Friday, September 21, 2018

AIR HEADS Chapter Six

I am impressed with the level of cupidity among the participants in this amazing air race. (It means they were avaricious.) Certainly the pilots, Bob Fowler and Cal Rodgers, were risking their lives day after day and deserved some reward for that risk. And now that the prize which had inspired it all had been withdrawn, they had to work for it. At Dallas, where Cal Rodgers stopped on the Tuesday night of  17 October, and at Fort Worth, where Cal put in two days of flights before 75,000 at the state fair, he sold photo’s and autographs, as Bob Fowler did at his stops - just as musicians do today at personal appearances. And there were always the “Vin Fiz” coupons Cal was still dropping over unsuspecting soda drinkers in cities where he did not land. The Waco Texas Young Men’s Business League offered Cal an impressive fee, so on Friday, 20 October,  he took a long detour south and did several loops (below) around the Waco's single sky scrapper.
Even Mable Rodgers had gotten into the act. Dear, sweet, shy, retiring and innocent Mable Rodgers had tried to convince the United States Post Office that the historical nature of the race warranted creating her a special “Post Mistress”, so that she could stamp “Postmarked Vin Fiz Special” on cards and letters bought from her while en route -  for a small fee, of course.
But when that money making idea failed to inspire Congress to act, and after W.R. Hearst had abandoned the race (and her husband) in Missouri,  Mable sent Cal’s brother Robert out ahead to Kansas City to order unofficial over sized “Vin Fiz Flyer” and “Rodgers Aerial Post” stamps, to be sold at a quarter apiece once the Flyer had crossed into Texas.
Buyers would still have to affix official U.S. postage stamps to have anything delivered, and the stamps had been ordered with no glue backing, so they didn't actually stick to anything. But Mable was  trying to squeeze every penny out of the insanity she was caught up in.  It’s difficult to know if enough stamps were actually sold to cover the cost of printing them, but we do know that only thirteen “Vin Fiz” stamps still survive, eight on postcards, one on a letter and four “off cover”, meaning individually.  One of the “off cover” stamps sold in 2006, when the world was still drunk, for $70,000.  That amount could have financed the entire flight back in 1911.  I guess Mable had the right idea, just bad timing. And I’m certain that Cal's mother, Maria (ne Rodgers) Sweitzer, was certain to reminded poor Mable of her financial gaff, at every opportunity.
Tension was building in the hothouse of the 66 foot long by 8 ½ foot wide pressure cooker of the “Vin Fiz Special” Pullman sleeping car, with wife and mother-in-law cooped up for endless days together on the endless stretches of track between the way stations of civilization across the American West. The air must have been thick with slights (real and imagined), invective (real and imagined), criticism and denunciations (real and perceived).  The two ladies endured each other for Cal’s sake from New York to Chicago. Then mother Maria found an excuse to leave the train for a few days.  But at Kansas City she had rejoined the caravan, only to disembark yet again at San Antonio.  The lady was up to something.
Perhaps the expense of printing up the stamps that would not stick came up once too often in the conversations. But whatever the cause, when Maria rejoined the train outside of El Paso, Texas she brought reinforcements – 22 year old Lucy Belvedere, a reputed heiress, and at least in Maria’s mind, an improvement over Mable.   I'll bet that dear Lucy could swim, too. Cal wouldn't have to save her. It would appear that Cal was somewhat distracted by the drama building in the Pullman car.  In what can only be seen as an sign of that increasing drama , as he approached El Paso, Cal had a near-miss in mid-air with an eagle, or maybe it was a vulture.  In any case, on Tuesday, 24 October, at Spofford, Texas, Cal’s attention slipped enough to toss him into a ground loop that broke the wing and “splintered” both props (above). Through yet another Herculean effort Chief mechanic Charlie Taylor and his first assistant, Charlie “Wiggie” Wiggin, were able to get Cal back into the air the next morning.
Then, just before noon on Friday, 27 October,  the object of this maternal verses matrimonial completion, landed at the corner of Duval and 45th street in Austin, Texas (above). Three thousand came out to cheer the hero. And Mable was quoted by a local reporter as saying, “Sometimes I suspect that Calbraith thinks showing affection to a woman would be unfaithful to his machine.” Yes, that was Mable’s concern right then, trapped aboard the sleeping car with her mother-in-law and a woman her mother-in-law clearly saw as her replacement.  I wonder if Mable noted ironically to herself that one of the things still holding Cal in the air was her corset, strapped into an upper wing as a repair.
