air racing after World War 2

T6 Texan racing at Reno

After World War II, the dominant role of air power spurred a great increase in air racing, and the National Air Races resumed at Cleveland in 1946 under the auspices of the Air Foundation.  All the competing airplanes were ex-military fighters and trainers, in contrast to the wonderful custom-built racers of the 1930s. The Bendix and Thompson Trophies were contested in two divisions—Reciprocating and Jet—while other events were held for what later became known as Unlimiteds, and for modified AT-6/SNJ/Harvard Advanced trainers flown by women who were not allowed to compete against men around the pylons.

Despite the speed and noise of the modified Mustangs and Airacobras and Corsairs, the crowd sensed the absence of the old creative atmosphere.  After the 1946 Races, the Air Foundation asked for help from the Professional Race pilots Association, which had worked with it since 1934.  The addition of small, low-power racers built to an elaborate set of rules brought back the “little guy” and originality. 

They all raced successfully for three years, but in 1949, a P-51C Mustang flown by round-the-world flyer Bill Odom crashed into a home, resulting in three deaths.  This, combined with the withdrawal of military participation upon the start of the Korean Conflict the following June, left too little of the program to justify the name “National Air Races”. 

Racing for the 190 Cubic Inch Class “midgets” continued for the Continental Trophy at Detroit and Miami, as well in regional meets until 1960.  For three years there was no air racing in the USA until Nevada cattle rancher and World Unlimited Hydroplane champion Bill Stead decided to do something about it. 

Sport Class racing at Reno

The National Championship Air Races, held in 1964 at Reno, was the re-birth of national-scope multi-class racing.  It included cross-country and closed-course events for the Unlimited Class, and closed-course racing for the 190 Cu. In. Class and the new Sport Biplane Class for amateur-built single-seaters, and the Ladies Stock Plane Class for Piper Cherokees.  Despite the crude facility and a lack of experience on the part of most of the organizers and officials, it was a success. 

Attempts to copy Reno’s ideas were made all over the country: St. Petersburg, Florida; Lancaster, California; Mojave, California.  All enjoyed brief runs, but lacked the financial base and the solid organization of Reno.  The 2002 Reno Air Races—the 38th   —included competition for six classes: Unlimited, Formula One, Sport Biplane, AT-6, Sport and Jet. 

In Europe, there have always been insufficient funds to support such races. The Royal Aero Club of the UK run a series of small handicap races for any aircraft capable of flying at 100mph. These races are not well patronised and are not advertised to the public to any extent.

For two years, the European Sport Pilot Association ran international handicap events. These have now been suspended.        

Various attempts have been made to re-launch Formula One events, again with little success. Reno Air Races still seem to attract a large crowd and seem to be going from strength to strength, while two new race events have been initiated, Red Bull Air Racing and the Aero GP. It remains to be seen whether these two new entries will stand the test of time.