The National Championship Air Race in Reno, Nevada is the place to be for anyone who loves aviation, aviators and a good adrenalin rush.
“Gentlemen, you have a race!” are the words you’d hear if you could hear above the roar of aircraft at the 47th annual National Championship Air Races. Held each September, just 20 minutes outside of Reno, this aviation event is akin to the Indy 500, with a dash of the Concourse de Elegance thrown in for good measure. Thousands of racing fans from all over the world descend on this hot/cold, dry/wet and unpredictable place called Stead Field, an old military and civilian airfield, to see aircraft flying at dizzying speed around pylons 50 feet above the ground.
The whine of overwrought piston driven engines fills the air as farm boys and brain surgeons alike duke it out in 65-year-old warbirds. It’s the world’s fastest motor sport — seven laps around a course marked by giant cans on poles. With six different classes of aircraft, racing at speeds between 200 and 500 miles per hour, it’s La Vida Loca-motion, along with an air show of aerobatics and other death defying acts.
Static displays help keep the crowd entertained between the heats, but it’s all about big engines, fire-breathing horsepower and speed baby, speed! You never know when an engine will “grenade” (explode) as the competing aircraft fight during the week to better their course times and advance into the next standing, be it Bronze, Silver or Gold.
Air racing has its roots going back to 1910 when aircraft designer Glenn Curtiss and other participating pilots attended a 10-day air meet at Rancho Dominguez, (now Dominguez Hills, CA) and just for fun, chased each other around in their airplanes in front of the crowd. The sport gained popularity during the 1930s with both men and women setting air speed records.
The Second World War put racing on hold as aviation went to war. There was a brief revival after the war until a tragic crash at the 1949 National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio resulted in the deaths of three people — the pilot and a woman and her child. That incident put the brakes on air racing until modern air racing officially resumed in 1964 at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada.
Today’s air races are faster and more complex with class divisions: Biplane, Formula One, Sport and Super Sport (a faster division of Sport), T-6, Unlimited and the Jet Class. Each class goes faster than the one before, increasing the demands on the pilots and their aircraft. The high-risk hazards are inherent for all, as men and women push the technology and their nerves to the limit.
So what draws a crowd to this predictably unpredictable celebration of aviation technology and flying skill — besides the carnival of souvenir stands and food vendors pitching high desert gourmet? For many it’s a connection to aviation, to the pilots, the aircraft builders and the mechanics. For others, it’s a connection with the past and the future. Fans of the races return year after year, some as many as 35 consecutive years or more without missing a single race
For competing pilots, it’s the culmination of a year of training and hard work on their planes. I spoke with Vince Walker, a Sport Class racer and a professional pilot in real life who flies MD-11 cargo jets out of Memphis. Vince races a Lancair Legacy named “Modo Mio.” When asked if having that control stick between his legs helps his social life he replied, “Meetings between the sexes here are purely accidental. I’m much too focused to really have time to socialize. When you are moving at 310 mph, 50 feet off the ground you’re already having too much fun!”
(By the way, Vince is single, likes slow walks on the beach, his favorite color is blue, and he always remembers to put the seat down.)
The Reno Air Races also provide a showcase for aircraft manufacturers to display and demonstrate their latest high performance turbo prop and light biz jet aircraft. With the likes of John Travolta, aviatrix Patty Wagstaf, test pilot legend R.A. Bob Hoover, tycoons of business and industry (Baron Hilton, sorry if I squeezed your hand too hard, firm handshake and all that), assorted astronauts, some of them even racing, you’ll never know who you are going to bump into here.
Another facet is the National Aviation Heritage Invitational, a juried exhibition of exquisitely restored vintage and historic aircraft 45 years or older. Sponsored by Rolls Royce, Air & Space Smithsonian and the Aviation Hall of Fame, the public can view these aircraft as they’re judged and then awarded trophies on the final day of the races.
The races culminate on Sunday, with final all-out races in each of the classes. Over a million dollars in cash prizes are awarded to the planes and crews that win Gold, Silver and Bronze in their classes, and by the afternoon, when the Unlimited’s run, anything can happen. This year was no exception.
The Unlimited Gold race was building to a dramatic conclusion with the Mustangs dominating a field they usually share with powerful and “unbreakable” Sea Furys along with a temperamental but ever present Bearcat, named Rare Bear. But this year, the Sea Fury’s were down with engine problems. A new entry, a highly modified P-51 Mustang, The Galloping Ghost, owned and flown by Florida developer Jimmy Leeward, clawed its way from the Bronze class all the way to the final Gold race, to challenge last year’s winner, Strega, also a modified racing Mustang flown by the young racing phenom, Steven “Stevo” Hinton.
The final Gold race was going to be a real nail biter, but nature intervened. With winds howling at 35 miles-per-hour on the course, and the landing crash of a Thunder Mustang just before the start of the Unlimited Gold race, a hold was called in the hope that the winds would subside long enough to finish the races.
Ultimately, safety and good sense ruled the day, the race was called and prizes were awarded to the aircraft with the best heat time from the previous day (as stipulated in the rules).
It was an anticlimactic end to an exciting and action packed week, leaving the battle to be fought at next year’s races. I can hardly wait!
Copyright © David Peters/2010 Singular Communications, LLC.