formula 1 air racing
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.
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.
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
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.
performance improved remarkably over the sport's first 21 years, it was
not totally unexpected given the more favourable 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
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.
In closed-circuit air
racing, the course is marked by six pylons, about 30 feet high, and
placed so a pilot can see at least the next two pylons from any point
along the course. There are two straightaways.
The length of the course varies with the type of plane being raced,
from 2-3 miles for Formula Vee planes up to 9-10 miles for planes in
the Unlimited class. In Formula One racing, the course is usually 3
miles in length and each straightaway is a mile long.
The number of planes in a race is generally limited to eight. If more
than eight planes are entered, they may compete in preliminary heats,
with the top finishers in each heat advancing to the finals. In some
events, qualifying laps are used to determine the finalists. Each plane
flies two laps and the average speed for the second lap is used for
There are two types of starts. An air start is similar to the start of
an auto race: The planes get into the air, line up in formation behind
a pace plane, and follow the pace plane to the starting line. Just
beyond the starting line, the pace plane pulls up and the race is on.
In a racehorse start, the planes line up in a takeoff grid on the
runway. Positions in the grid are usually determined by their
qualifying times. At the drop of a flag, the pilots take off and head
for the course. Timing begins when the first plane crosses the start
A race is made up of a predetermined number of laps. In major Formula
One races, there are usually eight laps, for a total of 24 miles.
A plane must pass outside the pylon when cornering. Travelling inside or
over the top of a pylon is a violation that usually results in a time
penalty. Altitude must range from 25 feet to 500 feet, although a pilot
may fly higher for reasons of safety. During an emergency, which is
signalled by a yellow flag from the officials, the lead plane must climb
to at least 300 feet. The other planes must follow to the that altitude
and remain there until the emergency has passed.
The aircraft have to keep a safe distance apart during the race. A
pilot attempting to pass is responsible for ensuring the safety of the
manoeuvre. However, a pilot being passed must stay on course, without
attempting to impede the other plane.
The plane that crosses the finish line first, after having completed
the required number of laps, is the winner, provided no penalties were
incurred during the race.
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