In Deming, New Mexico (above), on Halloween, Cal’s ignition system went on the fritz. Can it be any wonder? Still he persevered.  He refueled at Wilcox, Arizona on Wednesday 1 November, and took the short hop from there to Tucson, where he paused just long enough to travel the six blocks by car to the ball park where Bob Fowler’s "Cole Flyer" had landed. They shook hands, but Cal was so rushed the photographers had no time to snap a picture.  Being in the air, seated directly in front of a pounding engine hour after hour, must have been the only peace the boy had.  But help was at hand. This time Mable would finally showed a nerve equal to her Cal’s.  This time she wasn’t waiting to be rescued.
After the refueling stop at Wilcox, Arizona, Lucy Belvedere discovered that her entire trousseau was missing from her compartment. As Mother Maria and Lucy digested this horrifying disaster, and pondered who could have absconded with her frillies and lace, shy little Mable quietly informed them that the luggage was not really missing. It was perfectly safe, she said, aboard the baggage car of the east bound train they had just passed back in Wilcox.  The trousseau had been placed there by "Wiggie" on shy little Mables' instructions.  It was a display of verve and determination that mother Maria had not expected out of her husband's shy little wife.  And while Cal struggled for fame and fortune above the unforgiving desert of Arizona, Lucy Belvedere gathered her few remaining belongings and retreated from the “Vin Fiz Special” via the next east bound passenger train, chasing her corsets and her frillies back into Texas, and out of the pages of history.  It seems that at some point in this desert crossing, little Mable had taught herself how to swim.
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Thursday, September 20, 2018

AIR HEADS Chapter Five

I had to do some work to locate the starting point for Bob Fowler’s second attempt at a transcontinental flight. For one thing it has been buried under concrete and asphalt for a century. For another, some histories have mis-labeled it as “Wiltshire Field”, but that seems to have been a "spell check mis-correction" of the name "Henry Gaylord Wilshire".  If you are familiar with Los Angeles at all you recognize that name.  In 1895 Gaylord bought 35 acres around what would one day become MacArthur Park.  Gaylord then humbly allowed the city of Los Angeles (above) to build a road right through the center of his property, on the twin conditions that they not lay down any street car tracks, and that they name it after him. Then he promptly packed up and moved back to New York. He left his name no where else in Los Angles.
Wilshire Boulevard’s beginnings were very humble indeed, bisecting mostly beet fields. In 1910 that made the intersection of Wilshire and Fairfax Avenue an ideal location for an airfield, close to the budding metropolis of Los Angeles (above) - 320,000 citizens already - but open enough to allow pilots to crash regularly without killing the neighbors, because there weren’t any, except for a few deceased Dire Wolves stuck in the tar of the nearby La Brea Tar Pits (below), just down the street
And, by the way, "la brea" is Spanish for "tar", so the "La Brea tar pits" translates as 'the tar - tar pits').
There should be a plaque in the sidewalk or something at the corner of Fairfax and Whilshire, because not only did Bob Fowler re-start his transcontinental flight from here on Thursday, 19 October, 1911, but it is also where, in 1921, Amelia Earhart took her first flight lesson, in a Curtiss Jenny. In fact, lots of aviation history happened in and around that corner.
Movie maker C.B. DeMille (below) , in town to direct the first blockbuster “Squaw Man”, operated an airline out of there for a year or so (Mercury Aviation- above), until his airline went bankrupt. 
Then in March 1921 the air field was bought by pilot Emory Roger and his wife, and was renamed “Rogers’ Field”.  Emory then started up “Pacific Marine Airways”, in partnership with Sid Chaplin, brother to Charlie Chaplin.  They flew Hollywood vacationers to and from Catalina Island,  and sold Curtiss airplanes out of a showroom on the field - at least they did until Emory died in a plane crash in November of 1921. Then Emory’s widow ran the field until 1923,  when she sold out to developers, and the airfield disappeared.  That is what happens to everything historic in Los Angeles, sooner or later.
