National Air Races

The two marquee events of the National Air Races were the Thompson Trophy closed-course race and the Bendix Trophy transcontinental race. A new generation of daredevil pilots joined Jimmy Doolittle to make air racing and speed an increasingly popular aspect of American culture.

The Pulitzer Trophy Race

The Pulitzer Trophy Race was the marquee event of the National Air Races in the early 1920s. The annual races were meant to be the high point of the air racing year, much as the Indianapolis 500 was for auto racing enthusiasts.

U.S. Army Air Service Lt. Cyrus K. Bettis won the 1925 Pulitzer Trophy Race flying the Curtiss R3C-1 racer. The airplane, the same one displayed in this gallery, was designated R3C-1 when equipped with wheels and R3C-2 when equipped with floats.

Bettis and the R3C-1 were the world’s fastest pilot and airplane in 1925. About the Pulitzer Race he said, “My plane was not traveling like the wind; it was traveling faster than any wind in history.”

Flying the Laird Super Solution, Doolittle won the inaugural 1931 Bendix Trophy race, flying from Burbank, California, to Cleveland, Ohio, at an average speed of 223 miles per hour over a distance of 2,043 miles.

Having won the Schneider, Bendix, and Thompson Trophy races, Jimmy Doolittle had become one of the greatest pilots in air racing history. He retired from racing at the height of his success after his Thompson win. He had begun to doubt the continuing value of air racing in terms of advancing technology versus the lives it cost.

The Thompson Trophy event was a free-for-all in which contestants raced each other around pylons. In the foreground from left to right, Roscoe Turner in his Wedell-Williams, Doolittle in his Gee Bee, and Bob Hall in his Bulldog round a pylon in the 1932 Thompson race.

Jimmy Doolittle passes the Bendix pylon low and fast during the 1932 Thompson Trophy race, which he won at an average speed of 253 miles per hour. It took all of Doolittle’s flying skill to keep the unstable and unforgiving barrel-shaped Gee Bee R-1 Super Sportster under control.