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Who is coming to race an unlimited at Reno this year? The truth is, you will never know until Monday morning of qualifying... But we can tell you, as of this writing, who is planning on being there and what they have to overcome to make it. Here is how it is presently stacking up:

Dago Red

Terry Bland’s penultimate racing Mustang will get its racing engine installed around August 1st. Each year, the Dwight Thorn Merlin is removed and sent back to the shop, where Thorn and Steve Bartholf overhaul it and check for any damage. Last year’s racing, including Friday’s race with speeds over 500 mph, didn’t put a lot of strain on the parts. There was some bearing wear, so several were replaced as a precaution.

This year, some light maintenance is being done on the racer, but the radiator and some other major items will not be pulled for inspection until next year. After the engine is put back on, Dago Red will be test flown in preparation for the races. Skip Holm will once again be doing the driving.


Rare Bear

The brutal Bearcat is slated to run this year, again with John Penney at the controls. Owner Lyle Shelton and his crew are still chasing some problems within the engine or carburetor, but progress is being made. Since the pylon school in June, the racer has been flown and worked on in an never-ending battle against gremlins and hiccoughs.

The biggest change for this year is a return to the Aeroproducts four bladed propeller - a move that will hopefully increase aircraft controllability. The Bear also sports a telemetry system that should shift some workload from Penney to the crew during the racing. Fan sponsorship is still running, so if you would like to support Rare Bear’s race effort, please visit www.RareBear.com. They have some cool merchandise to offer.


September Fury

Mike "Low Down" Brown still has his fangs out for a win in the unlimited gold race. If you saw his two-thirds of a qualifying lap last year, you know the red and flamed-out Sea Fury can really rock and roll. Unfortunately, the R-3350's master rod failed and trashed the engine. Brown made a successful emergency landing, but was out for 2003.

He has again contracted with Precision Engines in Everett, Washington, to build up a R-3350 for the racer. When I spoke to Mike at the Chino airshow in May, he commented that the program was on time and on budget. Precision plans on running it on the test stand at the end of July, and if all goes well, it will be transported to Ione and installed on the airplane. Bottom line: look for September Fury to put some major heat on Dago Red and Rare Bear.



The Sanders family have some really good news; as of this writing, Dreadnought’s R-4360 should be finished and put on the airplane in time for Reno! This was one of the big question marks for this year, so it’s definitely good news that the airplane will race. With some rather fast planes out for this year, Dreadnought will provide the others with a level of honesty. Only the front runners will get around her, so she’ll again set the pace in the gold category. Whichever one of the brothers that doesn’t race Dreadnought will race their -3350 Argonaut and/or Mike Brown’s September Pops.


Ridge Runner

"I won’t race any more," is what owner and pilot Dan Martin told me in an interview last year. Guess he changed his mind! The P-51 is slated to return to Reno this year, but don’t expect Martin to sandbag or show up with drop tanks. Expect him to pump the airplane up and be very competitive. In addition to Dan’s aggressive racing style, there will be a number of go fast mods on this racer and some muscle under the cowl. This airplane will be very competitive.



Raced last year by Gary Hubler, the R-4360 powered Sea Fury posted its best speeds ever during the races. Pushed up and flown aggressively, it was great to see another competitive gold level racer in the battle. 

Unfortunately, owner Bill Rogers is standing down with Furias this year. "We took the airplane completely down for rebuild. It really needed it," Rogers said. "We have rebuilt the wing and the leading edge, and chose to install a second seat. We also rebuilt everything firewall forward."

With so much to do, the all volunteer crew could only put in so many man-hours. The fuselage has been taken apart at the production break, and time has run out to rebuild the aft fuselage and tail. "We're not going to be at Reno so we can do it all at once," Rogers explained. "We've got it to the point where the airplane is reliable, so now we want to make it good. 


