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International Formula 1 Air Racing


The History of Formula One Air Racing

The Formula One racing class is without question the most successful class in the 86-year history of airplane racing. It has seen more races, more pilots and more airplanes than all other racing classes combined in a half-century lifetime, and has experienced but one important change in its rules in all that time. Moreover, it is the only formal air racing class to be exported from the U. S. to Europe, and the only class to be recognized by the International Aeronautics Federation (FAI), the world governing body for competitive aviation.

As a specified class it had its inception in the concerns of many wiser heads in the air racing community in the latter years of the "golden age" of American air racing prior to World War II. The excessive costs that were diminishing competition and an unacceptable accident rate were threatening to strangle the sport.

But the dreams of a practical, safe racing class of small planes powered by inexpensive and reliable engines wouldn't go away, but alas, they remained nothing more thin dreams until the autumn of 1939 when, on September 24th, the New York Times reported that the National Aeronautics Association Technical Committee had an interest in midget racers. It was not until the immediate post-war years however, that any serious planning for the development of the class was accomplished.

In October 1946 the Professional Race Pilots Association completed work on specifications for the 190 cubic inch engine displacement class, and that organization formally accepted the specifications on December 3rd. Fifteen days later the NAA Contest Board approved the PRPA specifications and the new class was born.

On January 12, 1947 the new class was given a significant boost when the Goodyear Aircraft, Corporation announced sponsorship of three annual trophy races in the new class with $25,000 purses, with the first to be held at Cleveland the following September.

By midsummer a number of the new breed of aircraft were under construction and the first one flew on July 4th. Twenty-one of these new midget racers were formally entered in that first Goodyear trophy race, fifteen actually appeared at Cleveland and twelve completed qualifying tests and time trials. That first race meet was a notable success with eight exciting and accident-free races over a three day period, setting the tone for the years to follow.

The specifications which established among their rigid compliance requirements a maximum engine size of 190 cubic inch displacement worked well for a number of years. The Continental four cylinder air cooled engine of 188 cubic inches displacement was the one dominant engine of the day with a reputation for reliability in the American small plane market. It was rated at 85 horsepower, was economical and was readily available, and thus became the standard powerplant of this racing class.

However with the passage of years, the Continental C-85 engine went out of production and with their ever-limiting availability by the mid-'60's, it became necessary to amend the specifications for the class and permit use of the newer and slightly larger piston displacement engines of 200 cubic inches. This was done on January 1, 1968, and the 190 Cubic Inch Class officially became the Formula One Class. It is interesting to note that this has been the only significant change to the specifications for the class in its 50 year history.

Performance increases which had been steady but un-dramatic now accelerated significantly, though not solely as a result of the slightly larger engines and the new and improved aircraft designs and materials for their construction. New race courses were generally larger and uniformly of six pylon configuration which made turns at the pylons less stressful on both pilot and plane...and less hazardous.

A six-pylon race course was nothing new. One of such configuration had been first used at Istres, France successfully in 1923. At that first Goodyear meet in Cleveland in 1947, the NAA Contest Board originally approved a three-pylon course with unusually sharp 60' turns at all three pylons. But at the insistence of PRPA president, veteran racer Art Chester, who adamantly sought safer course layouts, it was redesigned, but only to a four-pylon layout. Ironically, a six-pylon course was not to be used until May 1949 at Newhall, California as a result of the tragic deaths of Chester and another pilot on a four pylon course at San Diego two weeks earlier.

Formula One racing became something of an all-American spectator sport. Races were held in both large and small venues from coast to coast and interest among aviation enthusiasts was high. But it remained uniquely an American sport until the first of the European races under Formula One rules was flown by the British at Jurby, Isle of Man in 1970, and to date the Europeans (primarily the British and the French) have flown 126 race meets in 5 countries; and in 1976 the French held the first truly international event of significance, the 1976 International Grand Prix at Le Castellet, France with planes and pilots from three nations participating. Subsequently, British crews and planes competed in U. S. races in 1983 and 1987.

Although race plane performance improved remarkably over the sport's first 21 years, it was not totally unexpected given the more favorable factors that emerged with the passage of time. The average speed of the ten fastest qualifiers rose 30% between the first race meet and the last meet with the 190 cubic inch engines twenty years later. In the next twenty years, that figure had risen to 57% with the amended specifications, improved aircraft designs which took advantage of improved technology, and larger and better configured race courses. And even more dramatic increases in performance have been recorded in the past few years. At the latest meet in 1996, the top qualifying speed was over 100 miles per hour faster than that of the top qualifier at that inaugural race in 1947 ... and with an engine with but 5% greater displacement.

In the fifty-year lifespan of this racing class, over 200 aircraft have raced in 782 U. S. races in 177 race meets (through the 1996 racing season) from coast to coast and in Mexico and Canada, and the number of existing and under-construction planes is at an all-time high. The current group of Formula One racing pilots is more experienced than ever before with most of them flying regularly in other segments of the aviation world... as airline pilots, corporate pilots, charter pilots, FAA check pilots, military pilots, agriculture pilots and instructors. Four aging veterans in their mid-'70's, one of whom is commencing his 50th year of racing in this class, a remarkable achievement not likely to be equaled.

New and technologically advanced planes are now racing and new ones are appearing with each new racing season to challenge the leaders in this one-of-a-kind sport; a sport that gives promise of a bright future as it wings optimistically into its sixth decade.

Formula One Air Racing (