The Very Best In Aviation and Air Race News and Photography

Remembering Dwight Thorn  - 2002 NAG Banquet Revisited

Editor's note: In 2002, the air racing community celebrated Dwight Thorn's life at the National Air Racing Group's (NAG) banquet. With Dwight's cooperation, we asked visitors to this site to submit questions to this great engine builder in an "Ask The Doctor" feature. The results of those questions and some of Dwight's answers to them are contained on this archived page from the "history books" of AAFO.COM. We invite you to celebrate Dwight's life by spending a few minutes or an hour or two to read these pages and listen to his words from that night in 2002.


Dwight Thorn's farewell(?), "Ask The Doctor," Charlie Tucker's Thompson Trophy Days, Pete Law, Larry Rengsdorff, "Kerch," "The Tige," "Mr. Furious" and "The Taz," highlight fifty years of Air Racing at the annual NAG Banquet in Oakland, California.

"Eagle feathers
talk to me:
they say,
touch us to your lips
and know the way
we knew the wind."

— Choctaw Eagle Dance Song
from "Four Choctaw Songs"
by Jim Barnes*

If you could have a conversation with an eagle, what would you ask him...and what would he say in return?

click here to enlarge imageRhetorical questions, perhaps...but we went with your questions and came away with Dwight Thorn's answers, at the National Air-Racing Group's (NAG) Annual Banquet, held at Francesco's Restaurant, in Oakland, California, on Saturday night, January 19, 2002.

Thorn, the legendary Master of the Merlins, who formally announced his retirement from Air Racing at the twilight event, was the night's honoree — a legendary eagle among eagles — one who answered those selected questions posed in the week before the event by AAFO.COM's readers and contributors.

Joining Dwight at the podium during the evening's festivities were toastmaster Gene "Sandy" Sanders, legendary Thompson Trophy racer Charles "Chuck" Tucker, friend and competitor Bill Kerchenfaut, Lloyd Hamilton's Crew Chief — Larry Rengsdorff, retired Lockheed engineer Pete Law, Strega captain Bill "Tiger" Destefani, Unlimited Class President Art "Mr. Furias" Vance, and Tom "The Taz" Dwelle, as rambunctious a group click here to enlarge imageof speakers, pilots and engineers, as you'll find in any pit, at any air race, ever held on the North American continent.

Here at NAG's cozy, Air Racing affair, they not only gave their autographs, they sat graciously, side-by-side with you, rubbed elbows, and shared their tales, reverent and irreverent alike.

All in all, it was fifty years of Air Racing, from the Thompson Trophy days of the post-World War II era, to the present day Reno National Championship Air Races, served up with fresh salad, Chicken Parmesan, Roast Beef, green vegetables, and sweetened in the end with French Vanilla ice cream topped off with a lemon cookie — and such wonderful stories.

Like Thorn's description of the start of the decades-long relationship between Dwight Thorn and "Tiger" Destefani:

click here to enlarge image"Well, way back, I think, you and I started — and I want to know, 'cause I get confused — is you know...back in '84, '85, even '83: was you romancing me, more than I was romancing you, or...!?"

...and the discoveries made by Thompson Trophy racer Chuck Tucker, in selecting the P-63 King Cobra over the North American P-51D Mustang for racing:

"I found out that, according to what I thought, the P-63 — it was like a flying chicken coop, it was so full of holes — but it was a little bit faster than the P-51 on the deck, and when it came to deciding which airplane I wanted to buy, it was an easy choice, because they were a thousand bucks apiece, and fifty-ones were thirty-five hundred, and the P-38s I think, was twenty-five hundred."

...or "Tiger" explaining the difficulties encountered in pursuing "retirement:"

click here to enlarge image"Yeah, I've actually found out — over the last three years — that it's a sonofabitch to try to get retired. I didn't know it was so hard to retire!"

...or, according to Bill Kerchenfaut, the time that he and Dwight Thorn were exchanging technical secrets and an unwelcome news reporter tried to tape their conversation:

"...and Dwight looks at this guy and the guy's not getting the hint. You know, like: 'Maybe you shouldn't be recording this sort of thing, much less hearing it.' And finally, Dwight grabs the microphone from the guy and he just screams the 'F' word into the microphone about three times, and he handed it back to the guy...and really made that fellow mad!"