But that was all in the future in 1911. On 19 October, 1911 Wilshire Field was just an open space out at the end of Wilshire Boulevard. .
Late on that October afternoon Bob Fowler, at the controls of his new Wright B Flyer, renamed the "Cole Flyer", lifted off and headed east. He made only 9 miles that first day, landing in Pasadena. But the important thing was that he was back in the race.
Bob’s manager,  Reed Grundy, had always wanted him to start the race from Los Angeles because the mountains east of there were so much lower that the Sierra east of San Francisco, and because the Los Angeles Board of Reality was coughing up a $10,000 bonus if Bob Fowler started from L.A. - okay, Grundy mostly liked L.A. because of the bonus.
In fact, early the next morning, on Friday, 20 October, as Fowler was preparing to take off from Pasadena, he was called to the phone.  It was Grundy. He  had just been offered another paycheck if Bob made an appearance down Fairfax Avenue from Whilsire Field at the L.A. Motordrome with Barney Oldfield and other big name racer car drivers.  But Bob put his foot down and said he’d rather give up flying all together than start this trip a third time.  Grundy got the message and Bob flew on to Riverside, California, probably spitting and cursing all the way about what a jackass his manager was. I’m sure NASCAR drivers feel the same way about their sponsors, once in awhile.
In two days of flying Bob Fowler had covered only 69 miles. And the next day, Saturday,  21 October,  1911, went even slower, because he was approaching the San Gorgonio Pass (above). The pass is only at 2,600 feet altitude, but it runs 22 miles long between the 9,000 foot tall Mt. San Gorgonio and the 11,000 foot tall Mt. San Jacinto, making it one of the deepest passes in the United States. For a cloth and wood airplane flying at between 2 and 400 feet above the ground, passing between the towering mastiffs meant dangerous cross winds. The Cole Flyer struggled to make progress, and Bob gritted his teeth to keep the sand out of his mouth and kept going.
Just as the 14,505 foot above sea level Mount Whitney stands just 76 miles west of Badwater, Death Valley, at 282 feet below sea level, Mount San Jacinto stands less than 100 miles west of the Salton Sink, at 220 feet below sea level (far upper right in the above photo). The line from the Gulf of California, through the Salton Sea, Death Valley (and north to Mono Lake) is the hing along which California is being twisted, torn apart, bent and ripped between the San Andreas Fault and a newly forming rift valley which, eventually, will fill as a new arm of the Pacific Ocean. Someday, in fourteen or fifteen million years, this is going to be the new west coast.
But having finally left this geological drama behind him, Bob Fowler was now flying in cool winter temperatures across the Arizona desert basins and 10,000 foot tall mountain ranges. On Wednesday, 25 October he landed in Yuma, Arizona (above). Finally, after almost sixty days of starting and stopping and starting and crashing, Bob Fowler had escaped California.
Two hundred miles later, following the Southern Pacific Railroad line, Bob landed at Tuscon, Arizona. And there had a brief encounter with a fellow traveler, the only other man on God’s green earth who truly understood what he was going through; Cal Rogers.  They were together barely long enough to shake hands, and nobody had time to produce a camera. And then they separated without so much as a back slap or a pause to compare notes: so much for the brotherhood of the air. After all, there was a race on.
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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

AIR HEADS Chapter Four

I believe it was with apprehension that Cal Rogers set his “Vin Fiz Flyer" down on the Cicero airfield on the Sunday afternoon of 8 October, 1911. Cal was now officially 21 days out of New York City. He had flown just 1/3 of the distance to California. He had crashed six times, or about once every 166 miles.  At this rate he had to assume he would crash another six times before he reached the foot of the Rockies at Denver, Colorado. And he would either be spending Christmas somewhere in Utah, or dead. The Pony Express was proving faster than the" Vin Fiz Flyer". Upon landing in Chicago,  Cal immediately telegraphed William Randolph Hearst to request an extension of the time limit for the $50,000 prize offered by the mogul's newspapers. But Cal could not have known that W.R., as Mr. Hearst liked to be called, never had any intention of letting anybody actually win the prize money.
