From 1929 to the late 1940’s Cleveland, Ohio was a major player in the early days of the US National Air Races (a testing and proving ground for new aviation technology). Initially from the first race in 1920 until 1928, the races alternated between various cities such as New York, Omaha, Detroit, Dayton, Philadelphia and Spokane. Races were then held in Cleveland along the shore of Lake Erie in 1929, 1931, 1932, 1934, 1935 and 1937 to 1939 before a break was put in place during World War Two (Chicago hosted the race in 1930 and Los Angeles in 1928, 1933 and 1936).
Why Cleveland? Local businessmen such as Louis W. Greve and Frederick C. Crawford who were involved in the aviation parts industry, along with the city and numerous local businesses and the aviation industry provided the support and finances to host the races. They also contributed to providing sizable cash prizes for the racers. The first Cleveland race in 1929 was a great success with over 100,000 spectators and the event turned a sizable profit. Other cities involved in the races were not as successful as Cleveland, so with the support of the National Aeronautical Association who licensed the races, it remained the air racing centre for the majority of the 1920’s and 30’s.
Following the break during World War Two the races resumed in Cleveland from 1946 to 1949 with the dynamic addition of more powerful ex-military aircraft such as the De Havilland Mosquito, Lockheed P-38 Lightning, North American P-51 Mustang, Supermarine Spitfire and Vought F4U Corsair. Can you imagine the excitement these low and fast races must have created when aviation was only just starting to take a foothold in history?
The past glory of the Cleveland National Air Races can be relived in The Crawford Auto Aviation Collection exhibition at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland. Here they have on display historic racing aircraft and memorabilia. The car collection on display is also well worth a mention. There are some incredible vehicles to see!
Unfortunately in 1949 a crash occurred during the Cleveland races resulting in a P-51 Mustang racer crashing into a house near the course. The pilot and 2 occupants of the house died as result of the crash (a mother and child were in the house). Following this incident the races were suspended from 1950 to 1963. This hiatus and incident must have meant Cleveland lost their hold on the race as upon resumption in 1964 the race was held in Reno, Nevada. The 1949 race looks like it was an incredible event with an amazing array of aircraft participating in the races and it is a shame it had to end in that way (take a look at this link for a great summary of the race, the aircraft and the events that transpired throughout the day).
Today Reno remains as the only location for the annual National Air Races. In a spooky and sad reminder of the past, in 2011 a modified P-51 again crashed at the races tragically killing the pilot and 10 spectators plus injuring 69 others. This could have spelt the end of the National Air Races forever, but luckily safety changes were made and the following year the race was held again and continues to do so. I am glad such a unique race can continue on. It is a link to aviation heritage (old warbirds continue to race just like the old days) and I can tell you from my own experience at the air races in 2012 it is quite an event and very, very exciting!