For Thorn, the night's levity was the culmination of thirty-seven and a half years involvement in both Air Racing and Merlin engines, though his love for the Merlin actually click here to enlarge imagebegan some ten years earlier, at Lake Washington, near Seattle, during the Mount Baker hydroplane races. According to Thorn, " I vividly remember hanging on the pit fence of the Mount Baker pits in approximately 1954, watching 'Slo-Mo4' dance across Lake Washington. Oh, the sound of that Merlin!"

"As you will recall," said Thorn, "most all of the other hydros ran Allison engines with collector style exhaust stacks. What a song those twelve stacks on the Merlin sang!" He added, "When Mr. Alex Henshaw, the renown British World War II test pilot wrote about the war years, he chose the title 'Sigh, For A Merlin'."

In the 1950s, Thorn's youth kept him out of the pits at early racing events, due to the age restrictions of the time. Said Thorn, "(19)'54 — that’s only six years after the Cleveland Air Races. When you're a teenager trying to find a way over the pit fence, six years is a lifetime."

Reflecting on those early years, Thorn shared two, inseparable epiphanies: "Little did I know that, one; once you get in the racing scene, the fence surrounds the fanatics and click here to enlarge imagekeeps them on display for the more stable members of society; and two, forty-five years later, I would look back on my activities and realize that the Merlin engine has been the focal point of my adult life."

In discussing the longevity of the Rolls Royce creation, Thorn likened the Merlin to an up and coming movie star handed an Oscar-caliber manuscript. Said Thorn, "The Merlin is going to outlive me, and it started life in the early 1930s. Surely, its performance was a factor, but then it had a great script. Like the F-86 Sabrejet had Korea, the Merlin was well-born to star in World War II, in what have become historic aircraft: Hurricane, Spitfire, Mustang, plus many multi-engine aircraft.

Its Championship form has been displayed in equipment operating on land, sea and air. The Merlin and its big brother the "R," of Schneider Cup fame, have run in LSR (Land Speed Record) machines.

Of course, to star in a great script, you had to have the right stuff. The Merlin had it. It was designed with the strength and bearing sizing to permit its output to increase click here to enlarge imagefour-fold in its long life. Stanley Hooker's brilliant concept of mounting two super-charger impellers on a common shaft was a major boost to the Merlin's output. The resulting two-stage super-charger with after cooling allowed the fighters to intercept the enemy's aircraft at high-altitude. And most important: the Merlin powered Mustang could escort our bombers to Berlin and back. This had a major effect on the outcome of World War II."

Thorn added that, "In post-war years, the Merlin powered Mustangs and Spitfires were in service around the world. The Merlin also powered transports for BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) and TCA (Trans-Canada Airlines)."

(Note: One such transport was the Canadian-built Northstar, a licensed production of the Douglas DC-4 equipped with four, Rolls Royce Merlin engines, which generally sounded like a squadron of Spitfires scrambling from an airfield en route to a fight with the Luftwaffe.)

Thorn likewise noted the historic Merlin connections between the Thompson Trophy races of the late 1940s, hydroplane racing in the fifties and sixties, and their aerial click here to enlarge imagecounterpart's return in 1964. "After the brief Cleveland Air Racing era of 1946 to '49," said Thorn, "the Merlins that were surplused found use in Unlimited Hydro Racing. Modifications learned in this arena were very helpful when Bill Stead — a very accomplished Unlimited Hydro Racer — brought Air Racing to Reno in 1964. In the brief decade (from) 1954 to 1964, the Merlin became the powerplant most desired by boat racers. The toll paid in destroyed engines still brings pain to the Mustang owners, however, gains in the use of ADI, N20 Injection, High Lead racing fuels and many modifications to the lube systems and supercharger drives, made power settings of 4,500 RPM and 120" MAP (Note: Manifold Air Pressure) common place, so there were benefits, too."

Thorn was attracted to Reno Air Racing from the beginning. Said Thorn: "I quit my regular job at The Boeing Company since I could not resist the chance to be part of the Reno Air Races. I had seen my first P-51 in real life at the 1960 Paine Field Air Show," adding that, "It was Ben Hall's aircraft with that wild, psychedelic paint job that Ron McKenzie had inspired when Ben was not looking. Ron was known for startling his customers!"

The influence on Thorn was immediate: "I was smitten with the beauty & sound of the P-51, so when Chuck Lyford came along, I was easy pickings."

