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Reprise: Origins of The Great Passenger Derby

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Jul. 22nd, 2016 | 10:38 am

Because Steel Blues is featured in the current Historical Fantasy Storybundle, I thought I'd repost a piece from several years ago about how we got the idea for the Great Passenger Derby that features in the novel. Becasue sometimes you just can't make this stuff up...

The Great Passenger Derby is based loosely on a real air race held in 1930, the All-American Flying Derby, which was won by Lee Gehlbach and his Command-Aire MR-1, the Little Rocket.  Like our imaginary race, the All-American Flying Derby offered an enormous purse — $25,000 to the first three finishers —and captured the imagination of the public.

I first encountered this race in the pages of the Arkansas Gazette, which I was reading as I researched an entirely different project.  The Little Rocket, as you might guess from the name, had an Arkansas connection:  Command-Aire was based in Little Rock, and Gehlbach’s entry was sponsored by a consortium that included Command-Aire’s owners and the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce.  For Command-Aire, this was a desperate gamble:  the Depression had hurt the company badly, and this was owner John Carroll Cone’s last chance to stave off complete dissolution.  For the Chamber of Commerce, and the other sponsors, it was tremendous publicity, and the cash prize, half of which went to the sponsors, was just added incentive.  The Gazette was happy to provide full front page coverage, and I followed along, thrilling to reports of bad weather and accidents, flyers forced to land in the desert, injured in crashes, and eliminated in various risky take-offs and landings. (And in other odd ways:  Cecil Cofferin of Brooklyn collided with a car in the small California town where he landed for fuel, splintering a wing tip.)  The race route covered 5541 miles, Detroit to Los Angeles and back again, and Gehlbach and the Little Rocket took an early lead and never really looked back.

After the win, Little Rock turned out for a parade in his honor, according to the Gazette, and the Chamber of Commerce brought Gehlbach and the Little Rocket back to town in the fall in an attempt to stimulate business, but the victory wasn’t enough revive Command-Aire.  The company closed, and its owner ended up in Washington DC as an assistant director of the Air Commerce Bureau.

In designing the route of the Great Passenger Derby, we cribbed shamelessly from the first legs of the All-American Flying Derby: after all, if the fields could support the latter, they certainly could support our race.  San Angelo, Texas, and Little Rock, Arkansas are on the route for precisely that reason.  We also borrowed or were inspired by a number of the race regulations: the insistence on stock planes, for example. But the biggest thing we took from the All-American Flying Derby was the fact that it had happened — that a bankrupt aviation company had a chance to recoup all its losses by winning a single grueling race.  How could that not become a novel?

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