Air racing began as a sport about 6 years after Orville
and Wilbur Wright’s 12-second flight at Kitty Hawk,
North Carolina, in December 1903. Since that 1909
event, air racing has developed into a competitive sport
with four basic classes according to type of aircraft.
The first air race was sponsored by James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald, who lived in
Paris. Bennett offered a cash prize and a trophy for “the
best speed record by an airplane over a closed course”at
an air meet to be held annually. The first such prize
would be awarded at the International Air Meet scheduled for Rheims, France, in August 1909. Daily contests
for speed, altitude, and time and distance. Twenty-eight
pilots and thirty-eight airplanes entered this historic
event. Hubert Letham of France won the altitude contest by climbing to the amazing altitude of 153 meters
(503 feet). Henry Farman won the time and distance
prize of $10,000; he stayed aloft for just under 3 hours,
5 minutes, and flew 180 kilometers (112 miles). Glenn
Curtiss, the American “dark horse,” won the main event.
The first air meet in the United States was held the following year.
Air racing expanded next into races involving aircraft capable of taking off and landing in open water.
To stimulate interest in designing and developing seaplanes, Jacques Schneider, an affluent French aviation
enthusiast, offered a trophy for an annual race. The first
of the Schneider Cup races took place April 1913 in
Monaco. England dominated the Schneider series, winning five of the eleven competitions and taking permanent possession of the trophy by winning three consecutive races in 1927, 1929, and 1931. By 1931 the
winning speed had increased to 547 kph (340 mph).
After World War I air racing in the United States expanded greatly because of the hundreds of ex-military
pilots and several thousand military surplus aircraft
(including an estimated 6,000 Curtiss Jennys). Many
of these pilots turned to “barnstorming” to make a
very marginal living. Some of the air shows featuring
the barnstorming acts also included one or more
speed competitions. Barnstorming was halted in 1926,
when the U.S. Congress passed various laws regulating
Speed became a primary goal in aviation. In 1920 a
trophy to promote higher speeds was offered by newspaper publisher Ralph Pulitzer. The United States
Army and Navy were intensely interested in developing faster, more powerful aircraft, and allocated funds
to improve the performance of planes they entered
in the Pulitzer race. The first of this series was held
in 1920. When the series was discontinued after the
1925 race, the winning speed had increased by almost
Air racing grew in popularity with the inception of
the National Air Race series, organized under the sanction of the National Aeronautics Administration and
first held in September 1926 in Philadelphia. However,
military expenditures for development of racing aircraft soon dried up and for the next thirteen years the
National Air Races would feature civilian designed and tested aircraft. The series is well remembered for two
trophies awarded during the meet: the Thompson and
The Thompson Trophy events held between 1930
and 1939 were closed course speed races featuring unlimited aircraft (no restrictions on horsepower or airframe modifications). Pilots whose names are recognized today flew in the Thompson races: Charles
“Speed” Holman, James Doolittle, James Wedell, and
Roscoe Turner, who kept the trophy after winning three
consecutive times. When the series resumed after
World War II some of the pilots who had flown the races
before the war returned to try again.
The Bendix Transcontinental Speed Classic was inaugurated in 1931. Pilots were timed against the clock in
the first dash from Los Angeles to Cleveland. Jimmy
Doolittle won the 1931 race in a Laird Super-Solution
with an average speed of 375 kph (223 mph).
The National Air Races resumed in Cleveland in
1946. Bendix offered two cross-country trophies: one
for piston engines and one for jet aircraft. The four-day
event also featured a women’s race and several consolation races for the slower ex-wartime planes.
World War II fighter and jet planes continued to
dominate the National Air Races until 1949 when a P-
51 flown during the Thompson race lost control and
crashed into a home near the airport, killing the pilot,
a woman in the house, and her 13-month-old baby. The
public outcry that followed concerning civilian safety
during air races has haunted air race promoters ever
Later in the 1940s, a group of pilot/designers who
felt the warbirds were too expensive and wanted a more
competitive class began designing small race planes,
which first appeared at the 1947 National Air Races.
