Air Racer Roy T. Minor
Occasionally this blog shares historical racing stories other than open-wheel automobile racing. Today we share an air racing story with an open-wheel racing connection
During the decade of the nineteen thirties, airplane racing rivaled the Indianapolis 500-mile race for popularity. From the earliest days people fascinated by racing airplanes and automobiles, and in the early part of the twentieth century, Berna “Barney” Oldfield raced his 140 horsepower Christie automobile against America’s first stunt pilot Lincoln Beachey and his Curtiss pusher biplane in events across the country.
The first air races were held in the United States near Los Angeles in 1910, and the sport took a major leap forward in 1920. Famed publisher Ralph Pulitzer sponsored the Pulitzer Trophy Race and the Pulitzer Speed Trophy race which in 1929 became the National Air Races held in Cleveland Ohio.
There were also many regional air races such as the ones held at the Van Nuys Municipal Airport on December 15 1929. Nearly 15,000 spectators watched as Lt. Howard Murchie won a nine-plane ‘Australian pursuit’ race in a Great Lakes sport trainer powered by a 90-horsepower American Cirrus air-cooled four-cylinder inline engine.
A photo of Roy Minor from the March 29 1935 Los Angeles Times
Third place in the December 1929 race went to 27-year old local resident Roy T. Minor, a Southern California native who ran his own automobile garage in Van Nuys before he became enamored with aviation. Minor worked as a stunt pilot on the Howard Hughes film “Hell’s Angels” and was a member of the “Buzzards” stunt flying troupe led by Dick Grace.
During the nineteen twenties stunt flying was the only profession that could rival auto racing for its danger. In a short span of years, eighteen well-known pilots were killed and countless others maimed. Two pilots and one mechanic died just during the filming of “Hell’s Angels” alone.
The Van Nuys air race held on March 9 193 was a 15-lap affair around a triangular 2-1/2 mile course, Murchie won again, but this time, Minor improved to finish in second place. Later that year Minor flew his own Waco Model 10 powered by a Wright J5 radial engine in the ‘California Goodwill Air Tour.’ During the tour in which a group of 40 pilots flew their machines from Los Angeles to San Diego via Yuma Arizona, Minor met San Francisco aviation enthusiast Alden Brown.
The Alden Brown plane in 1931
Brown was building a monoplane designed by Stanford University aerodynamic professor Elliot Reid, a man who originally had worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) before he joined the Stanford faculty in 1927. The plane Reid designed was tiny, just nineteen feet long with a similar length wingspan powered by a custom-built supercharged Menasco “Buccaneer” engine a 480 cubic inch six-cylinder engine that produced a reported 300 horsepower. Brown and Minor claimed the small plane which weighed just 1100 pounds was capable of 310 miles per hour (MPH), an amazing speed for its time.
Reportedly the mysterious aircraft was funded by Harry Hartz, the 1926 American Automobile Association (AAA) National Champion and owner of Billy Arnold’s 1930 Indianapolis 500-mile race winning car. The claim of Hartz’ $30,000 investment might have been an exaggeration but he had helped Menasco develop a supercharging system. The tiny plane debuted at the 1931 Los Angeles International Air Fiesta but the author was unable to find its results.
The Alden Brown plane in 1932
By the time the tiny Alden Brown plane appeared at the 1932 National Air Races in Cleveland, Hartz had scored another second Indianapolis win with driver Fred Frame. Brown had the little plane with tail number NR17Y sponsored by the Gilmore Oil Company and assigned race number 203 shipped via rail to Cleveland where he Minor and their crew assembled the plane in secret.
The Thompson Trophy
Minor, who lived with his wife Theresa and two children at 3937 Sunswept Drive in Studio City, finally appeared on the airfield on September 6 1932 to make his qualifying run for the 100-mile Thompson Trophy which was a ‘free-for-al’ race sponsored by Thompson Products a leading aviation and automotive parts supplier, nowadays known as TRW.
With no prior testing, the plane taxied down the runway, briefly lifted off the ground but quickly came back down and nosed over. The plane ground to a halt in a cloud of dust with a bent propeller and smashed landing gear, but Minor climbed out unhurt. After a tow truck lifted the wreckage Brown and Minor realized that the plane was beyond repair.
The Howard DGA-4 "Mike"
Minor appeared at the 1933 National Air Races held at Mines Field in Los Angeles at the controls of slightly larger low-wing monoplane built by Ben Howard and his partner, Gordon Israel. The plane Minor flew was one of two nearly identical Howard DGA-4 planes; Minor’s plane was known as “Mike;” the other plane was known as “Ike.” The Howard DGA-4 was powered by an unsupercharged Menasco ‘Buccaneer’ 485-cubic inch 6-cylinder inline engine that produced 200 horsepower.
