Aviation - Class of 1999
One could say that Lyle Shelton became an air-racing champion by chance.
Shelton was a Navy pilot on an exchange tour instructing in Air Force T-38s in 1964 when he took a month's leave intending to travel around the world via space available military transportation.
In California he came across an article in a magazine saying there was going to be an air race in Reno. The idea of air racing intrigued him enough to abandon the around-the-world journey and hop aboard an Air National Guard plane to Nevada. Less than a year later he flew in his first air race.
After racing both a P-51 Mustang and a Hawker Sea Fury for other owners, he found a wrecked F8F-2 Bearcat in Indiana. He bought the aircraft, trucked it to California and had it rebuilt as a racer.
In 1969 the "Abel Cat" appeared in competition for the first time at Reno, where Shelton finished fifth in the championship race.
His first air victory came at the New Jersey National Air Races in 1971 with a winning speed was 360.15 mph. Later that year he was involved in a highly competitive championship race with Darryl Greenamyer at Reno where he finished in second, just 2.1 seconds behind the winner's 413.07 mph.
Shelton's second championship victory came at the Great Miami Air Race in January of 1973 where he won at 373.320. That same year at Reno he set a new qualifying record and won his third championship race.
He made a clean sweep of it in 1973 by winning the unlimited championship at the California National Air Races.
At Reno in 1974 he again set a new qualifying record at 432.252 and crossed the finish line first in the championship race. The judges, however, called him for a minor rules infraction and penalized him two laps that dropped him to fifth in the official standings.
At Reno in 1975 he won his fifth unlimited championship race at 429.916. A wheels-up landing at the 1976 California National Air Races resulted in a major rebuild and modification of the airplane that kept Shelton out of competition until 1980.
In 1980, the aircraft wearing the new name of "Rare Bear," suffered problems that put it out of competition. Problems continued through most of the '80s for Shelton and Rare Bear.
In 1988, the duo came roaring back for an incredible string of victories. He was top qualifier and won the championship race at San Rafael, CA. He also was top qualifier and winner of races at Reno from 1988 through 1991 with qualification speeds in the 480s.
Through the mid-90s, Shelton took a hiatus from his cockpit chores to act as owner and team manager for "Rare Bear," piloted by John Penney. Shelton returned to the controls at Reno in 1997 and qualified second behind Bill Destefani and finished third in the championship race with an engine that was literally coming apart.
In addition to winning more unlimited championship races than any other competitor, as well as many second and third-place finishes, Shelton was the national point champion in the unlimited class of air racing in 1971, 1973, 1975, 1988, 1989, 1990 and 1991.
This marvelous competitor also set a "Time to Climb" record in 1972 that still stands today. He went from a standing start to 10,000 feet in 91.9 seconds. On Aug. 21, 1989 he set the world's absolute propeller-driven speed record over a 3-kilometer course at Las Vegas at 528.329 mph, which is going to be difficult for anyone to beat.