Weighing about 227 kilograms (500 pounds) and with
80-horsepower engines, these tiny planes could fly a
smaller radius course, bringing them closer to the
stands where the spectators could see them.
The next important development came with the
first Reno National Championship Air Race in 1964.
Three classes of airplanes raced: Formula I’s, Sport Biplanes, and the vintage World War II aircraft now designated “Unlimiteds.”In 1995 the Reno National Championship Air Race celebrated their 32d consecutive
event, making this the longest running series in air racing. The AT-6 class was added in 1969.
Air races are still held all around the United States
and in Europe. Most of these events have featured one
or two racing classes, usually limited by the size of the
field or the prize money available. In Europe, since
1970 much interest has been in the Formula I class.Annual races are held in both France and England under
the direction of the International Formula I Air Race
Rules and Play
Air racing is divided into four classes.
Unlimited air racing aircraft are the fastest racing machines in regular competition in the world. Their roots
stem directly from the Thompson Trophy of the postwar era, which were ex-military fighter aircraft. After
1949, Unlimited air racing almost totally disappeared,
but was revived with the advent of the Reno National
Championship Air Races in 1964 and has since grown
steadily in popularity. The aircraft themselves may still
be ex–World War II fighter aircraft, but there the kinship ends; most have been highly modified and
achieve performance far beyond that of stock military
Average winning speeds in Unlimited competition
are well in excess of 650 kph (400 mph). The current
record in the class for average race speed is now in the
neighborhood of 775 kph (480 mph).
The Unlimited class of air racing has only two major restrictions: The aircraft must be propeller driven
and must have a piston-type engine. Extensive modifications may be made to engines and to airframes, and
most Unlimited aircraft of today have clipped wings,
modified fuselages, cut-down canopies, and highly exotic racing engines, as well as many other smaller refinements engineered into these racers for one purpose: speed! Unlimited Aircraft race on a closed-pylon
course and use an “air start,” with the aircraft in formation extending back from the pace aircraft.
This “round-engined” plane, one of the world’s leading
training aircraft, has been around for many years and
became a racer in 1968. To make the new T-6 class
competitive, it was decided to race them in a stock configuration, which makes the events extremely close and
exciting. Stock means that the parts, engine configuration, etc., must have been standard on some type of T-
6/SNJ/Harvard aircraft as assembled by North American or Canadian manufacturers. A T-6 was considered
a 290 kph (180 mph) aircraft, and these speeds were
typical in the early years of the class. Now, however, an
aircraft that is not at least in the 320 kph (200 mph)
category is not competitive.
International Formula I racing aircraft first raced at the
1947 Cleveland National Air Races. The idea in creating
this class of racing was to provide aircraft that could be
designed and built for a relatively low cost, would be
safe to fly, and would provide close competition. The
Formula I’s continue to meet all of these standards and
more. In the 1960s a rule change permitted engines of
200 cubic inches; at the same time, the class name was
changed to International Formula I.
Formula I craft are normally built and often designed by those who race them. Many others are versions of popular types in which the builder has incorporated some original ideas. A Formula I aircraft is
usually constructed of steel tube and fabric with wood
wings, and all are powered by four-cylinder, 200 cubic
inch engines that deliver 100 horsepower.
Single-place sport and aerobatic biplanes first flew as a
racing class aircraft in that first Reno race in 1964. The
early participants and many that compete today were
built from plans. The majority of these aircraft are
raced by the pilots who built them. Construction materials and methods are much the same as those used in
the Formula I class. By class rules, the average sport biplane is 4.6 to 5.2 meters (15 to 17 feet) long and has a
wingspan of 5.2 to 5.8 meters. They are normally powered by a Lycoming 0–290 engine of 125 horsepower
and are restricted to an engine that displaces no more
than 290 cubic inches.
With continued improvements in both materials
and design, air racing seems likely to grow in popularity.As long as there are at least two airplanes still flying,
there will be an air race somewhere.
Air racing began as a sport about 6 years after Orville