Like most self described “self made” millionaires (such as Donald Trump), William Randolph Hearst was the son of a millionaire. When W.R. was kicked out of Harvard, where the boy had struggled to survive on a $500 a month allowance (the equivalent of $11,000 a month, today), it seemed he was destined for failure – well, as much as the  pampered only son of a millionaire could fail - because the only thing bigger than the fortune which W.R. would eventually gain control of,  was his ego.
In 1887 W.R. took over the “San Francisco Examiner”,   which his father George Hearst  had won in a gambling debt.  W.R. then sank part of daddies’ fortune into making it the “Monarch of the Dailies”. He hired the best writers and editors that daddies’ money could buy, (such as Mark Twain and later Harriet Quimby) and built a publishing edifice based on the formula of sex plus comic strips equals sales. The first of the Sunday comics printed in color was Hearst's “The Yellow Kid” (above). Thus the origin of the description of W.R.'s style of newspaper as “yellow journalism”. And what was yellow journalism? A. J. Pegler, a Hearst writer, described it this way:  “A Hearst newspaper is like a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” Think, Fox News with ink.
When daddy George Hearst, died in 1891, W.R. convinced his mother to sell off the mining properties on which the family fortune had been built. He used the cash influx to finance his acquisition of the “New York Morning Journal”, where W.R. repeated his "Examiner's" recipe of success - which he had learned, by the way, during a summer internship under Joseph Pulitzer. It makes journalism's "Pulitzer Prize" seem like a mea culpa, doesn't it?  And then W.R. began to buy newspapers, eventually 42 of them, with 30 million plus readers. Now he could syndicate his well paid writers and increase his advertising revenues, which he used to promote and publicize his runs for congress, and as governor and mayor of N.Y.C.  He failed to win any of those elections. But everything W.R. did (like Donald Trump) was ultimately to promote and publicize himself, including the Hearst Prize for the coast to coast air race.
W.R.’s interest in flying was typically mercenary. When his editors had approached him with the idea of offering a $50,000 prize for the first transcontinental flight, experts like Glenn Curtiss and Wilbur Wright, warned  that aviation was too young to achieve such a lofty goal.  In 1910 no plane could stay aloft longer than two hours at a time, and none could travel faster than fifty miles an hour. Airplanes were still made out of wood and wire, for crying out loud. But, on the plus side, offering the prize would fill W.R.'s newspapers day after day, with articles about how it could it be done, who could do it, who didn’t think it could be done, and how many would die trying to do it.
W.R. was awarded a medal from the Aeronautical Society of America for just offering the prize. And W.R. loved to get medals. But paying out the prize money would sell W.R.'s newspapers for one day only.   And that was why the Hearst Prize had contained a time limit. It was set to expire on 17 October, 1911, before Hearst figured anybody could make it across the country.   So, when Cal Rogers’ telegram arrived, begging for an extension, W.R. was in no rush to respond.  Cal waited in Chicago for two days for the telegram from Hearst, and he began to suspect he had been had.  So with just a week left before the deadline, he decided to force W.R's hand.  On Tuesday, 10 October, Cal flew across the flat lands to Springfield, Illinois, then on to Marshall, Missouri. As he arrived in Marshall,  far away from any cities fed by Hearst newspapers, Cal found a telegram from Hearst waiting for him. There would be no extension in the time limit.  Cal had now flown 1,398 miles since leaving New York, which gave him the record for the longest flight. But there would be no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, just a bottle of Vin Fiz.  Yuck.
A more mercenary element now drove Cal’s romantic quest. When the city of St. Louis and its popular Hearst newspaper, withdrew its offer of a thousand dollars for landing there, Cal simply bypassed the town. Instead he flew on to Kansas City, landing in Swope Park.  They, at least, offered a few dollars landing award.
Experience was forcing his wife Mable to learn how to handle the money side of the race, as Cal was learning how to handle his plane.  They decided to turn south, to avoid taking the Rocky Mountains head on,  and to also avoid Denver and its Hearst newspaper.  There were far fewer trees to run into on the Great Plains, which reduced certain dramatic elements in Cal’s landings and take offs. Fewer crashes meant fewer late night repairs.  Everybody was getting more sleep. And at about 9 a.m., on Thursday 19 October, 1911 the “Vin Fiz Flyer” crossed the Red River into Texas.
And on that same day the race that was no longer a race, became a again, with the return of Bob Fowler.
