From the ground the race had appeared to be running routinely through the first two laps. Laidley was flying a perfect course at pylon height; Shelton was a few seconds behind and slightly higher, and Balz was hanging up in third position at the abnormally high altitude of 500 feet.
The first indication of any deviation from the script came when Roto-Finish Special roared past Phast Phoenix right in front of the main stands on the third lap and then began making a run at the leader.
Screaming into the fourth lap, the intrepid Dr. Laidley made his only mistake of a perfect race: He took pylon No. 1 a few yards wide. Balz made a perfect turn and closed ground.
In the middle of the backstretch on the 9.5-mile course, Balz flew right over the top of Laidley and took the lead. The race announcer reacted with consternation. "Will that Rolls-Royce engine take the pressure that Balz is putting to it?" he cried over the P.A. system.
Up in the air with four laps to go, Gunther Balz was equally concerned about the engine and his wildly spinning instruments. Briefly he thought, "Boy, that's the first time Laidley's ever been passed. I'll bet he can't believe it." But the race was only half over, and Balz was squeezing 3,300 hp out of a 27-year-old engine built to put out 1,400. At any second, it could seize up—or blow up.
For all this show of power, Laidley and the world's fastest prop plane were far from finished. The gritty NASA test pilot, a soft-spoken gentlemanly soul on the ground but a wild competitor in the air, accomplished what most of the spectators and judges thought was impossible and certainly unwise: he lowered his altitude. Race rules call for a minimum altitude of pylon height—45 feet—but Laidley repeatedly dropped his port wing tip to within inches of the parched desert sand as he churned about the pylons. His progress on the back course could be followed by the long ribbon of dust he was raising—at speeds around 450 mph—and judges and spectators were aghast.
A radio message crackled out to Conquest I: "Watch the low flying." Laidley picked some more flowering sage with his wing tip and the message was repeated. By now the crowd was standing up, amazed and a little unnerved by the bold ride of the second-place pilot, and the judges came within an ace of black-flagging him.
But for all the ground he saved, Laidley was gaining nothing on Gunther Balz. The P-51 was turning laps at 430, reaching 460 in the straights, opening the gap, and there was no doubt whatever that it was going to finish as predicted—first or last. On the ramp a mixed group of P-51 drivers and mechanics and owners and wives, exhilarated by the prospect of an end to Conquest I's relentless reign, whooped and hollered and jumped up and down, and when Balz flashed past the checkered flag to begin his safety lap, the crowd noise seemed louder than the airplanes.
At that dramatic point Gunther Balz and his gray Mustang vanished. "Where'd he go?" people shouted. Binoculars were aimed all over the abandoned air base, but the Mustang was gone. "It crashed! It crashed!" a hysterical woman shouted, and necks were craned to find the telltale puff of smoke rising from the desert.
But then "Old Roto-Rooter" came into sight, not in the air but on the ground, chugging slowly along one of the runways on the far side of the huge air base, about three miles from the grandstands. The ancient warplane took forever to lurch and squeal its way to the winner's circle, where Balz jerked the canopy open and told his crew chief, Dwight Thorn, "I love ya, I love ya," and then added in a lower voice: "We just made it, boy."