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29 August 2010
Speed Week!
Lady of Nîmes
Part Sixteen
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 Sixteen)

Sunday, August 22, 1938

There are times when you really hate having to agree with someone.  I’ve never experienced that feeling more more acutely than when Keith Lawton confronts me with a bit of cold, inescapable logic

“Think about it, mate.  Up until they pranged their plane, the Schneider Cup had all but belonged to the Italian Team ...and that’s that LAST sort of air-race an organizer wants, the race where one plane so dominates the field, the other entrants might as well not bother to show up.”

I knew he was right, but I had to force myself to nod.   The only exception to that rule is when the dominant plane is so detested by the other racers, they’ll do ANYTHING to try and beat it. (as was the case that very year with Her Grace’s race-plane, the Pony Express.)

“But with the Italians out, pal,” Keith was saying, tail wagging beneath his chair, “With the MC87 out, it was ANYBODY’S Schneider.  Sophia Bianco had barely nipped Harry Forlani’s qualifying time, and who knew how much better Jimmy Haizlip might have done if his engine hadn’t gone clunky on him.  To say nothing of the French Team.  With Claude Venzines on the job, their plane’s performance was only going to get better.”

“I notice you haven’t mentioned Denis Conlon.” I observed.  That would teach HIM not to have me disliking myself

But Keith only raised one ear.  “What, YOU’VE never saved the best for last, mate?  Yeah, Mr. Conlon was in it too, it was obvious he’d been holding the Lady back on that second qualifying run...but he wouldn’t be easing up the throttle in the big event, would he?  Everyone from here to Honolulu  knew THAT one.”

“What were the odds on Conlon’s taking the Schneider?” I asked.  And Keith scratched at his muzzle for a second

“Depended on where you were placing your bets, pal.  Most of the Spontoon casinos were employing odds-makers, but the Grand was trying something different; they’d gone in for a pari-mutual system instead.”

“ Which is what all the Casinos use now,” added Lucy.  Keith nodded at her then looked back at me.

“But because of that, the odds on the Lady of Nîmes winning the cup were lower at the Grand than anywhere else, 5-to-1 as opposed to 7-to-1.”

I looked at him curiously; he just laughed, “Conlon was the fans’ sentimental favorite, you see.  Everyone and their uncle was making side bets on The Lady of Nîmes to take the chequered pylon.”  He slapped at a mosquito, “Never for more than a few quid, mind, but with that many race fans it was more than enough to tilt the odds.”  His voice took on an American twang  “‘I’d rather lay five bucks down on Conlon and see him lose, than nothin’ at all and watch him win.’  That was the sentiment at the time.”

“Well, yes,” I said, “but that’s not why I was looking that way, mate.  Ni Peng-Wum must have been kicking himself from one end of Casino Island to the other for going to that pari-mutual system.  The Lady of Nîmes was HIS plane...and now the fans were going elsewhere to put their money on her.”

That must have been the case, I figured.  With every window in town offering better odds on Conlon than Ni Peng-Wum, why would anyone want to put money on her at the Grand?

I could not have more mistaken.  Keith’s response was a laugh so uproarious, it nearly became another howl...and this time Lucy joined in with him

“Not HIM, pal,” He said, when he recovered, “Not THAT red-panda.  Ni Peng just made the announcement that if Conlon won the race, one lucky ticket holder from the Grand Casino was going to receive a payout of FIVE HUNDRED to one.  That was all it took to get the fans flocking back to his windows and putting their money down on The Lady.

That was also all it took to have me join in the laughter as well.  That clever little so-and-so; no wonder Her Grace likes him so much. 

Then something else occurred to me.

“Grrrarf!  I’d say the other casino owners just LOVED old Peng-Wum for that one, eh?”

Keith raised his glass as though offering a toast.  “Don’t you know it, mate!  Came barging into my office, the whole lot of ‘em, fit to be tied.   Demanded I make the Grand rescind that offer immediately.”  He sat back and shrugged, “Waste of time on their part, that.  I couldn’t have done it if I’d wanted to...which I didn’t.  As The Lady of Nîmes’ official sponsor, Ni Peng Wum was perfectly within his rights to offer that payout and they all knew it.  When they finally cleared out, they were none too happy I can tell you -- but with Ni Peng, thank God, not with me.”

“Tell him about what happened with the Italians,”  Lucy prompted, rolling sideways on her chair.

“Oh yeah, right Luv.” Keith nodded at her then looked at me, “After Agello’s crash, General Balbo up and offered the use of their hangar to Sophia Bianco’s team, which was much nicer that the one she’d been using at the time.”

