Collings Foundation’s 2017 Race of the Century

Trainers etc

The State of Massachusetts was an early U.S. automotive powerhouse during the industry’s formative years, between the 1890s and 1930s. Over two hundred Bay State companies manufactured new automobiles during these years; some produced only a few examples, while others opened manufacturing and assembly lines. The Collings Foundation, whose headquarters and main Museum is located in Stow, Massachusetts (not too far away from Springfield), has assembled a large and diverse collection of early automobiles to go along with a varied and (mainly) airworthy collection of aircraft. Many of the Collings Foundation’s warbirds are on the road each year, flying across the U.S. on their Wings of Freedom Tour (such as their B-17, B-24, B-25 and P-51 are during 2017). Others are based in Texas or other airports in different regions of the country.

Since 1979, the Museum prides itself for “Supporting Living History” through a trio of presentations to the public. What is rare about many of the airplanes and automobiles that are part of each show is the fact that these cars, trucks and planes are all in running order, and are driven on the grounds of the Museum, or even flown from the turf runway behind the main building.

sprints 2

On the last weekend of July 2017, the annual “Race of the Century” was performed on the well-manicured turf that doubles as the airstrip for a handful of Museum aircraft. Most, if not all of the automobiles were part of the museum’s collection, although a few vehicles (and horses) were owned and operated by local aficionados. Relics like an early bicycle powered by a one-cylinder motor, a 1904 Franklin Type A Roadster, a 1914 Stutz Bearcat and a later model Stanley Steamer (of course, made in Massachusetts) were shown off under their own power, or assisted by human or horse power….

There were a total of five races, which pitted older and newer technologies against each other. A fact-filled discourse, coupled with short vignettes by actors and the drivers themselves, led to a review of a century of transportation… beginning from the 1830’s methods of running on foot and in horse drawn carriages, to bicycles, to early autos and then sprint cars of the 1930s (and a surprise race at the end of the show). A very enjoyable and entertaining afternoon unfolded, which included five races:

Cadillac vs carriage

A farmer on foot raced against an original, locally built two-horse stagecoach (an 1867 Concord NH – built Abbot-Downing Carriage Works original), a suffragette bicyclist, and a 1904 Franklin horseless carriage… The runner won, with the Franklin creeping in dead last. As the (actor who played the) farmer said something along the lines of “nothing will run faster than the man driving it…” we knew that, in one train of thought, those words would be proven incorrect!

Bleriot type XI

The next race pitted a motorized bicycle, a late version of a Stanley Steamer, and a 1908 Cadillac Open Roadster Runabout. The motorized bike, with its better maneuverability, won the race, but the Stanley showed some great speed after a slow acceleration. In fact, Stanley Steamer designs owned many early automotive land speed records before World War I. Here would have been where the Museum’s Bleriot XI could have fit in, but wind velocity scrubbed the inclusion of the battles for speed. As pilot Rob Collings announced, if there was a blade of grass moving, there’d be too much wind to contend with.

With the automobile advancing, the 1920s were represented by a Stutz Bearcat, A British Morgan three-wheeled, motorcycle engine-driven oddity, and a trio of racing and hunting horses… beautiful animals bred for speed. Although the horses made off with a win, the automobile was definitely on the cusp of being reliable comfortable, and now pretty fast. It took some of the fastest race horses to beat the Bearcat and the lighter Morgan.

Massachusetts was and is still home to many local speed demons, and sprint car races were a great form of entertainment and innovation between the First and Second World Wars. Bigger engines, plus better transmissions, tires, suspension and local ingenuity equaled better performance and faster speeds. A quartet of original sprint cars raced around the airstrip, and although the favorite, a Dreyer, failed to win due to fuel flow issues, a great demonstration was put on by the sprinters… from crude and small to refined shapes and bigger platforms that held bigger motors.

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The final winner of the sprint car race went (almost) head to head with a 1930’s vintage Stearman biplane… a PT-17 Kaydet primary trainer whose design was used through the 1940s as well. With a top speed of around one hundred thirty miles per hour, the plane had an edge in velocity on a straight line, but having to go around corners proved to require the plane to go “outside of the lines” of the race track… so a start and elongated course was laid out to handicap the tighter turning auto, and while the race ended closely matched, the car edged out the Stearman in the end. If the “Century” lasted a decade longer… that wouldn’t have been the case though.

A-6F 1

There were a pair of Stearman trainers operating from the field on either side of the racing program this year. One has some very special history; “67” is known to have been assigned for use by the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II flight training, and is still flying today. In fact, you can ride in the same airplane yourself (flight prices vary between the PT-17s and an AT-6D Texan that flies from the field too). A Fiesler Storch takes wing during part of the “Battle For the Airfield” presentation (on October 7th and 8th, 2017) too. Watch here for additional information in an article this Fall about the Museum’s other aircraft at Stow, and its progress in expanding the size of their displays.

Going from human foot power, to horsepower, to bicycles, steam power, and barely making headway with an internal combustion engine, the races finished with an aircraft and sprint cars. In a relatively short time, the Collings Foundation’s display of a century of transportation was an entertaining and insightful way of visualizing history through a series of demonstrations of how things worked during a one hundred year time frame… which itself is nearing a full century ago from today. The fact that almost every artifact ran under its own power and as it was designed to, added to the believability of this production.

Besides being one of three major events that are held at the Museum each year, this 2017 Race of the Century marked the final time that visitors would have to poke their way along a series of narrow roads to the Museum’s grounds. Recently, an agreement with the towns involved has given the go-ahead to building a main entrance road, away from the nearby lakefront houses on those narrow roads. This is another story in itself; for current information about this expansion and what the plans for the Museum’s future, go to: www.collingsfoundation.org .

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