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4 August 2009
Speed Week!
Lady of Nîmes
Part Eight
by John Urie

Keith Lawton, organizer of the Schneider Trophy races held on Spontoon Island,
tells the story of Denis Conlon's entry in the 1935 race.

The Lady of Nîmes

by Drake Hackett

Special to the London Daily Observer
(Part Eight)

Sunday, August 22, 1938

It began just as Keith was arriving for work.  He was just about to step through the door of his office, when he heard the sound of an airplane engine revving, a racing engine to be precise.  Ordinarily, that wouldn’t have gotten so much as a sideways glance from him.  By now, the sound of a Schneider-Cup racer making a practice run was familiar to the point of tedium.

“Until, I heard another sound, one every bit as familiar, but anything but boring...the sputter and choke of an aircraft engine, about read to give up the ghost.”

Unable to see anything from where he was, Keith hurried into his office and onto the portico.

“Just as I was afraid she’d be, the plane making that racket was done up in Gold and Crimson, with a sharply raked nose.  It was Sophia Casadonte again, the same-old, same-old.  Fortunately, this time she was able to throttle back before the engine gave out on her completely.   I watched her wheel about and head back to the racing slips...and she passed me by, I could see her pounding a fist on the dashboard.  At the end of her tether she was, and I could hardly blame her.”

No, he couldn’t.  Not only had Sophia’s team been unable to correct the problem with their engine, they hadn’t even been able to determine what WAS the problem.  They knew it had something to do with the magnetos, but that was all they knew...and they had tried everything by then. They had replaced the magnetos twice, changed the wiring three times, and practically rebuilt the engine from the ground up.  

“The most frustrating part,” according to what Keith had heard, “was that when they pulled the engine out of the Belladonna, it’d work just fine; they could run it flat out wi’out so much as a hiccup.  But put it back in, and they were right back where they started...and no one could figure out why, not Sophia, not any member of her team, not even her father, Giuseppe.”

This revelation was good for a long, low whistle out of me.  In aviation circles, Giuseppe Casadonte is known simply as The Maestro.

And with good reason....  

At Calshot in 1931, it had appeared as if a repeat of the 1929 Schneider Cup was in the offing.  Faced with an overwhelming abundance of mechanical difficulties, the Italians’ formidable new race-plane, the Macchi-Castoldi MC 72 looked as if she would never make the qualifying runs – much less the main event.  And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the ‘31 Schneider was being run under the OLD rules.  This meant that if the Italian team pulled out again, the British would take permanent possession of the trophy, having already won the last two contests.

THAT was out of the question as far as  Italo Balbo, head of the Italian team was concerned.  And so, a telegram had flashed across the wires to the Air Ministry in Rome, “Get me Giuseppe Casadonte!”

The rest, of course, is history.  The Italians edged out the British to take the ‘31 Schneider Cup, and the race continues to this day.

“If Professor Casadonte couldn’t puzzle out why that flippin’ plane wouldn’t go fast, nobody could.” Keith’s expression was a tortured grimace, highlighted by a pair of drooping ears; it was how he must have looked watching the Belladonna limp painfully back to her hangar that morning, “Or that was the prevailing opinion, anyways.”

Giving the departing plane one last look, Keith had sighed, shrugged, and gone back inside to start his workday. 

He usually began by either dictating letters or receiving visitors, depending on which was more immediately important.  Today, there being no one of significance waiting in the lobby, he rang for his secretary, Miss Makele.

It was a fine morning that day, and so they returned to the portico to conduct their business.  Keith was midway through dictating the final letter of the morning, when he felt his ears prick up.

“Uh, hold that for a moment, won’t you?” He interrupted himself

Getting to his feet, Keith turned to look north, shading his eyes with his right paw.  At the far end of the lagoon, a race-plane was taxiing for take off...a crimson and gold racer.

“She was too far away for me to see anything else but her colours,” Keith was saying, “but that was all I needed; we had exactly one plane entered in the Schneider that year, wearing that livery -- The Belladonna.” He paused, frowning, “But trying her again so quickly?   Crikey, I’d never thought Team Casadonte was THAT desperate.”

And yet, when the Belladonna came skimming over the lagoon this time, Keith couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something different about her this time.

“It weren’t another practice run, it was a test run.  First, Miss Sophia took the Belladonna to the north end of the lagoon and turned south...then she eased the Belladonna up to just where her engine just started to get poppy, and then backed off and did it again.  That wasn’t so unusual, they’d already done this about a dozen times before.  Only...why had she gone to the far end of the lagoon to start her run?  And there was something else, something about her plane as well.”

He turned and spoke to his secretary.

“Would you fetch me my binoculars, Miss Makele?”

“Right away, sir.” she’d answered, every bit as curious as he.

The instant Keith trained his binocs on Sophia’s plane, he spotted it.

“For some odd reason, they’d decided to move the Belladonna’s radio antenna up FRONT of the cockpit.”

I would have asked Keith what they’d done thing like that for...except that I had a feeling it would be asking him to give up the punchline a bit too soon.

“I watched the Belladonna nudge the edge two more times, and then she powered down and returned to her dock, taking it at an easy cruise.”

He gave himself a moment or two to ponder all he’d just witnessed, then set the binoculars aside, and resumed his dictation.

After finishing up the morning’s business, Keith joined with his family for lunch.  (A rare opportunity for him, during Speed-Week.) 

They were sitting on the terrace of the Great Pagoda, awaiting the arrival of their food, when Keith’s ears again caught the sound of a race plane approaching, this time at high speed.

“At first, I didn’t pay it a never-mind and neither did Lucy or the kids,”  he said. 

Until several nearby patrons began standing up and pointing north, their talk becoming rapidly more animated -- with one word repeated over and over.

