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Each year, air racing teams make their pilgrimage to the Nevada high desert for their yearly fix of speed, low flying, racing and camaraderie. Whether they are shoestring outfits with one or two crew members, or professional teams with twenty, each road to Reno is unique. Each road is difficult, rocky and variable.

For two teams in particular, this axiom was never more true. On one hand you have the Dago Red team. Lead by owner Terry Bland and crew chief Bill Kerchenfaut, they are arguably one of the most successful air race teams in history. They have had five consecutive wins . Luck? Maybe some; but skill, preparation and determination also factor. They make it look easy to outsiders, even when problems and obstacles arise. This year was a prime example: first their racing Merlin began to fail just two weeks before the races. It was rebuilt in record time and put back in the airplane. Then during a test flight, Dago Red was almost lost when pilot Skip Holm had to deadstick the racer into Provo, Utah. Due to his skill, the only damage was a dent in the wing leading edge. The team pressed on to Reno.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Rare Bear team. Led by owner Lyle Shelton and a host of changing crew members, this crew has been fighting a financial battle for some time. Since the late 1990's, the cost of fielding a top unlimited racer has exploded exponentially. To overcome this limitation, the team has scoured for sponsors and has been supported by a fan sponsor program. The Bear team is racing on small dollars in a Big Bucks Game. The fact that they even made Reno is a victory for them. Their gold race win made it that much sweeter.

The other top players at Reno this year included Mike Brown in his hopped-up September Fury, Brian Sanders in Dreadnought, Sherman Smoot in Czech Mate, Danny Martin in Ridge Runner, Brent Hisey in Miss America and a gaggle of R-3350 powered Sea Furies. There were a lot of airplanes in the 420 mph neighborhood!

The First Showdown

Right out of the box, Mike Brown got the prop turning in his scalding hot September Fury. The R-3350 powered screamer had been groomed and perfected over the past six years and was beginning to show some promise. After the engine failure during last year’s qualifying run, Brown took a more careful tact and learned that in order to finish first, you have to finish... This year, he ran a reasonable power setting and was the first to qualify at 465.382 mph. This earned him the third fastest qualifying position.

In a twist of irony, the two fastest racers at Reno were towed out and fired up at the same time for their qualifying attempts. Rare Bear and Dago Red, acting as if a showdown was about to take place, entered the course a half lap apart; Bear first and Dago second. John Penney honked Rare Bear around the unlimited course with brown smoke bellowing from the exhaust stacks. The racer, equipped with its four blade Skyraider prop this year, was really turned up and moving. Although he would later say he wasn’t pleased with his line around the course, Penney came up with a stunning 490.1 mph qualifying speed! Was the Bear back, or was this a fluke? Those watching the unfolding fight began to wonder if Rare Bear’s R-3350 could hope to stay together at those power settings and speeds through the week.

Almost right behind Rare Bear - literally - was Holm in Dago Red. Holm puttered around one lap at some miserly power setting then put his boot to it for the hot lap. With a torrent of spraybar water misting behind, Holm cracked off his typical tight, low-line lap and came up with 490.8 mph: Pole Position. Top Dog. But the Underdog was keeping an eye out. It was an interesting development; Rare Bear had gone fast, but could they keep it up all week? Dago was a known quantity, and would have to be taken by force if somebody else wanted to pass. Showdown, indeed!

In Other News...

Reno 2004 also provided excitement with other racing planes; Mike Brown was keeping a low profile with September Fury, but had also brought his September Pops Fury and his F7F Tigercat to race; a first at Reno. Brian Sanders was racing Dreadnought this year; the two-time champion had returned to racing after suffering engine problems and missing a year. Sanders would have to deal with a mayday due to a stuck valve. After fixing the problem, Dreadnought qualified at 434.296, quite a bit off her normal pace.

