Lavier And Turner Duel For Lead
The 1939 Thompson Trophy RaceThe 1939 Thompson, again for 300 miles, promised to be the fastest and most competitive of any to date. Roscoe Turner had turned a lap at 299 mph in qualifying, and said that the Number 29 Meteor, still had something left. Again the Marcoux-Bromberg team had made several refinements on the Rider R-3, and word leaked out that pilot Earl Ortman had turned a hand-timed practice lap at 307 mph by overspeeding the Twin Wasp junior to 2800 rpm, using a new three blade Hamilton constant speed propeller. He told friends that he thought he could stay with Turner.
Then there was the team of Tony LeVier piloting Bill Schoenfeldt's Rider R-4 Nnumber 70 Firecracker, with the Menasco C6S-4 now hopped up to an estimated 500+ hp, and said to be capable of 350 mph on an alcohol base fuel. Harry Crosby had his CR-4 racer running the best ever. and Steve Wittman was back once again with more cooling improvements on Bonzo. Art Chester had made numerous refinements on his Menasco engine powered Goon, and there was much speculation that he might place high in the Thompson, after a nip-and-tuck battle with LeVier in the earlier Greve race. Finally Joe Mackey appeared once again in the old 1932 Wedell Turner, believe it or not. By 1939 it was too slow to win, so Mackey was resigned to cruising the old rig for as much prize money as possible.
The 1939 Thompson race was a classic example of the inefficient pilot-to-crew communications that plagued the 1930s air racers. In fact, this problem may have profoundly affected the outcome of the race.
The race was postponed one day due to a torrential rain, and the planes were flagged off on a wet, soggy grass field the next day with a brisk wind blowing from the first pylon at the north end of the field-so no scattering pylon was required. But the soft ground lengthened takeoff runs to a scary degree for the planes without variable-pitch propellers. Turner again purposely held back at the flag, out of the traffic, planning to use his speed advantage to catch up later on. Art Chester and Steve Wittman, with their light weight and switch pitch props, were first off the ground and around the No. I pylon, with Earl Ortman right behind. LeVier was slow getting away because of his heavy fuel load, but he quickly picked up speed as the load eased. By the fifth lap he had pulled past Ortman, Wittman and Chester into the lead. Meanwhile Turner had cut a pylon on his first lap, and went around to recircle. This put him way behind the field right at the start, and forced him to use more power than he had planned. But he came up steadily through the pack, finally passing LeVier into the lead on the ninth lap.
But here's where the communications glitch occurred. LeVier never did see Turner at the beginning of the race, when he was slow getting away and when recircling the pylon on the first lap. LeVier had his hands full getting the grossly overloaded Firecracker off the ground and then cranking up the landing gear-and he just assumed Turner was long gone. So when Turner breezed past him on the ninth lap LeVier thought he was being lapped. With no ground communication to tell him different, LeVier figured if Turner could lap him in nine laps there was no way he could hope to catch Turner even with full power. So LeVier settled down to his usual "race cruise" setting-3200 rpm and 55 in. manifold pressure-and just kept on turning easy laps around 280 mph average, enough to stay well ahead of third place Art Chester. But all the while LeVier's plane was potentially capable of laps over 300 mph at 3500 rpm and 72 in.
And that's the way it ended. Turner won at 282.5 mph, with LeVier second at 272.5 mph-and Ortman four laps behind at 254.4 mph. Art Chester was running in third place for much of the race, at lap speeds around 265 mph. But as in prior races he was gradually blowing his oil out the breathers, and it was gone by the 18th lap. Ortman inherited third place. Wittman finished in fourth place, ahead of Harry Crosby by the clock, averaging around 250 mph. But Wittman had unknowingly cut the first pylon at the start, and was penalized one lap after the race-which left him in fifth place at 241 mph average, behind Crosby.Joe Mackey brought up the rear in the old Wedell.
The Turner-LeVier skirmish in that last prewar Thompson might have turned out differently had communication been better. In fact LeVier admitted later that his plane owner, Bill Schoenfeldt, was more than a little ticked after the race because he had failed to detect the Turner pylon cut, and didn't race him all out on the late laps. But then, could that little Menasco have turned out 500+ horsepower at 3500 rpm for 150 or 200 miles? Turner might have run him right into the ground with his big 1,200 hp Twin Wasp. We'll never know.
As it turned out, the 1939 race was the last prewar Thompson. There were several reasons. Gathering war clouds in Europe. The Henderson brothers managing team resigned for other business interests in California. But most important, the Thompson prize money didn't attract the $75,000 or so it would require to build a plane that could beat Roscoe Turner's Meteor. The jolly Colonel had the last laugh after all.
Another Version Of That Historical RaceThe Thompson race was the last of these great races, sometimes referred to as "The Golden Age Of Air Racing. War was looming in Europe. Great Britain and France had declared war on Nazi Germany.
The race started a day late on Sept. 4, 1939. Torrential rains washed out the race the day before and the majority of the spectators were back at work. As it was, those that were there, witnessed the most spectacular air race in American history.
Seven airplanes took off in a "jackrabbit" start. Roscoe Turner flying the No. 29 Meteor made a late start. He was favored to win, and his airplane probably was the fastest airplane in the world at that time. Nothing in the US Military was equal. Somehow, Turner missed the first pylon and was way behind the other racers.
Tony Levier flying the Shoenfeldt Firecracker No. 70 had jumped to the lead. Turner had to circle back for the missed pylon. He had no trouble passing six of the racers. However, Tony Levier also had a very fast airplane and was almost ready to lap several others. Turner caught up with Levier on lap nine and succeeded in passing him.
From here on historians disagree on details of the race. Turner said that he lapped all the other racers, while others say he never lapped Levier and Levier stayed just behind Turner to take second place. Tony Levier, who was not short on self esteem, said later that when he saw Turner behind him on lap nine he figured that Turner had lapped him and throttled back to save his engine and fuel, he added that he could have stayed ahead of Turner. Levier also indicated that he too lapped all the other racers. Levier's average speed was 272.5 miles per hour.
After screaming around the last pylon (see the reenactment) Turner thrilled the crowd crossing the finish line in front of the stands at what some say was 350 miles per hour. This was an unheard of speed at that time. Even with the missed pylon, Turner averaged 282.5 miles per hour for the three hundred mile race. However, the results don't lie, Roscoe Turner won the race collecting the $16,000 prize money, and Tony Levier at second place collected $8,000 for Bill Shoenfeldt who owned the Firecracker.
Roscoe Turner never raced again. He started a flying service, and during the war trained military pilots.
Tony Levier later was hired by Lockheed Aircraft as an Engineering Test Pilot. He had an illustrious career with Lockheed. He never lost his love for air racing. After WW2 he purchased a surplus Lockheed P-38 and raced it for several years.
There is a saying among pilots: "There a lot of old pilots, and a lot of bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots." These "Golden Era" pilots were young and bold. Flying at these speeds just a few hundred feet off the ground left no room for pilot error. Flying these airplanes required skills to match the airplane's sometime erratic behavior. However, some never learned the skills, and died doing what they loved!
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