Me, “Whit” and Pylon 3

Six pylons; eight laps; two heats per day; six planes going 170 mph at fifty feet off the deck; what can go wrong? That’s what I thought as I volunteered to be a pylon judge on pylon number three. The year was 1993 and the Dayton Air Show was holding its first air race in sixty-nine years; the last one being the National Air Races held at Wright Field in 1924, a precursor to the legendary National Air Races flown in Cleveland during the golden years or air racing in the 30s’. Jim Vliet was the then secretary of the Formula V Air Racing Association and ramrod of the event, and the man tasked to train judges how to properly judge. However, Jim’s status was soon eclipsed by a more eminent presence.
The whole concept of Formula V was racing on the cheap. No twenty-eight cylinder corncob 3,500 horse Reno rounds’, where a single jug costs much as a Piper Cub and requires the backing of a real estate magnate or oil man to fund. Nope, originally called midget racing, V-racing was the common man’s entry into the fast and furious world of pylon racing with a maximum of FOUR cylinders and a measly 96 cubic inches instead of a whopping 4,362. No geared prop allowed. No turbocharging or boost permitted. Simple power and exceptional skill was the ticket to winning and one man and one man alone was the undisputed king. He was the founder of Formula V racing and his name was Steve Wittman, the man I immediately recognized standing next to me in the hangar.
This was nothing new to Witt’. Back in the heyday of the Cleveland Races he was the cheap man out, flying his four-cylinder Menasco powered “Chief Oshkosh” against the likes of well-funded pilots flying big-engine monsters. In 1937, he took second place in the Greve Trophy Race and was the fastest qualifier in the Thompson Race until his engine began to run rough. He stilled placed 5th against steely-eyed racers such as Earl Ortman and the charismatic Colonel Roscoe Turner. His plane might have had less horsepower and less costly than a Weddell-Williams rocket or Granville Brothers killer GB, but his heart was that of a tiger on the prowl and as keen a competitor as any man in the air.
Steve Wittman flew to win. He sure didn’t look it. Tall, lanky and bespectacled; he reminded me of the nerdy farm guy that taught FFA in my high school with a droning dissertation on hog-to-feed cost ratios. Unlike Colonel Turner, dressed in a powder blue Vice Air Marshal uniform, Witt’ looked like a hick in greasy coveralls about to swap out a throw-out bearing in a ’32 Ford. Looks truly belie. Now, 57 years later he turned and shook my hand – My hand! He was going to personally oversee the judges at each pylon and ensure that we knew what to look for. I was giddy. No kidding. Here I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of an air race icon standing next to an air race pylon on an air racecourse. It was surreal.
Was it Dayton 1924 or Cleveland 1937? He arrived via buggy, got out and ambled over to me, shoulders stooped from age, moving at the deliberate gait of an old man seeking not to fall, but when I looked into his eyes. It was ‘tiger’ all over again, the years vanishing in a millisecond as a 450 horse Stearman act started up close by; could have been, the Turner-Laird Meteor firing up or Ortman’s Marcoux-Bromberg. For Witt’, he was in his element. For me it was nirvana. He gave me a quick briefing to watch for cuts and not look around, awed by the noise and feeling that instead of watching a race, I was in the race. Look up. Focus on the pylon top and remember what plane it was cutting inside the pylon. A close cut could spell the difference from winning, coming in second, or trailing third as penalty time was whacked off the clock. Witt’ knew that better than any man on the course. He hugged those pylons tighter than a mouse’s ear. Even the young Turks in V-racing respected the old man. Nice guy on the ground – Vicious in the air.
After the learning lecture, we had a little time waiting for the buggy to return. There is so much I wanted to ask. What was Turner really like, or why in 1934 he mounted a Curtiss 12-cylinder inline on Bonzo when everyone else was going for big radials. I mean, what was it like to fly in a gaggle of other aerial cutthroats at better than 275 mph. He talked and I listened as I took in one of those brief moments that you only ever dream about, like being alone on a basketball court with Michael Jordan shooting the breeze. The buggy pulled up and I naturally asked him to autograph my judge’s notes and off he went to pylon four. The white flag fell and then the green. Race on.
I did my job and saw no cuts as they screamed by at better than 170 mph. The checkered flag ended the race. Over 20 years later I can’t even tell you who won. All I can tell you is, “I talked to Steve Wittman on a race course near Pylon 3 at the Dayton Air Show…and I’ll never forget it.”

Steve Bill, “Whit” at Pylon 3