Several big surprises were sprung as the week unfolded, too. Sherman Smoot was racing John Moore’s Czech Mate - the R-2800 modified Yak-11 that was one of Reno’s hard luck cases. This year, Smoot and crew overcame a gear problem during qualifying. They came back the next day and stunned everybody with a 448.403 mph qualifying speed. There were several scenarios where this pocket rocket could finish in the top three!

Danny Martin, who has sworn off racing more times than not, returned to Reno again in his Ridge Runner P-51. He had planned on a new propeller for this years; race, but problems with it forced him back to a cuffed Hamilton Standard unit. However, it was the Sparrow Merlin under the hood that would really make a difference. Along with some airframe modes, the super-stock Mustang clocked a 446.006 qualifying lap.

The rest of the 400 - 450 neighborhood was a rough one: Brent Hisey and Miss America at 436.966, Stewart Dawson in Spirit of Texas at 435.092, Nelson Ezell in Fury at 426.181, Hoot Gibson in Riff Raff at 419.932, Curt Brown in Voodoo at 415.735, Dennis Sanders in Argonaut at 412.277, and Dan Vance in September Pops at 410.431. These racers would inhabit the bottom of the gold and most of the silver races, and provide some the of the best racing Reno has seen in years.

"Gentlemen... You have a race!"

That famous phrase came across the public address system as Pace pilot Steve Hinton let the racers go for Friday’s silver heat. Up until now, the racing had been about average. Not today - Hisey jumped out to the lead in Miss America with some really high laps speeds until he pulled out with a thin film of oil on the windscreen. Once on the ground, the real problem was found - the prop bolts securing the spinner back plate had all sheared. Cracks were also found in their fiberglass intake trunk.

Back on the course, Nelson Ezell in Fury and Hoot Gibson in Riff Raff were both slugging away at each other like prize fighters. They were literally wingtip to wingtip around the course. Neither was giving an inch; one mistake and the other would take the lead with no chance of re-passing. Through each lap, the crowd was really getting into this battle! Ezell found just enough to take the win away from Gibson by .02 of a second at 417 mph! Just behind them, Curt Brown in Voodoo and Dennis Sanders in Argonaut were having their own fight for third and fourth place. In the end, Voodoo edged out Argonaut by a half second for third place.

As Friday’s gold heat race began, Dago Red, Rare Bear and September Fury all leapt out in front of the others. Would this be a repeat of last year’s record setting gold heat race? Who is going to run hard? It depends on what "hard" is... For Dago Red, 120 inches of manifold pressure and 3,400 rpm isn’t hard at all. Second place Rare Bear was chugging mightily along with September Fury just behind. Tightly spaced in a battle for fourth were Dreadnought, Ridge Runner and Czech Mate. These three were racing as close as the T-6 class normally does! Brian Sanders, in Dreadnought, was running reduced power to keep wear and tear on the R-4360 to a minimum. This put him back with the other two racers, and he had to make a few "adjustments" to his line to maintain spacing.

Running a strong third, and without any threat from the racers behind him, Brown smartly pulled off some power and waited to see if Dago or Bear would melt each other down. That wouldn’t happen; at the checkered flag it was Dago, Bear, September Fury, Dreadnought, Czech Mate and Ridge Runner. The crowd now had a taste of the Big Dogs; what was shown and what was held? Rare Bear kept the pace, but how healthy was the -3350? Was it band-aided together, or was it really okay? Was Dago hiding some problem? How much did September Fury have left, and would Brown show his true colors come Sunday? And how about the rest of the pack? Ridge Runner ran 460 plus in qualifying, and Smoot had run nearly 450? It seemed like everybody was holding some of their cards close to their chest.

Cool Wind from the West

The early part of the week was clear and warm, but changes began to come on Friday. Saturday dawned gray and much cooler. Weather forecasters were talking about cold weather, rain, and possibly snow on Sunday. Wind, too.