“Well that was rather chivalrous of him, wan’ it?” I noted, not a little sardonically.  Sophia Bianco’s sentiments about the Fascist government in Rome are a matter of public record.

Keith, however, just nodded very slowly.

“I know what it is you’re thinking mate, but yeah, she did accept.  Keep in mind that this was BEFORE Abyssinia and AFTER Mussolini foiled that Nazi coup in Vienna.  And yeah that really was Italo Balbo being chivalrous.  He was genuinely sorry by then for the way he’d snubbed Sophia Bianco at the ‘29 Schneider.  ‘I have not many regrets in this life Signor Lawton, but this is one of them.’ That’s what he said to me once.  And he’d also never forgot how it was Sophia’s da who’d got the Macchi MC 78 working in time for the ‘31 Schneider Cup.”

Which would have been the LAST Schneider-Cup contest had it not been for Professor Casadonte.  One more win under the old rules and the British would have taken permanent possession of the trophy.

And that was when I realized....

“Wait a minute, Keith.  How come Giuseppe Casadonte weren’t working with the Italian team in the ‘35 race, then?”

Keith sniffed and then his lips pulled back in a derisive growl. “He was supposed to have been actually, mate...but it never came off.”

He stopped there, making me ask it...again!

“All right...why?”

His expression became even more caustic.

“ You can thank Mario Castoldi for that one, Drake.  He’d never cared much for Giusseppe Casadonte, and after Casadonte got most of the credit for the Italians winning the ‘31 Schneider... well, that was it, far as Professor Castoldi was concerned, no one stole HIS limelight.  So, when General Balbo announced that he was bringing Professor Casadonte on board for the ‘35 race, that was Castoldi’s last straw.  Marched right up to Balbo and told him, “'Either Casadonte goes or I go.’

I must have been making a face, because Keith quickly raised a paw.

“No mate...General Balbo actually decided in Giuseppe Casadonte’s favour.  Told Castoldi to write if he got work...but then Benito Mussolini got wind of their row and overruled the decision.  Balbo nearly resigned as Air Minister when he heard, but Professor Casadonte and Dino Grandi (Italy's Ambassador to Britain) talked him out of it. ”

I snarled and let the air hiss out between my teeth.

“Typical,” I said, sniffing  “I hope that silly ferret thinks it was worth it.”  (1935 would be the LAST Schneider Cup in which Mario Castoldi would be invited to participate; the Duce blamed him for that crash at the finish line...and never forgave him.   Nowadays, Castoldi’s not even permitted to attend the Schneider Cup as a spectator.)

“Did The Lady of Nîmes change hangars as well?” I asked, changing the subject.   Now that Sophia’s hangar was empty...well, why not?

“No,”  Keith and Lucy answered simultaneously, then Keith said “Mr. Conlon was perfectly content where he was in the Ni’s private hangar.”  He looked suddenly impish.  “By the way, d’you know which hanger that was?”

I felt my ears going up, an set down my glass so as not to drop it.  Keith looked mildly disappointed when he saw this.

“No, can’t say as I do mate.”

His tail began to wag, vigourously

“Well, you should mate, it’s the same one Her Grace, Katie MacArran has for THIS year.”

It was a good thing I’d set that glass down.

Keith didn’t see much of Denis Conlon for the rest of until race day...or any other racer for that matter.   Or perhaps he did....

“That first Speed Week’s like a blur in my mind mate.  If I managed six hours of sleep between the second qualifying run and the big race itself, that was a lot.  There were events to host, meetings to chair, all the smaller races to officiate, and endless rounds of receptions.”

And even more endless PROBLEMS.  For every difficulty Keith managed to solve, it seemed as if two more cropped up.  He later came to call his first Speed Week in the Spontoons, ‘Hydra Week.’

“But I’m not complaining mate.” he said, looking at me seriously, “It was no less than I’d expected when I’d taken the job, was it?   And I was ready for it, besides.”

He wasn’t but for all that, Keith somehow held it together.  The events all went over well, with several that absolutely wowed the fans...and one that had them in absolute stitches, that fine, old Speed Week tradition, the Cardboard Derby.

“I thought the fans ought to have at least one event in which they could participate, and not just have to watch, so I looked round at all the leftover cardboard that was piling up back of the hotels and casinos in anticipation of Speed-Week...and got the idea to kill two birds with one stone.”

For those who who’ve been marooned in the deep desert these past few years, I shall endevour to explain.

The cardboard derby is a soaring competition for home-built gliders, in which the wing and fuselage must be covered over in cardboard.  The frame can be of any material you like, but only cardboard will do for the covering.

