Steve Wittman's Racing History
Steve's first air race was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1926. Steve placedsecond, piloting a Standard J-1. In 1928, Steve piloted a Pheasant H-10biplane in a cross-country air race from New York to Los Angeles, placing12th. out of 38 starters. Steve then placed 4th. in a cross-country racefrom Los Angeles to Cincinnati. Steve flew in numerous other cross countryand pylon races in the Pheasant.
Steve's first raceplane was constructed in 1931 and made its debut at theNational Air Races in Cleveland that year. It was initially powered by anAmerican Cirris engine. Each winter Steve would rebuild the 'Chief', and overthe years the refinements added significantly greater performance.
Nicholas Beazley 'Pobjoy Special'
Steve bought this raceplane in 1933 and subsequently modified it, improvingits speed. He raced it at various events in 1933-34.
In 1934, Steve decided to go for the 'big time' and build a raceplane capableof winning the Thompson Trophy race [the Indianapolis 500 of air racing].Engine choice dictated the design configuration - instead of opting fora high-horsepower radial engine, Steve chose an inline Curtiss D-12 motor,the same type engine used in the Curtiss Schneider-Trophy winning raceplanesof the mid 1920's. Steve's design philosophy emphasised light weight overexotic streamlining, and 'Bonzo' took this approach to its extreme, being dubbedthe 'flying barn door' by the press due to its angular appearance. Nonetheless, 'Bonzo's excellent performance made Steve one of the top contenders for the Thompson Trophy. Steve'sfirst race in 'Bonzo' was the 1935 Thompson Trophy race, in which he placedsecond behind Harold Neumann in 'Mr. Mulligan'.
For 1936, Steve rebuilt 'Bonzo', installing a new landing gear. Since theNational Air Races were in Los Angeles that year, he had a long cross-countryflight to reach Los Angeles. After landing at Cheyanne, Wyoming, anengine backfire caused 'Bonzo' to catch on fire; luckily the fire was estinguishedbefore 'Bonzo' was completely destroyed. But the damage was too great to berepaired for any further racing that year. Steve also rebuilt 'Chief Oshkosh',installing a 4-cylinder Menasco engine. At the 1936 National Air Races inLos Angeles, the 'Chief' sheared a prop flange, forcing Steve to an emergencylanding. The 'Chief' was damaged but was quickly rebuilt and participatedin the Detroit air races later that year.
After the dismal results of the 1936 season, Steve rebuilt both 'Chief Oshkosh'and 'Bonzo'...and 1937 turned out to be Steve's most successful year. Piloting'Chief Oshkosh', Steve placed 2nd. in the Greve Trophy Race and could possiblyhave won had the race gone the full number of laps. Steve in 'Bonzo' was the fastest qualifierfor the Thompson Trophy race, and he led for the first 18 laps of the 20lap race, at an average speed of over 275 Mph. With a huge lead and the race seemingly in the bag, suddenly the enginebegan to run rough, and Steve was forced to throttle back to remain in therace, finishing in 5th. place.
At the Oakland, California races in 1938, Steve blew the engine in 'ChiefOshkosh', and made a forced landing into a marsh, flipping over. This wasthe end of 'Chief Oshkosh' in its prewar configuration. He participated with'Bonzo' in the weekend feature race but dropped out on the sixth lap. At the1938 National Air Races, Steve placed 3rd. in the Thompson Trophy race in 'Bonzo', andin 1939 (the final pre-WW2 Thompson) Steve placed 5th. after cutting a pylonat the race start. In it's final configuration, 'Bonzo' was capable of a levelspeed of 325 Mph. on only 475 horsepower, faster than the top-of-the-lineUS military aircraft then in service. 'Bonzo' is now displayed in the EAAAir Adventure Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
After World War Two, air racing resumed again, but using modified fighterplanes rather than custom-built raceplanes. Steve obtained a surplus BellP-63 fighter and converted it to air racing, clipping the wing tips. Steveplaced 8th. in the 1946 Thompson Trophy race with this aircraft.
The escalating costs of all-out custom designed raceplanes in the late 1930'sencouraged the development of a 'specification' or limited air racing class.But it wasn't until after World War Two that this class got going...andSteve Wittman played a major role. He took the fuselage of 'Chief Oshkosh',built new wings and installed a Continental C-85 engine, and renamed thecraft 'Buster'. The rules for thisracing class did not at that time require a minimum pilot weight, so Wittman selectedBill Brennand to fly 'Buster' in the inaugurial Goodyear class race at the1947 National Air Races. Bill Brennand and 'Buster' won. 'Buster' went on tomany more Goodyear/Continental Trophy races, and was retired after the 1954Danville, NY air races. It is now on display at the National Air & SpaceMuseum in Washington, DC.
Upon returning home from the 1947 National Air Races, Steve immediatelybegan construction of a new raceplane for the Goodyear class, which he named'Bonzo'. (Steve's reuse of the name has been a source of continued confusionto aviation historians ever since!) The new 'Bonzo' made its debut at the1948 National Air Races, finishing 3rd. with Steve at the controls. Thereafter,Steve raced 'Bonzo' at many, many Goodyear/Continental/190 cu. in. class/Formula One air races through the 1950's and 1960's, includingthe first few Reno National Championship air races, before retiring from Formula One competition in1973. In 1980, Steve modified 'Bonzo' with smaller wheels and wheelpants toparticipate in the Lowers-Baker-Falck cross-country air races, winning thefirst race and placing in several subsequent events. During the 1984 L-B-Frace, Steve had a forced landing in a farm field, flipping over. Damageto 'Bonzo' necessitated a rebuild. Steve last flew 'Bonzo' at the 1994 EAA Conventionat Oshkosh, and then donated 'Bonzo' to the EAA. It is now displayed nextto Steve's prewar 'Bonzo' in the EAA Air Adventure Museum.
In the mid-1960's, a new 'specification' air racing class was proposed,which was later named Formula V. Steve was an early proponent of this class;he designed and built his last raceplane "Witt's V' for this class.Due to the scarcity of raceplanes, Steve flew demonstrations with his Witt'sV during the early 1970's while other raceplanes were being built. In 1977,the first 'official' Formula V race was held, at Sturgis Kentucky. Stevewon this race, and was the first National Champion of Formula V. Steve wasunbeatable in early Formula V races, winning every one through the 1981Cincinnati races. In 1989, at age 85 Steve came out of retirement to raceone more time at the Daytona Skyfest Formula V races. Steve won the initialrace heat and placed third in the Championship race, his final closed-coursepylon race. 'Witt's V' is now displayed at the Wittman Hangar on Pioneer Airfieldat the EAA Air Adventure Museum.
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