Thorn's 1964 initiation into Air Racing gave him early ties to some of the greats in racing, like famed Ole Bardahl, of Bardahl Oil. According to Thorn, "I will say that Ole Bardahl click here to enlarge imagewas the old country type — I think I was too young to really appreciate him fully. He told great stories of the 1920s. Part of our big $6,000 sponsorship was access to the race boat engine shop and the secrets to be shared by the crew!!! Naturally, the wheeler-dealers — Chuck Lyford and Ron Musson — had never bothered to tell the crew! So, they eyed me with acute suspicion."

Thorn was quickly impressed, none the less. Said Thorn of those early days, "The Seattle race teams guarded their secrets closely. Ole had a mature Crew Chief, Leo Vandenburg, he was about forty I think. The rest of the crew was a bunch of wild teenagers. They could sure thrash!"

Thorn cited one of the risks the crew took to win a race: "One of their more daring on the spot modifications was at the Lake Tahoe race in '64 or '65. They felt that more boost was needed from the Merlin to win that high altitude race (6000 feet +), as Harrah's click here to enlarge image'Tahoe Miss' was very close in qualifying times. So race day morning, the crew decides to decrease the clearance of the first stage super-charger impeller, as this would increase the output," he noted, adding: "...but too close, and the impeller brushes the inlet when it heats up. KABOOM!!!" Thorn indicated that it was a "Dicey decision for race day morning!"

Thorn reminisced about the Bardahl crew's deliberations. "What to use for shim material?," said Thorn. "The sheet metal from a five gallon Bardahl oil can is about .015 thick. The shim was cut out with tin snips and they won."

"True story!," says Thorn. "I have witnesses, and I think I have the shim somewhere. That's how things were done in boat racing. Merlins were plentiful and fairly cheap in the early sixties: $500 used. $800 to $1000 new."

Needless to say, attrition has driven the cost of a Rolls Royce Merlin upwards, immensely.

click here to enlarge imageThorn's impression of the first Reno National Championship Air Races gave both the sights, the sounds and the thrills, of the first desert competitions. According to Thorn, "The Reno Air Races of '64 and '65 were held at the Sky Ranch, in the Spanish Springs Valley. The course was laid out across the valley so that the aircraft made their race track turns as they approached the mountains. The sound of those racers as they accelerated out of the turns was awesome!"

"Our pilot for '64 was Bob Love," said Thorn, who indicated that "Bob and I had a relationship that lasted until his death in 1984. Bob was considered to be a fighter pilot's pilot," he added, noting that "...peacetime was troublesome for Bob. He much preferred the black and white situations of wartime."

Thorn's friendship with Love lasted the remainder of Love's lifetime. "I treasure the times I shared with Bob," said Thorn, who reflected that "He (Love) was the consummate, professional airman. He had an absolute reverence for the Merlin and the Mustang. He felt privileged to be a part of the Mustang's history to his dying day."

Thorn was there for the very first Reno Air Race, recounting that: "In 1964, the Bearcat was a nemesis right from the start. Not Darryl's — but Bill Stead's."

The converted F-8F Warbird had a famous pilot at the controls, one who had escaped his native country while it was then in the throes of a Communist regime. Czechoslovakian-born Mira Slovak was at the controls of Race # 80, "Miss Smirnoff," a combination of aircraft and pilot that earned Thorn's praise:

"What a show boat!!! Clay Lacy was another. What great talent you would have if this were show biz! The Merlin has been dueling with those big round engines from the beginning."

According to Thorn, the World of Air Racing was intoxicating from the beginning: "I guess I picked up the gauntlet in '64 and what a long struggle it has been."

...a thirty-eight year struggle — a battle of wills. Thorn's life in Air Racing reads much like the contents of a time capsule:

continue >>

RealVideo Streaming Audio/Video Clips
Dwight Ask "THEDOCTOR" Thorn At NAG Banquet
Audio With Image Slide Show
Audio Only
56k broadband 56k broadband
stream stream stream stream
download download download download
10.5mb 55.0mb 5.13mb 15.7mb
High Quality Digital Audio With Images In Slide Show Format
note: 49 sec. at beginning of recording are of low quality, the
balance of the recording is in high quality digital audio format.


copyright 1997-2021 Airport Fence Productions, Inc.
-All Aviation FlightLine OnLine-
Reproduction of any part of this website,
without prior permission, is forbidden.

This website is optimized for as many screen resolutions as we possibly can. Please enjoy!

If you have any problems or need to contact us send email to webmaster.

RENO Air Races 2013