 First prize is a silver-plated chamber-pot filled with champagne...which is presented to the winner by dumping it over their heads

Then, as now, the aircraft ( if you can call them that ) launch off the Casino Island’s south pier, ( if you can call it a launch, since most of them go off the end of the pier and keep on going straight down into the water.  )

Very few people remember who wins the Cardboard Derby.  (It was Songmark Academy that first year.)  What they remember instead is the spectacle.  There is a prize for the most outrageous looking plane as well at the winner’s trophy...and the entrants are encouraged to ham it up as well.

And that first year, one of the entrants’ crew chief turned out to be none other than Harpo Marx ....in charge of a plane piloted by a rather diminutive little fellow named Charlie Chaplin.

The Professor and the Little Tramp...the crowd went absolutely wild when they saw them together, and then breathless with laughter at their antics.

“I dunno how they did it, brother.” Lucy was saying, still sniggering at the memory “But when they launched their plane, it followed the course of most of its brethren an’ dropped straight down into the lagoon.”

With a horrified look, Harpo ran to the edge of quay, scanned the water with his palm over his eyes.. Then he shook his head sadly, bowed his head and put his hat over his heart

“ And then he played. ‘Taps’ on that bulb-horn he always carried.”  Lucy shook her head in awe as she recalled it.“I still can’t figure out how he DID that.”

But that wasn’t all.  Midway through the rendition, Chaplin appeared magically beside Harpo, bowed his head and put his hat over his heart as well.

The skit ended with them shaking paws...and a ten minute ovation from the crowd. 

So far, Speed Week had been an unqualified success, but there were storm clouds looming on the horizon...literally.

“We’d had a cooling trend and northerly breezes for three days straight.” Keith’s face was grim, “but then the wind turned round and began to blow from the southwest...and it began to get warmer, much warmer, and a lot more humid too.  There’s not a Spoontoonie alive or ever has been, doesn’t know THAT means.”

The first reports came in from the cargo vessel Kariyoshi Maru, ten days out of Yokohama, and bound for the Panama Canal.

 “The captain reported high seas and 40 knots winds, which was bad enough, but he also reported, ‘very intense lightning activity.’  which was putting it quite mildly.  He’d been trying to transmit for two days, and hadn’t been able to get through coz of all the electrical interference.”

Even though I know how it all turned out, I couldn’t help whimpering a when I heard this.  Only a hurricane would have been worse.

“Poor Keith, he was just beside himself.”  Lucy laid a paw on his arm, patting him sympathetically “He’d worked so hard, done practically everything right, and now here it was, about to go all for naught coz of something he couldn’t control.” 

Even now, three years after, Keith couldn’t help growling at the memory.

“What really drove me barmy pal, is that it was the wrong time of year for one of this those big, electric storms.  We never get those round the end of August -- try the middle of March, when the winter winds first start to turn.”

But then, just when it seemed that the Schneider might have to postponed, someone up there took pity on Keith....or decide to have some fun at his expense, take your pick.

“There was a big high-pressure system, centered over Los Gatos Califurnia and starting to move offshore.  With a little luck it might deflect the storm down towards Hawaii, instead of at the Spontoons.”  He growled again, “But no one could be sure...and what it meant was, I’d have to make the decision whether or not to postpone or not on Race Day itself.  I don’t think I need tell you what that meant.”

No he didn’t.  Until he was certain of the weather conditions, Keith didn’t dare make the announcement.  If he postponed the Schneider and the weather was good, he’d be a laughingstock...which was nothing compared to what would happen if he went ahead with the race and the storm DID hit the Spontoons.  And it was his decision to make, no one else had the responsibility.

“And the worst part was, I’d brought that last bit on meself,” Keith’s mouth rippled in a sour snarl, “After all, I’D been the one demanded unlimited authority for Speed Week, hadn’t I?   Well now, I was finding out about the hidden clause in that deal.”

It wasn’t until five in the morning on Race Day that Keith finally got the news.  It was in the middle of an emergency meeting of the SIRA board... mulling over what to do if the race had to be put back.

Stavro Krypriakos had just been recognized when Keith’s secretary came in and handed him a telex.  He read the first three lines, then stood up and yipped.

“Gentlemels, the storm has veered south towards Hawaii and will miss the Spontoons.  This is confirmed by both the United Stated Navy and RINS Meteorological Bureau.”  He waved the paper in the air, shouting “On with the Schneider!”

Amid a thunder of cheers and stamping feet, every paper on the table was immediately thrown into the air.


(Ni Peng-Wum is the intellectual property of Walter Reimer )
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