SI Vault
Ron Fimrite
January 29, 1973
What were the tiny flying tiger (above) and the little bitty bomb doing? They were merely stealing the show at The Great Miami Air Race—and proving that it is always nicer to win one for the nippers
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January 29, 1973

Buzzing To Glory

What were the tiny flying tiger (above) and the little bitty bomb doing? They were merely stealing the show at The Great Miami Air Race—and proving that it is always nicer to win one for the nippers

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Still, Ole Tiger is not as swift as Falck's Rivets—which is named not for the obvious reasons but after the comic-strip dog. In a trial heat last week Falck tied his own Formula I world record with a 232.2-mph lap. Rivets is a hundred pounds heavier than Ole Tiger and is 17.9 feet in both length and wingspan. Because of his plane's comparative bulk, Falck is generally a slow starter who then pulls out of the pack and treats spectators to a Garrison finish. Downey is quick on the takeoff and nimble on the turns. He forces a race; Falck waits to make his move.

The Falck-Downey—Rivets-Ole Tiger—duel was a natural crowd-pleaser, and the pilots did not fail their audience. Their several races were the most thrilling of the week.

Little planes are more fun to watch, if only because they are so much easier to watch. In Miami they flew on a short, three-mile course and were always visible. The Unlimited planes require an eight-mile course that puts them virtually out of sight—and occasionally out of mind—for much of the time.

In both the Friday and Saturday trials, Downey and Falck flew true to form. The red and white Tiger took early leads and, flying low—little more than 50 feet off the ground—clung close to the pylons. While Downey took the low road, Falck took the high, wide one. Winging last at the start of both races, he twice caught and passed Downey from above in the closing laps. Their times were nearly identical. In the six-lap Friday race, Falck averaged 219.9 mph, Downey 219.5. Saturday, Falck was 220.8, Downey 220.4. In the one race Downey pleaded a tight engine, in the other a large and sluggish propeller. But he is more given to tinkering with his machine than alibiing for its failings. Falck is his friend, and he enjoys racing him almost as much as beating him.

Mostly, he loves flying his Tiger. "This plane fits you like a glove," he says affectionately. "You don't so much fly it as wear it."

Downey, a short, friendly, florid-faced man, is as effusive as Falck is taciturn. "I think the rest of us will split the prize money," he advised Falck before one race, "just by having someone lead you off" course. I don't know why it is that when you give me every chance with your starts, I can't take advantage of it."

"Maybe," said Falck, "you will." He did not. Falck won the Sunday final easily, flash home at an average 224.5 mph while the tiny Tiger, buffeted by gusty winds, could only crank out 217.7.

How does one get started flying competitively? "Well," says Falck, "first you got to get yourself an airplane. And that costs money."

That it does: Downey paid $10,000 for Ole Tiger nine years ago and, despite his winning, has lost approximately that much in the last three years shipping, repairing and maintaining it.

This, however, is a mere drop in the fuel tank when compared with the investments of the Unlimited pilots. Cliff Cummins, a Riverside, Calif. radiologist and consistently star-crossed flyer, estimates that he has sunk some $140,000 into his Mustang fighter in the years he has owned it. Cummins, who was once an Air Force gunnery instructor, belly-landed the Mustang in the Nevada desert three years ago during the Reno air races after a small throttle link snapped. The very same gadget failed him on the sixth lap of the eight-lap semifinal heat in Miami on Saturday. Cummins was leading at the time and had recorded the fastest qualifying-heat time of 376.8 mph earlier in the week.

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