Belladonna....the Belladonna.

Keith stood up to look, and sure enough there she was, roaring across the lagoon in their direction, but this time with her throttles almost wide open.  Instantly Keith grabbed for the stopwatch he always carried....and as Sophia Casadonte went flashing past the restaurant, he clicked the button, following her intently.

“Even without me stopwatch, I knew the Belladonna was doing faster than 225 mph.  She went five full laps round the lagoon with not a bump to show for it...and on the final run for home, she had her throttles out all the way and then some.  It was the capper to one spectacular performance, and everyone around me knew it well as I did.  No sooner clicked my stopwatch the second time than the whole terrace was asking me, ‘How fast?  How fast?’  I did a few, quick, mental  calculations and...Blimey O’Riley, The Belladonna had averaged 320 mph on those laps, and on her final dash to the finish, she’d been running at 360 miles an hour.”

Upon hearing this news, everyone one the terrace had let up a wild cheer, none louder than Keith’s elder daughter, Jessie.

“Bein’ as Sophia was the only femme in the Schneider that year, I’m sure y’ can figure out why.” Keith winked, “And I was cheering too; up until then, it had looked like the ‘35 Schneider was all between the British and Italian teams, with the rest all jockeying for third.” He gave me the Cheshire Cat again, “But not any longer, Drake.  As of that moment, we had ANOTHER contender for the Cup.  If the Belladonna had been a landplane ‘stead of a seaplane, she would have set a new speed record on her final dash.”   (A record then held by Howard Hughes, at 352 mph.)

“Right.” chimed in Lucy, “And y’ can guess what everyone was thinking; ‘If that’s what the Belladonna can do in a PRACTICE run, just imagine how she’ll perform when it comes down to the main event.’” 

It was a thought the fans quickly put into action.  Within the hour, the casino odds on Sophia Casadonte winning the Schneider had dropped from 60-to-1 down to 6-to-1.

“But how had she done it?” I asked again, this time a bit more loudly than I intended.

Keith and Lucy exchanged grins, then Keith’s expression soured slightly.

“The very question everyone on that terrace was asking me mate, and I didn’t have the slightest idea.  I’d have loved to have gone and found out...but the afternoon events were about to get under way, and I had to be there, no excuses accepted.”

Lucy, however, was under no such obligations....and so after dropping the pups off with Mrs, Kakua, she caught a water taxi for Eastern Island.  It was a trip she knew would most likely come off a fool’s errand; the rule restricting the race hangars to authorized fursonell only was now fully in place, and she had neither a pass, nor any legitimate business in that area.   But if you know my sister as well as I do,  you know she’s never been one to allow ‘minor details’ as she calls them, to thwart her efforts   And sure enough, the puma minding the gate recognized her and let her through unchallenged.  (An act which later earned him a tongue-lashing from Keith, “I don’t care if it’s ME wanting past you...!) 

When Lucy arrived at the Team Casandonte hangar, she was not surprised to find the place in festive mood,  music playing, wine flowing, and one hearty backslap after another..

“I weren’t there two seconds before Sophia spotted me and came hurrying over. ‘Mrs Lawton.’ she said, taking me by the paw, ‘What a lovely surprise, come on in and join us, there’s plenty of room for one more.’”

And without waiting for an answer, she took Lucy’s paw and led her inside the hangar.

“Hrrrrrm,” I growled softly, stroking my chin. “Sounds about like she knew you’d talked Keith out of scratching her, Luce.”

“Maybe Drake,” Lucy answered, with a throwaway shrug. “I dunno; I never asked, and she never offered, but when she took me inside the hangar, who should have been there as well, but a certain Mr. Denis Conlon?”

Lucy had never met the old fox, but she’d heard Keith describe him enough times to instantly recognize who he was.

“He was dressed for the occasion in shirtsleeves and a vest, and was sitting at a table, holding a  discussion with Giuseppe Casadonte.  Though I couldn’t quite make out what it is that they were saying, I had the strongest impression that they were addressing each other as equals.”

Her interest in the pair did not escape Sophia’s notice, the Ibiza Hound femme immediately ushered her forward, “Papa?  Mr. Conlon?   I’d like you to meet someone.  This is Mrs. Lucy Lawton, the wife of Mr. Keith Lawton, organizer for the Schneider Cup.”

It was Giuseppe who rose first, “Ah, Signora Lawton, a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Taking her paw, he kissed it formally, “And when you see your husband next, you may tell him from that I have attended many Schneider-Cup races in my day, but this one...”  He concluded by closing his eyes, and noisily kissing his fingertips.

“Hear, hear!’ said Sophia, from behind her.

Then it was Denis Conlon’s turn.

“As Professor Casadonte just said, ‘tis indeed a pleasure, mam.” then he also took her paw and kissed it, “And I very much second the Professor’s opinion; Mr. Lawton’s done a remarkable job here. “ His eyes seemed to twinkle for a second, “An' might I say, he’s a very lucky canine ‘t have such a fine Missus as yerself.”

“Thank you both, Signor Casadonte, Mr. Conlon.” Lucy answered, then turned sightly to face the old fox directly,“but if y’ don’t mind my asking Mr. Conlon, what brings you by here today?”

The answer to her question came not from Conlon, but from Giuseppe Casadonte, who clapped a paw on on the old fox’s shoulder, all the while beaming like a sunrise.

“What brings him here?  What brings him here!” He visibly tightened his grip on the vulpine, gesturing with his free paw as though he were onstage, performing in a grand opera,  “This, Signora Lawton, is the fox who finally solved our engine problem, and put La Belladonna back in the race.”


(Sophia (Casadonte) Bianco and Giuseppe Casadonte are the intellectual property of Stuart McCarthy.)
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