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Air racing is alive and as well as can be expected for a sport that almost died of neglect back in the early 1960s. In fact, the recent Texas National Air Races, sixth and final stop on this year's tour, were staged in a fitting sort of Old Home Week atmosphere: the sport came back to the pastureland where it got its start, when pilots often used a couple of handy barns as pylons.
This time the racers assembled on a ranch a few miles from Graham, Texas, and the pylons were set along the floor of a small valley, a perfect amphitheater that could have held many more than the 4,000 or so enthusiasts who showed up. Still, many of the spectators had demonstrated laudable expertise and courage themselves by flying in through the drizzle and low ceilings. Their main interest was in the event that would decide the national championship in the T-6 class. The leader was Bill Turnbull, who had won at Reno earlier, closely followed by John Mosby and Roy McClain. Unfortunately, Mosby had come up with equipment trouble and couldn't make it. But Turnbull, from Lewisville, Texas, and McClain, from Eufaula, Ala., were in good shape.
There are four basic classes of airplanes in racing. Formula I (midgets), Unlimited, Sports Biplane and the T-6. Many experts insist that the T-6 class has to be the most exciting since the other three invariably produce a wide degree of performance among the various aircraft, which makes for some dull races. The T-6, however, is a basic stock model in a sense and only so much can be done to it. That means the best pilot usually wins—and that is the way air racing ought to be. The T-6 is the old Army AT-6 or Navy- Marine Corps SNJ, the trainer in which so many World War II pilots learned to fly. A lot of the critters were produced and a lot were sold as surplus aircraft to civilians. And any time you get enough of anything that's fast and can be steered, you're going to end up with races—and that's how the T-6 class came to be. As a bird it is sturdy, with one of those enduring designs, and it packs a lot of horsepower. For those who don't know much about aircraft, the T-6 is the plane Errol Flynn was always flying in all those cadet movies when he was winning his wings. Occasionally it would become a Japanese Zero simply by adding meatballs to the fuselage and wings.
It is further fitting that the T-6 should have found its last home in racing, because it was from racing that it sprung. When the war came along, the fighter and training planes that were produced came directly from racing technology developed during the '20s and '30s. The T-6 was as much a primary design as any plane in the war and looks like a lengthened version of the little, sturdy low-winged monoplanes that ate up the competition back in the days when pilots wore riding breeches and white silk scarves.
When the racing began, Turnbull won his elimination heat easily, but McClain threw a prop spinner on the fifth lap of his six-lap heat. The effect on McClain was minimal, since he had such a large lead—but the incident almost cost second place for Jim Mott, known affectionately as the Black Knight of Carson, Calif. Mott had been dueling hot and heavy with Cal Earley of Houston and, flying the high groove on top, he had spotted the object flying off McClain's craft. He got right on his mike and yelled, "Hey, Twenty-Five, something just fell off your plane! You better get that thing on the ground."
But McClain had realized what had happened and, other than cutting back on power to reduce vibration, he never paused as he screamed through the last lap. Unfortunately, Mott had been turning a pylon when his attention had been diverted—and he yawed so widely that Earley was able to take back second spot temporarily.
The racing course at Graham was 3� miles around, offering six pylons set in a sort of oblong pattern. The pylons were 50 feet high and a judge lay under each, sighting up to see if any part of a plane cut inside. Such an infraction brings a penalty of a full lap, which is the same as finishing last. The planes compete at speeds of 215 to 220 mph and when they're barreling around the pylons, cocked up in 80-or 90-degree banks, the low wing of the airplane is sometimes only 10 or 15 feet off the ground. It seems an invitation to tear up an airplane and to prove just how really fragile is human flesh. The only thing that makes it possible is the supreme skill of the pilots. A T-6 is a large, heavy thing. It weighs around 7,500 pounds and if one then takes that very same large thing and installs an engine so that it will go 200 mph and then starts flying it around in a tight circle just a few feet off the ground, one has got a dangerous pastime. Now add five more of these things on the merry-go-round and you've got a ridiculous situation. Race cars are involved with only two dimensions of movement; side to side and front to back. In air racing one has a third dimension, up and down, and there is as likely to be another plane on top or below you as one by your side. Nearly all of the racers are professional pilots of one form or another; many are airline pilots, many are crop dusters, all have an immense number of air hours in aerobatics and precision flying.
All the pilots belong to the Professional Race Pilots Association. It would seem to be professional only by degree, since no one can presently make a living off the tour. The victor at Graham, if he also won his elimination heat, would get only about $2,500. The purses at the Reno and Mojave races had been only slightly higher. This isn't nearly enough considering the cost of the airplane (about $20,000), maintenance, travel and crew expenses. But Jack Lowers, the PRPA vice-president, says, "I think the day is coming when a pilot can make it racing. I wouldn't have believed this four years ago, or even two, but I can see the interest picking up. We had 35,000 people out one of the days at the meet in Reno. The word has just got to get around that air racing is back. People will come. It's a great show."
Meanwhile, they used the air-start at Graham. In this form, a pace plane brings the contestants down to the start/finish in a parallel line. When he thinks they are even, the pace pilot says, "You have a race"—and then pulls sharply upward. When the starter turned loose the finalists at Graham, McClain got his throttle firewalled an instant before Turnbull and that—combined with his pole position—allowed him to take a half a plane lead as they screamed in on the first pylon. There, Ralph Rina got around Turnbull, which dropped Turnbull to third, with Ralph Twombly holding fourth, Bob Metcalfe fifth and Jim Mott in last place. They held this stance for one lap, roaring down the straight, their engines taking on different tones as they flung the aircraft into the severe banks around the pylons. At the No. 1 pylon on the second lap, Turnbull passed Rina at the same spot where Rina had passed him before. This put Rina back in third. At almost the same time, Metcalfe passed Twombly, who was now in fifth, ahead of Mott. But Mott, using his accustomed high groove, inched his nose forward over the tail of Twombly and was calculating moving into fifth position coming off the pylon before the backstretch. Up front, Metcalfe had got around Rina to take third. But McClain and Turnbull seemed locked together as they flew down the straights and swept around the pylons, Turnbull just above and a few feet outside of his rival.
Looking up, McClain could see the underbelly of Turnbull's silver plane, seemingly close enough to touch. He was hoping he could creep forward just a few feet more. If he could, his prop wash would slow Turnbull down and force him to either go higher or fall in farther behind.