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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

AIR HEADS Chapter Three

I figure that Cal Rogers (above)  was feeling pretty confident on the morning of Saturday, 23 September, 1911.  True, Cal Rogers gave the air of always being pretty confident. But this morning in particular he had received word that one of his competitors, Jimmy Ward,  had dropped out of the “Hearst Coast-to-Coast Race” after crashing (yet again!) 5 miles outside of Addison, New York.  Cal already knew that his other competitor,  Bob Fowler had failed on his third attempt to get over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, finally cracking up near the summit, and reducing his Cole Flyer to kindling and canvas. That left just himself, Cal Rogers, the six foot four inch deaf adventurer from Pittsburgh in the running for the $50,000.00 first place prize.
Of course, Cal still had to get to California within the time limit.  He was barely a tenth of the way across the continent now, and he had already crashed three times. He was already decorated with bandages from all the scrapes and scratches he had suffered.  The problem was that Cal had been a pilot for all of four months. He had less than 60 hours of flying experience. He knew nothing about navigation by air, and there was no one to teach him. The longest flight so far in the United States had been one from St. Louis to New York City, completed just the month before,  by somebody else.  In short, Cal was at the very edge of human experience in flight, both physically and mechanically. 

The Wright engine (above) on his “Vin Fiz Flyer" had no throttle. The 4 cylinder engine was either on or off, at full power or at zero. The pilot had only one way to alter his speed, and that was to “advance the spark”, meaning to alter the instant in the compression cycle when the spark plug fired. In a modern internal combustion engine of the 1920's this would be controlled mechanically. But in the Wright engine of 1911 it was done by physically unscrewing one or two of the spark plugs a fraction of an inch into or out of the cylinder by hand. The engines' designer and builder, Charlie Taylor,  had taken a leave of absence from the Wright workshop in Ohio to accompany the "Vin Fiz Flyer" across the country, and with all the other pressing redesigns required on the engine,  this was the best one for altering speed that Charlie had come with so far.
It took two days to repair the Vin Fiz after the crash at Middletown, New York on 17 September. So Cal did not return to the race until Thursday, 21 September, 1911.  His first leg that day was to be a hop to Hancock, New York, 40 miles east of Binghamton.  But half way there Cal noticed his radiator had sprung a leak. He kept an eye on the precious fluid dripping out of his engine and then, just as he was over the town - POP! -  A spark plug flew out of engine.  Unscrewing the spark plug to adjust the engine speed evidently also made the plug prone to vibrating itself right out of the engine.  In an instant, the 4 cylinder Wright engine  lost 25% of its power, and the plane had precious little to spare. Cal suddenly found himself plummeting for the ground. Cal managed to steer for an open field,  pulling the "Vin Fiz's" nose up at just the last second to make a cash landing. But it was still a crash. Again, there was nothing to do but wait for the his service train, the "Vin Fiz Special".
The next two weeks would prove to be difficult, as California receded farther and farther away in distance and in time. While making a normal landing at Binghamton, New York,  Cal would later say, “…There was a snap of breaking timber and my right skid had gone". The broken skid was easily replaced over night, from the supplies carried on board the “Vin Fiz Special”,  the three car train that followed and led Cal across the country.  It carried fuel and a rolling repair shop, and a Pullman sleeping car, Cal’s wife Mable, and his mother Maude (nee Rodgers) Sweitzer -  for the time being.
Cal's mother, Maude (nee Rodgers) Sweitzer was on that Pullman, giving solidity to her second husband, Henrey Sweitzer's divorce suit, which he had filed in July. The wealthy businessman had charged Maude with "cruel and barbarous treatment and indignities...and desertion without cause".  Henrey might have named Cal at the co-respondent in the divorce, since it seemed Maude had abandoned her wealthy second husband for her son....her married son.Whose wife was sharing the Pullman with her and Cal, as well as  chief mechanic Charley Tailor. Also sleeping on board was the second mechanic, Charles (Wiggie) Wiggen, three assistant mechanics and assorted newspaper reporters and photographers, most of whom worked for Mr. Hearst..