Stewart Dawson, in his newly painted Spirit of Texas, ran away with the bronze heat after a late night cylinder change. Joe Thibodeau was biding his time wisely in his P-51 and finished second at 391 mph. Then it was Bagley, Carroll, Brown and his Tigercat, Stephens and Jimmy Leeward with cooling problems. With the win, Dawson would bump up into the silver race on Sunday.

In the silver heat, Voodoo ran away with the race with an average speed of 440.9 mph, securing a spot in Sunday’s gold final. Over the past several years, the Voodoo team has been the focus of bad luck, some questionable decisions, and several blown engines. This year, owner Bob Button put Curt Brown in the cockpit and settled on racing in the bronze, or maybe even the silver. But Brown was racing effortlessly and the airplane, save for a generator problem, was running well. You think he was running only 60 inches? Hah! Onto the gold tomorrow!

Under gray skies, the gold racers launched and were coming down the chute in no time. Once again, Skip Holm in Dago Red lead from start to finish; but what was this? Rare Bear falling back? Penney, piloting the volatile Bearcat, wasn’t pushing his mount hard at all. His lap speeds were in the 440 range and fueled the question of engine health. Brown had started the race in third, added some power, and had now passed Rare Bear to take over second place. Was Brown happy here? Was he setting his sights on Holm up ahead, or would he be perfectly happy with second place today?

Back within the pack, Dreadnought was still running at a reduced power setting at 428 mph, and not keeping everybody totally honest. Martin in Ridge Runner was pushing hard to get by, but ultimately pushed too hard. "Race 20 is a mayday..." Martin climbed off the course with a sick Merlin. Hinton, in the T-33 came up alongside and checked him over, noting no smoke or oil. Martin landed okay as the race continued. His crew would end up pulling an all night engine change to continue racing Sunday.

"I’d push the power up," Martin said, "and it would pop and fart. It would happen about once every five seconds. So I pulled the power back and it kept doing that. Then it got rough."

At the checkered flag it was Dago Red at 466.5 mph, September Fury at 464 mph, Rare Bear at 443.1 mph, Dreadnought at 428.8, Czech Mate at 419 mph and Fury at 391.9.

During the race, Penney had been forced to reduce manifold pressure and rpm to get it to run smoothly. "One cylinder began to miss intermittently, so the crew worked that night to change a bank of coils and troubleshoot the ignition," Penney said. An early test flight was flown on Sunday morning to ensure the racer was ready.


That’s what Sunday is at Reno. Sure, prize money is accrued each day, but the big checks get written on Sunday. You either get one written to you by RARA, or you write one to pick up the broken pieces. It never changes.

Through the week, the Rare Bear pit had been mostly empty. The racer had been tucked into its hangar, taken apart, inspected, and worked on. The crew was always chasing something. First there were cylinder changes. Then on Wednesday, they found silver in the screens. The team had overcome so many obstacles, and they just kept coming. How could the modified Rare Bear engine possibly hope to hold together against the proven reliability of Dago Red? Mike Brown might have something to say about it, too. His R-3350 powered Super Sea Fury was no slouch, and he was aching to prove himself and the airplane. Still, the silver found in the Rare Bear screens earlier in the week was a huge problem.

R-3350 guru Mel Gregoire had been flown in. He would, once and for all, diagnose the real problem within the team’s engine. After a faulty diagnoses by another group, Gregoire took one look and knew the blower gear was failing. The crew tackled the problem and worked tirelessly to fix their engine. They would test fly during races, run the engine up at night, and survive on caffeine and junk food. Would their supreme effort pay off today?

Like everything else, the weather would not be considered a plus for any race team today. Winter clouds rolled in from the west, along with a bitterly cold wind that cut right through whatever you were wearing. Rain showers were falling in the vicinity of the race course, and the racing officials were keeping a close eye on the weather.

