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7 August 2010
Speed Week!
Lady of Nîmes
Part Fourteen
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 Fourteen)

Sunday, August 22, 1938

With the exception of Her Grace, I’ve never known a braver fur than Keith Lawton.  When he told me what he did next, I almost pinched myself.  It simply couldn’t be.


Keith looked away from me for a second, stroking his muzzle with two fingers, then he looked back again and sighed. 

“I allowed Mr. Whitney to voluntarily withdraw the Jersey Lightning from the Schneider Cup, ‘due to a mechanical problem’ rather than give him the gate for breaking the rules.  In return, he agreed to go quietly and not raise a stink about having to pull out.”

For what seemed like hours, the only sound on that terrace was crickets chirring and the odd splashing sound, out in the lagoon.  I was stunned, this wasn’t the Keith Lawton I knew.

“WHY?” I finally demanded.

I have rarely seen Keith look so miserable as he did at that moment.

“Because mate, it was our first year, remember?  A cheating scandal, right out of the chute, could have wrecked the Schneider, even a cheat that was exposed before it happened.  So I swallowed my pride and let Richard Whitney walk away clean.”  He looked straight at me, a condemned dog, just before the trap drops. “I’m not proud of what I did pal, but it was something had to be done, at least that’s how I saw it back then.”

“An’ there’s another thing brother,” Lucy had taken hold of Keith’s paw and was holding it tight. “Richard Whitney may be known as a thief and embezzler NOW, but back then, far as anyone knew, he was Mr. Pillar-Of-The-Community/Salt-Of-The-Earth.  Crikey, he’d been on the cover of TIME magazine just the year before...and he a had a LOT of rich and powerful friends, all of whom thought he was fine and upstanding.”  She reached out to brush Keith’s cheek with the fingertips of her other paw.  “Yeah, he could have sent that dirty bludger to jail, but then what?   Whitney’s mates would have rallied round him and thrown everything they had sinking the Schneider Cup....in which case Her Grace wouldn’t HAVE a race in which to compete next week, and the three of us wouldn’t be having this conversation either.”  She focused her attention on me again, eyes like black steel, “So before you say another word Drake, just you think about it for moment.”

I didn’t have to think, they were right and I knew it; when the news of Mr. Whitney’s indictment was announced, no one had been more surprised than Duchess Katie MacArran...even after all the times they’d crossed swords.  “I always knew Whitney was dirty,” she’d said to me later, “but THAT dirty?  Could have knocked me over with a feather.” 

I puffed out my cheeks, nodding slowly.

“I understand.”  I said quietly, “And I won’t put this in the story, either.”

Keith looked at Lucy for a second, giving her paw a little squeeze, then he looked at me again.

“No mate, now that Mr. Whitney’s been exposed for what he is, it’s time to come clean with it.  So please...go ahead and print it, I WANT you to print it.

And so, that’s what I’ve done.

I think no one will be surprised to hear that an awkward silence followed this exchange...until I remembered something:

“Hang on Keith, what about....?”

He already knew what I was going to ask.

“Funny you should ask me that, pal.  It hit ME at just that moment, too.”

“Crikey!”  Keith nearly howled for the second time in two days.  How could he have forgotten about....?   He quickly buttonholed Cedric McCradden.  “Cedric?   Do me a favour and run, tell Denis Conlon to get his plane out to the starting pole; the Jersey Lightning’s out and he’s in.  And then I need you ring up the tower and tell them to make the announcement.  I’ll be back in the stands as soon’s I can.”

THIS time, Cedric didn’t have to be told to light a fire under it.  “With pleasure,” he nearly shouted, and was off out the door like a shot.

Keith would love to have hurried after him, but he had e few strings to tie up first.

“First order of business was getting a police photographer in to take some photos of those rocket engines; the last thing I wanted was for it to be Mr. Whitney’s word against ours.  Then I ordered the Jersey Lightning to be placed under guard, and ‘suggested’ to Mr. Whitney that it would be in his best interest to be gone from the Spontoons by sundown, and for his crew to be gone within 48 hours.  As for the Jersey Lightning herself, a most generous donation to the Songmark Academy, and thank you very much.”

As soon as that was done Keith left the hangar without another word.

“I was halfway to my box when I heard Fred Stellesberg’s voice on the...Oh sorry, he was our race announcer for the first two years.  Couldn’t quite make out the words, still too far away, but then I didn’t have to, did I?  From the noise the crowd made at the end of Fred’s announcement, I knew perfectly well what he’d said.”

But when Keith returned to his box, he was greeted by a horrifying sight–of race fans leaving their seats in droves. 

Fortunately, Lucy was there and quickly set him right.