Roscoe Turner's Wedell-Williams model 44
Minor and “Mike” finished the controversial 1933 Thompson Trophy race in fourth place behind three much-larger Wedell-Williams model 44 monoplanes each powered by massive 1690-cubic inch 9-cylinder Pratt & Whitney radial engines that developed over 1100 horsepower. The apparent race winner, famed aviator Colonel Roscoe Turner’s Gilmore-sponsored plane completed the race at an average speed of 241 MPH but officials disqualified Turner for allegedly cutting inside one of the course pylons during the race. In the revised finishing order, Minor and “Mike” moved up to third place with an average speed of 199.87 MPH.
For 1934 the National Air Race returned to Cleveland’s Municipal Airport for a four-day meet. Louis Greve, President of the Cleveland Pneumatic Tool Company and the Cleveland National Air Races organizing committee, instituted the new $25,000 Louis W. Greve Trophy Race. The Greve Race was open to both men and women pilots but the airplanes were required to be equipped with inline engines of 550 cubic-inches (or less) displacement to encourage more lower-power aircraft construction.
The Brown B-2
Roy Minor flew a Brown airplane but this one was known as the B-2 was one built by a different Brown; it was the creation of Lawrence Brown from Los Angeles. The plane known as “Miss Los Angeles” was powered by a Menasco B6 engine fed by a single Stromberg carburetor with the output rated at 160 horsepower. To counteract the lack of horsepower, the B-2 was built with a minimal frontal area and tremendous attention to streamlining. Under Minor’s command, the bright scarlet red plane with gold leaf numbers and lettering won the three-heat Greve trophy race with an average speed of over 213 MPH.
Minor and the Brown B-2 competed in another preliminary race the “Shell Speed Dash” in which racers made four straight-line passes over a 2-kilometer course and the racer with the highest average speed was declared the winner. Minor finished fifth in the Dash behind four of the mighty Wedell-Williams model 44 racers; the fastest was flown by Doug Davis who averaged over 302 MPH.
Matched against the Wedell-Williams entries, Minor and the Brown B-2 was outgunned in the 10-lap ‘free-for-all’ 1934 Thompson Trophy race. Before more than 100,000 spectators, leader Davis the 1929 Thompson Trophy winner ran into trouble rounding one of the pylons on the eighth lap; his model 44 spun into the ground and Davis was killed. Roscoe Turner won the Thompson Trophy with an average speed of 248 MPH while Minor finished in second place with a 214 MPH average speed.
The Gee Bee R-1
In late 1934, Minor who worked as a pilot for Western Airlines, traveled to Springfield Massachusetts to test the hybrid ‘Gee Bee’ Super Sportster R-1/2 race plane built by the Granville brothers (Zantford, Thomas, Robert, Mark and Edward). Jimmy Doolittle had won the 1932 Thompson Trophy in the R-1 but it crashed in Indianapolis in July 1933 and killed pilot Russell Boardman. The R-1 was rebuilt using the wings from the crashed R-2; the Granville brothers built 15 racing planes all of which crashed and killed eight pilots including Zantford.
Minor had difficulty landing the notorious 17-foot long “Gee Bee” R-1 which was powered by a Pratt & Whitney 1,344-cubic inch 9 cylinder radial engine. When Minor finally landed the plane it too far down the wet runway; the plane overran the runway, slid across the wet grass into a drainage ditch. The R-1 was severely damaged but Roy Minor walked away from the crash.
Roy Minor would not live to race again in the National Air Races, but his death was not the result of an aviation accident. In late February 1935, Roy entered California hospital for an appendectomy, but after the operation he developed pneumonia. Minor fought for three weeks but succumbed to a heart attack on Wednesday March 27 at just 31 years of age. At his funeral at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park on April 1, Minor was remembered as “the greatest stunt pilot of the all” according an article in the Los Angeles Times.
Lawrence Brown sold B-2 to Marion McKeen an aviation school owner from Hollywood in order to finance his new creation. McKeen finished second in the B-2 in the 1935 Greve Trophy race. He raced in the 1935 and 1936 Thompson Trophy races and finished fifth and sixth places respectively. After the plane failed to finish the Thompson Trophy race in 1937, “Miss Los Angeles” was fitted with new wings and retractable landing gear for 1938, but the gear failed after a test flight and the damaged plane was withdrawn.
The plane returned in 1939 with the original wings replaced and sponsorship from Standard Oil’s Red Crown gasoline brand for new pilot Lee Williams from Redondo Beach California. The engine apparently failed after Williams took off of the Louis Greve Trophy race and the B-2 nosed into the ground before a crowd of 60,000 horrified fans. Rescuers removed Williams from the wreckage of the plane but the 31-year old pilot was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital.
The National Air Races in Cleveland were not held between 1939 and 1946 due to World War Two. Hollywood stunt pilot Paul Mantz who had married Roy Minor’s widow won the 1948 and 1949 cross-country Bendix Trophy races which finished in Cleveland.