Steve's first air race was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1926.
Steve placed second, piloting a Standard J-1. In 1928, Steve
piloted a Pheasant H-10 biplane in a cross-country air race
from New York to Los Angeles, placing 12th. out of 38
starters. Steve then placed 4th. in a cross-country race
from Los Angeles to Cincinnati. Steve flew in numerous other
cross country and pylon races in the Pheasant.
Steve's first race plane was constructed in 1931 and made
its debut at the National Air Races in Cleveland that year.
It was initially powered by an American Cirrus engine. Each
winter Steve would rebuild the 'Chief', and over the years
the refinements added significantly greater performance.
Oshkosh' Nicholas Beazley 'Pobjoy Special'
Steve bought this raceplane in 1933 and subsequently
modified it, improving its speed. He raced it at various
events in 1933-34.
In 1934, Steve decided to go for the 'big time' and build a
race plane capable of winning the Thompson Trophy race [the
Indianapolis 500 of air racing]. Engine choice dictated the
design configuration - instead of opting for a
high-horsepower radial engine, Steve chose an inline Curtiss
D-12 motor, the same type engine used in the Curtiss
Schneider-Trophy winning race planes of the mid 1920's.
Steve's design philosophy emphasised light weight over
exotic streamlining, and 'Bonzo' took this approach to its
extreme, being dubbed the 'flying barn door' by the press
due to its angular appearance. Nonetheless, 'Bonzo's
excellent performance made Steve one of the top contenders
for the Thompson Trophy. Steve's first race in 'Bonzo' was
the 1935 Thompson Trophy race, in which he placed second
behind Harold Neumann in 'Mr. Mulligan'.
For 1936, Steve rebuilt 'Bonzo', installing a new landing
gear. Since the National Air Races were in Los Angeles that
year, he had a long cross-country flight to reach Los
Angeles. After landing at Cheyenne, Wyoming, an engine
backfire caused 'Bonzo' to catch on fire; luckily the fire
was extinguished before 'Bonzo' was completely destroyed.
But the damage was too great to be repaired for any further
racing that year.
Steve also rebuilt 'Chief Oshkosh', installing a 4-cylinder
Menasco engine. At the 1936 National Air Races in Los
Angeles, the 'Chief' sheared a prop flange, forcing Steve to
an emergency landing. The 'Chief' was damaged but was
quickly rebuilt and participated in the Detroit air races
later that year.
After the dismal results of the 1936 season, Steve rebuilt
both 'Chief Oshkosh' and 'Bonzo'...and 1937 turned out to be
Steve's most successful year. Piloting 'Chief Oshkosh',
Steve placed 2nd. in the Greve Trophy Race and could
possibly have won had the race gone the full number of laps.
Steve in 'Bonzo' was the fastest qualifier for the Thompson
Trophy race, and he led for the first 18 laps of the 20 lap
race, at an average speed of over 275 Mph. With a huge lead
and the race seemingly in the bag, suddenly the engine began
to run rough, and Steve was forced to throttle back to
remain in the race, finishing in 5th. place.
At the Oakland, California races in 1938, Steve blew the
engine in 'Chief Oshkosh', and made a forced landing into a
marsh, flipping over. This was the end of 'Chief Oshkosh' in
its pre-war configuration. He participated with 'Bonzo' in
the weekend feature race but dropped out on the sixth lap.
At the 1938 National Air Races, Steve placed 3rd. in the
Thompson Trophy race in 'Bonzo', and in 1939 (the final
pre-WW2 Thompson) Steve placed 5th. after cutting a pylon at
the race start. In it's final configuration, 'Bonzo' was
capable of a level speed of 325 Mph. on only 475 horsepower,
faster than the top-of-the-line US military aircraft then in
service. 'Bonzo' is now displayed in the EAA Air Adventure
Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
After World War Two, air racing resumed again, but using
modified fighter planes rather than custom-built race
planes. Steve obtained a surplus Bell P-63 fighter and
converted it to air racing, clipping the wing tips. Steve
placed 8th. in the 1946 Thompson Trophy race with this
The escalating costs of all-out custom designed race planes
in the late 1930's encouraged the development of a
'specification' or limited air racing class. But it wasn't
until after World War Two that this class got going...and
Steve Wittman played a major role. He took the fuselage of
'Chief Oshkosh', built new wings and installed a Continental
C-85 engine, and renamed the craft 'Buster'. The rules for
this racing class did not at that time require a minimum
pilot weight, so Wittman selected Bill Brennand to fly
'Buster' in the inaugural Goodyear class race at the 1947
National Air Races. Bill Brennand and 'Buster' won. 'Buster'
went on to many more Goodyear/Continental Trophy races, and
was retired after the 1954 Danville, NY air races. It is now
on display at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington,
Upon returning home from the 1947 National Air Races, Steve
immediately began construction of a new race plane for the
Goodyear class, which he named 'Bonzo'. (Steve's reuse of
the name has been a source of continued confusion to
aviation historians ever since!) The new 'Bonzo' made its
debut at the 1948 National Air Races, finishing 3rd. with
Steve at the controls. Thereafter, Steve raced 'Bonzo' at
many, many Goodyear/Continental/190 cu. in. class/Formula
One air races through the 1950's and 1960's, including the
first few Reno National Championship air races, before
retiring from Formula One competition in 1973.
In 1980, Steve modified 'Bonzo' with smaller wheels and
wheel pants to participate in the Lowers-Baker-Falck
cross-country air races, winning the first race and placing
in several subsequent events. During the 1984 L-B-F race,
Steve had a forced landing in a farm field, flipping over.
Damage to 'Bonzo' necessitated a rebuild. Steve last flew 'Bonzo'
at the 1994 EAA Convention at Oshkosh, and then donated 'Bonzo'
to the EAA. It is now displayed next to Steve's pre-war 'Bonzo'
in the EAA Air Adventure Museum.
In the mid-1960's, a new 'specification' air racing class
was proposed, which was later named Formula V. Steve was an
early proponent of this class; he designed and built his
last race plane "Witt's V' for this class. Due to the
scarcity of race planes, Steve flew demonstrations with his
Witt's V during the early 1970's while other race planes
were being built. In 1977, the first 'official' Formula V
race was held, at Sturgis Kentucky. Steve won this race, and
was the first National Champion of Formula V. Steve was
unbeatable in early Formula V races, winning every one
through the 1981 Cincinnati races.
In 1989, at
age 85 Steve came out of retirement to race one more time at
the Daytona Skyfest Formula V races. Steve won the initial
race heat and placed third in the Championship race, his
final closed-course pylon race. 'Witt's V' is now displayed
at the Wittman Hangar on Pioneer Airfield at the EAA Air
He died with his wife in an accident when fabric on his
Whittman 'Tailwind' detached in flight.