“They was only hurrying off to get a wager down on Mr. Conlon’s finish time.” she said, “Now that he was finally in the race, or at least had made it into the first qualifying run, the casinos could start booking bets on him.”

“Yeah,” Keith added, “The instant Peng-wum heard Conlon was up, he ordered every betting window in the Grand opened up and told ‘em to take bets ONLY on the Lady Of Nîmes’ qualifying time.”

His mischievous highness, the Monkey King must have had a very soft spot for Peng that day.  As his joss would have had it, Denis Conlon had chosen to depart the lagoon, rather than watch his chances for getting into the Schneider go glimmering.   Cedric McCradden had found him quickly enough, but not before his crew had already removed the Lady of Nîmes from the water.  Now she had to be put back in again, and Conlon had to suit up again.   And while all this was happening, the Grand kept taking bet after bet after bet.

“Then a rumour started to go round the stands that Mr. Conlon had only so many minutes to get going, or else he’d be disqualified.”   Keith shook his head, grinning wryly, “As if I’d ever....the fans would’ve shaved, tarred, and feathered me.  Had to send another runner over by the Lady of Nîmes to assure Mr. Conlon it wasn’t true.”  He rubbed at his nose with finger. “But in the end, it wasn’t so bad....had everyone on the edge of their seats.  And what’s wrong with a bit of suspense during Speed-Week, eh?”

That’s my pal, ever the show-dog.

“When the Lady of Nîmes was finally towed to the starting position,” he said, “after all the beautiful planes that’d come before her, she looked more than ever like a pigeon amongst falcons ...but nobody in the stands jeered or laughed, mate...nobody.  That’s the kind of regard everyone had for Denis Conlon by then.”

The way the qualifying runs were run conducted in 1935 was bit different than the way they’re conducted now.  Today of course, the pilot radios the tower when they’re ready to begin, and when the tower gives the okay, the run starts when next they pass the red pylon.  Back then however, the pilot made two practice laps, and the clock started automatically on the third.

“Conlon got off to a brisk start, and you could tell even into the Lady of Nîmes’ first practice lap that he was going to have a good ‘un.  By the time he was coming down the stretch to make his start, seemed like the whole Spontoon archipelago was on their feet.”

Some planes, when they hit the red pylon, shoot out like skyrockets.  Others, her Grace as an example, seem to ease into their run so subtly, you don’t know ‘til you look at that clock how fast they’re actually going.

Then there was Denis Conlon and the Lady of Nîmes.

“Best way I can describe what happened.” said Keith, scratching his muzzle. “is that it was like when a Big Dipper  (Roller-Coaster in American parlance) goes over top of the hill.  First a very small, almost hesitant increase in sped, and then a very large one that quickly gets faster and faster.”

The crowd whooped and cheered as Denis went into the first turn, taking it tight but smooth, racing flat out for the next one.  The Lady of Nîmes may not have the fastest plane in the race that day, but she was easily the most nimble.  Of the other planes in the race that day, only the Belladonna could nearly match her through the turns.

“By the third lap, anyone who might have doubted that the Lady of Nîmes belonged in the Schneider was obliged to wrap up and keep it like that.” 

(Smugly said, but Keith had earned it; alone among the SIRA board he had championed Denis Conlon’s being allowed to enter the Schneider.)

Denis shot through lap number 4 with the Lady’s engine roaring in triumph...while the crowd roared back their approval.  Even the old fox’s most ardent partisan had never expected his plane to perform THIS well.  If he could just keep it up, the number 4 slot was all his.

But then...

“Typical Irish,” Lucy sighed and shook her head, “Our Mr. Conlon wasn’t about to ‘just settle’ for slot number four.  He wanted into the top three...and on the next turn it cost him.  He tried to take it too far inside and nearly cut the pylon.  Stopped himself in the nick of time, but that was where his inexperience finally got the better of him.  He overcompensated on his correction, badly, and went so far wide of the turn, might as well have gone ahead and cut that pylon.  Put a good extra two seconds on his qualifying time...and he never made up for it.  Got knocked down all the way to the number seven slot.”

That might have been as maybe, but still...

Conlon had done it.   With a home-built plane and against all expectations he had made it into the Schneider Cup race...and whatever else happened next, nothing could take that away from him. 

Certainly the crowd felt that way. 

“When he brought the Lady of Nîmes past the finish pylon, they cheered him so loud, you’d have thought he’d just won the trophy.”

Conlon himself viewed it differently, of course.  When he was asked about it afterwards by a reporter for The London Observer, he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “First fence,” and then went about his business without another word.

                Speed Week!
                   Lady of Nîmes