Czech Mate

If you have checked Trade A Plane lately, you know owner John Moore is selling this slick, fast, R-2800 powered little beast. Got a spare $375,000 hanging around? Unafraid to fly it? Buy it! The rumors stated Moore was not going to bring the plane to Reno, but things have changed. I spoke to Morre and crew chief LD Hughes, and they are now knee deep in Yak maintenance.

"John has it for sale, but nobody is going to buy it this close to Reno, so we’re taking it up there," Hughes said. "We’re just doing routine stuff, so we’ll be there." The neat thing about Czech Mate is that it is a low cost alternative to racing in the unlimited gold category. Pilot Sherman Smoot will be in the cockpit again, and giving Dreadnought a run for the money.


Precious Metal

Pilot/owner Ron Buccarelli only had permission from his wife to race the airplane one year at Reno, and he’s raced twice now. Mrs. Buccarelli is apparently becoming a racing fan!

The Griffon powered P-51 racer will once again be at Reno. This interesting and colorful racer won last year’s Bronze race in a convincing manner, and Buccarelli is looking to get into the gold field this year. No major modifications were done as were planned, but some repairs were done on the Griffon and all is looking well.



After several years with Matt Jackson, Voodoo owner Bob Button had planned on racing the airplane himself this year. Unfortunately, the engine failure at Reno 2003 did a real number on a lot of engine parts. The team is still awaiting valves for the Merlin, so there is a real question as to whether Voodoo will make roll call this year. Even though he’s been dogged by bad luck in the past, Button is a resilient and determined man. If he has anything to say about it, the purple racer will be at Reno with a new pilot.



Race fans already know that Tom Dwelle, owner and pilot of the Critical Mass Sea Fury, has retired from racing. No real statement has been made publicly, but it seems like we have seen the last of the senior Dwelle racing the airplane. But what does that really mean for the future? His son, Ken, is an able-bodied replacement as is son TJ. Both of them will be racing the family T-6 this year, so the family isn’t out of the racing environment at all.


For those of you holding your breath for a Strega reappearance, go ahead and breathe... Tiger won’t be bringing the successful racer back to Reno this year, and nobody really knows what the future will hold for Tiger and Race 7.

The racers that populate the remaining gold, silver and bronze spots will be returning to provide some of the closest racing we get to watch. Look for September Pops, Spirit of Texas (with a stunning new paint scheme), Fury, Riff Raff, the Yak’s, Miss America, Big Bossman, Speedball Alice, Sparky, Lady Jo, Pardue’s Bearcat and Cloud Dancer to compete in this year’s races. Southern Cross, with new owner Stephen Patterson, will be there, but not to race. Just the same, stop by and check out the cool merchandise he’ll have for sale.

An anticipated entrant was the Statler brother’s purpose built racer named Wildfire. There is probably no other racer in the history of the sport that has so much rumor and snickering going on about it as this racer. The R-2800 powered airplane was hoped to have made it through flight test this year, but there is more work to do. After that comes flight test by Dave Morss, whom will also race the airplane. Hopefully, we’ll see them at Reno next year.

This by no means a comprehensive list... With so many of the high end racers a question mark for this year, it opens up the possibility for different planes to join the event and compete.

As for initial guesses on who will win, I’ll admit my bias towards my team - Dago Red. As long as the engine holds together and luck/planning/skill is on the team’s side, the racer will be hard to beat. However, a major engine or system problem could put Dago, or any other racer, out of play.

There is no way you can count out the Rare Bear team; they have a fast airplane, but maybe more importantly, they all have heart. They’ll be pushing just as hard as they can to win on Sunday. Think Mike Brown is going to loaf through any races? Better think again. This man has his fangs out and wants a win, and he’ll push his equipment to get it. 

If attrition rears its head - and it will - the folks down a rung or two will be more than happy to capture a gold class win... Ridge Runner, Czech Mate, Dreadnought and Miss America will all be quite fast this year. Then there is a slew of 400+ mph Sea Furies that will beat up on each other for the checkered flag.




Story and Photos by Scott Germain - WarbirdAeroPress.com. Copyright 2004. All Rights Reserved.


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