Air Racing With Danger: A History Of Aerial Motorsports

Joel Harvey

Motorsports is dangerous.

No matter how safe you make it, driving vehicles at ridiculously high-speeds – against others doing exactly the same – is taking one hell of a risk. And if you thought it was only cars that had all the dangerous fun, then you’re wrong. Because air racing is even more of a perilous Motorsport.

Ever since the birth of aviation in 1903, humanity has been obsessed with those magnificent flying machines. You can’t blame us. These incredible achievements in engineering allowed us, mere mortals, to take to the skies like gods. With the invention of the aircraft, we broke the rules of nature and we opened up a world full of possibilities. And one of those possibilities, was air racing.

Early Air Racing

It didn’t take long from the Wright Brothers’ first foray into constructing airplanes before thoughts turned to competition. In 1909, the world’s first ever air race was held in France. The Grande Semaine d’Aviation de la Champagne was an event that celebrated all things aviation, and it was there that the first Gordon Bennett trophy race took place.

For 5 years after, this time-trial competition drew crowds of thousands; all keen to witness the attempts of pilots to outdo each other and push early planes to their limits in speed.

The Gordon Bennett trophy would all but cease after the breakout of the First World War, but air racing would continue. America grew to love the spirit of flying competitions, and began their own institution of air racing: National Air Races.

Over the twenties and thirties, these events across the States would become a flagship flag-waver for this burgeoning sport. But once again, global events would play a part in slowing air racing down. The Second World War would lead to major air racing events being grounded around the world.

It wasn’t until 1964, and the birth of the Reno Air Races, when the sport would take-off again.

Fatal Racing In Reno

It was above the skies of Reno, Neveda where air racing would take more risks with lives than ever before. There had been deaths in the sport prior to this, but competition at the Reno Air Races would be deadlier than past air races. Since 1975, a total of 19 pilots have been killed in races at this event; one of the worst years being 2007, when three pilots died whilst racing in only four days.

The 2011 Reno Air Races event would prove even more fatal though. When a North American P-51D Mustang plane rounded a pylon during a race, it spiraled out of control and crashed into spectators.

11 people were killed, including the pilot, in this tragic accident. These deadly incidents were proof that air racing was far from safe. Like the early days of F1, huge risks were associated with not only competing in air racing, but in watching the sport as well.

Perhaps though, that’s part of the appeal. Some people yearn for danger in their Motorsports, and with F1 heavily conscious of playing it safe now (and rightly so), air racing could perhaps satisfy those risky urges.

There are, however, much safer iterations of air racing today. And an upcoming version of air racing is rapidly growing in popularity.

Drone Races & The Future of Air Races

Much like the advent of planes and air racing, drones have followed a similar path. The invention of drones have represented a huge leap in technological advancement. And like planes, us humans had a thirst to use them to compete in racing.

In drone racing, competitors fly their drones via FPV (first-person view) cameras. Since the first amateur races in 2014, the sport has flourished and has lit the imagination of a new generation of pilots.

Exciting national races over inventive courses have seen a seismic growth in interest in the sport. Along with eSports, drone racing has the potential to become a huge mainstream sport – one that is uniquely tailored to modern audiences. And it’s entirely safe too. Maybe for some thrill-seekers though, that’s not a good thing.

With the Red Bull Air Race now flying the flag for competitive air races, and the Reno Air Races still proving popular (despite the tragedies), air racing is far from finished. The evolution of the sport might see the drones drawing new audiences, but the sheer thrill of actual planes racing each other will always be on display.

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