With such generous support, Cal was airborne again on Friday morning of 22 September, 1911. But that afternoon, as Cal approached a landing at Elmira, New York,  he snagged some telegraph wires. More repairs were required. As Cal traversed the border lands between Pennsylvania and western New York State, he hit a patch of good weather and made up some time, at least until late on Sunday afternoon of 24 September. Just after Cal had taken off from Salamanca, New York, high up on the Allegheny River, .another spark plug vibrated its way out of the Wright engine. But this time Cal coolly reached behind his back, grabbed the hot plug in his glove just before it popped completely out. He twisted it back into the cylinder and held it in place as he made a perfect landing (with one hand) on the Allegheny Indian reservation outside of Red House, N.Y.
Cal now screwed the spark plug firmly back in and,  with help of a couple of native Americans, turned the plane around for take off.  But he couldn’t work up enough speed and had to abort. He tried again, but the second attempt also failed to get airborne.  Each time the two helpful locals had tried to warn Cal that he was aiming at a barbed wire fence. But either because he didn’t understand what they were saying (he was deaf,) or because he was in such a rush, Cal ignored their warnings and the third time proved to be the charm. Cal taxied directly into the barbed wire fence, ripping the fabric covering the right wing to shreds, and wrapping the prickly barbed wire around the frame. It would take two days to free the “Vin Fiz Flyer” to fly yet again.
Cal was back in the air on Wednesday, 27 September , and had safe landings that day and the next. But on Friday, 29 September he was grounded by bad weather. Still, Saturday, 30 September saw him break out of the Alleghenies and enter the rolling farm lands of the old Middle West. The "Vin Fiz" covered 200 miles on 30 September, still 50 miles short of the distance he had intended to average.   He would have gone further but a clogged fuel line forced him down late in the day near Akron, Ohio. Cal spent that night fending off curious cows who seemed determined to crush his fragile airplane under their big fat hooves. Or maybe they were just looking to catch a flight to some place more respectful of vegetarians.
On Sunday, the first day of October, 1911,  Cal stopped at first Mansfield and then Marion, Ohio, before being forced down by another clogged fuel line at Rivare, Indiana, just over the state line. Under threatening skies Cal cleared the fuel line and took off again, only to fly directly into a thunderstorm, the first pilot to ever do so. As lightning snapped around his plane, Cal was the first pilot to experience downdrafts and wind shear, and as quickly as he could, Cal landed the "Vin Fiz" again, in the tiny Hoosier town of Geneva.  As soon as the weather cleared he flew on to Huntington, Indiana, where he was met by an enthusiastic crowd, and was able to spend the night on board the train with his dear Mable. And his dear mother Maria.
The next morning, Monday, 2 October, the winds were still gusting and again Cal had a hard time working up speed on his 35 horsepower Wright engine. Just as he felt his skids leave the ground he realized he was heading for a crowd of people.
Cal yanked the stick to the left, passed under telegraph wires, and bounced his left wing off the ground.  Cal was thrown out of his seat and scrapped his forehead. The left wing of the “Vin Fizz” was crumpled and folded up.  But the “lucky” bottle of soda dangling from the strut was unbroken, yet again. Or so said the Vin Fiz publicity agents.  It would take two days to repair the “Vin Fiz”, essentially its third complete rebuild since takeoff.
On Wednesday 4 October Cal flew to Hammond, Indiana, where he landed just before 6 P.M., on a plowed field on the Jarnecke Farm. He slept that night in the comfort of the Majestic Hotel. But high winds kept him grounded for another two days.
Finally, in desperation, on Saturday, 7 October, 1911, Cal loaded the “Vin Fiz” aboard his train and moved it to the village of Lansing, Illinois, where he found a fallow field with a wind break. This allowed him to finally take off again. As his journey westward by rail had not moved him closer to Chicago, technically, he had not advanced his position in the race.  Or so said the Fin Fiz spin doctors.
Cal Rogers finally reached the air field in Cicero, Illinois, on the west side of Chicago, on the Sunday afternoon of 8 October. This was near where, at the air show in Grant Park on the lake shore just two months before, Cal had made his public debut as a pilot.  By the rules, Cal now had less than two weeks to fly the remaining 3,000 miles across the Mississippi, the Kansas and Nebraska flatlands, the Rocky Mountains, the Great American desert and then the Sierra Nevada mountains. Cal Rogers was the only man still in the race, but he was running out of time.
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