down the airport runway, apparently having blundered onto the course via a back road. And just after noon the unblemished record of the Reno races went up in a deadly puff of black, oily smoke.
Sports Biplane Pilot H. E. (Tommy) Thomas, an affable airplane sales executive from Sacramento, was flying straight and level down the back course when—without warning or apparent reason—he crashed nose first at full power. A helicopter was at the scene in seconds, but the first words over the radio were, "Call the coroner."
Back in the hangar putting finishing touches to his plane, Gunther Balz heard about the crash and felt violently sick to his stomach. "I began looking around for an excuse not to fly," he said later. "Anything—a tiny leak, a crack in the canopy, anything, but there was nothing. I had to fly."
The Unlimited racers—three P-51 Mustangs, two F8F Bearcats, a Hawker Sea Fury and Bob Mitchem's Goodyear-built Corsair, each of them representing about a $100,000 investment—followed a pace Mustang far out over the Sierra Nevadas and then came winging toward the line for a flying start. Dr. Dick Laidley and his aluminum-colored Conquest I were on the pole, tucked tightly against the pace plane. Balz took up a position slightly above and behind. When the starter turned them loose, "Old Roto-Rooter" fell back into third place, a victim of the relatively slow starting speed of about 350. "She doesn't like to fly that slow," Balz explained later. "The engine was gurgling and sputtering and complaining. But I couldn't just advance full throttle—that would have sent a rod flying through the fuselage. So it took me a mile or so to get up a head of speed gradually. When I finally got moving, I could see Laidley down low in the lead, and Lyle Shelton running second in his Bearcat. I wasn't on full throttle, and I was still keeping pace with them, so I figured I was in pretty good shape."
But he also remained frightened. He still wanted an excuse to drop out and he found a good one in only the second lap of the eight-lap (76-mile) race. His water-pressure indicator fell sharply, and the heat gauge began going up. The water-methanol mixture cools the engine and also provides extra power through injection, and without it a racer has absolutely no chance. "I was relieved," Balz said. "I said to myself, 'That's what you've been looking for. Now you don't have to race.'
"But just for the hell of it—I'll never know why, except that I wanted that trophy in the worst damned way—I began advancing the throttle, and the crazy thing responded. The whole plane just jumped. It felt great. All my dials were past the red lines, and I said to myself, "Let's go!' And I went absolutely wide open."