For the bronze final, Joe Thibodeau finally got to shine. His silver and yellow P-51 Crusader leapt out in front as he flew a precise, low line around the sticks. He had pushed his power up to take the checkered flag at an eye opening speed of 408.2 mph; quite good for the bronze race. John Bagley in the Mustang and Mike Brown in the Tigercat put on a really good race for the fans. Bagley kept just in front of the big blue Grumman by a plane length or two for the entire race, then put the hammer down to secure third place. Jimmy Leeward had gotten a handle on his cooling problems and finished second at 382.3 mph, followed by John Bagley in Ole Yeller at 377.8, Stu Eberhardt in Merlin’s Magic at 374.9 mph, Sean Carroll in Rush-N-Roulette at 373.2 mph, Mike Brown in the Bossman at 368.1 mph, C.J. Stephens in Speedball Alice at 344.4 mph and Brant Seghetti in Sparky at 324.4 mph.

Eberhardt had hoped for a much easier race week. Unfortunately, they suffered problems with their racing Merlin and were forced to pull it and install a stock engine on Friday. Overall, their bronze finish was very good despite their setbacks.

Pistols at Twenty Feet

That’s how you could describe the battle in the silver race between Stewart Dawson and Ron Buccarelli.

After a very abbreviated start, Dawson’s Sea Fury and Buccarelli’s Griffon powered Mustang diced around the course for the first part of the race in some really nice flying. And this was only the battle for third and fourth place! Up front, Brent Hisey was running away in the lead in Miss America at 417 mph, and Hoot Gibson was cruising in second place with laps speeds around 415 mph. For the first few laps, Buccarelli held the inside line and gave nothing away to Dawson. At the start of the third lap, Buccarelli ran into wake turbulence and got rolled to the right. Dawson took advantage of the situation and passed Buccarelli. He then put his sights on Hoot Gibson in Riff Raff.


In a last ditch effort, Dawson dove alarmingly to the deck in the Valley of Speed in order to catch up. At the line, it was Gibson by a spinner at 414.2 mph, then Dawson at 414.1 mph, and Precious Metal at 407.9 mph. Dennis Sanders had a ringside seat for all of this action - he finished fourth at 398.2 mph, followed by Dan Vance in September Pops at 386.2 mph, Ike Enns in Miracle Maker at 382.5 mph, and Howard Pardue in his Bearcat at 381.9 mph. Winner Brent Hisey, who had an average speed of 417.2 mph, elected to forfeit the win and bump into the gold race.

Through the day, the weather had been consistent. Consistently bad. The wind cut, the clouds threatened and the race officials - in the end - got a bit antsy. They made the decision to run the gold unlimited race early due to the threatening weather. In all fairness, the officials were doing their best to second guess what would roll over the hills - sunshine or snow. Even though the crews were rushed, and Rare Bear wasn’t even ready, the racers were pulled out haphazard on the ramp in front of the pits. An informal briefing was held by pace pilot Steve Hinton and the racers. Rain teased the edges of the ramp, and showers fell within the race course boundaries. Overall, the weather really looked terrible.

With time being a factor, there were no pilot introductions in front of the stands, no lineup of gleaming racers, and no ceremony. The racers climbed into their cockpit, strapped in, fired up, and taxied out. After takeoff, the race formation struggled to remain VFR, and actually went southbound near the start chute. A few moments later, they pack came down the chute, Hinton pulled and and hit the mic button. "Gentlemen, you have a race!"

Right off the bat, it was a two plane race. Skip Holm in Dago Red had the pole, while Mike Brown dropped back out of second. "This damn thing is rattling already!," he radioed his crew. No problem for John Penney and Rare Bear; he put his boot to it and passed Brown within a few seconds. He snuggled right up to Holm as they passed pylon three and banked into four. Then it was Brown, Sanders in Dreadnought, and Sherman Smoot in Czech Mate. The rest of the pack was in a totally different race. Nelson Ezell in Fury stayed pretty much in sixth place. Brent Hisey and Miss America had started in the back of the pack, but had gained position and stayed behind Ezell. Curt Brown was taking it easy on Bob Button’s Voodoo, and an ailing Ridge Runner brought up the tail end.

Coming down the Valley of Speed, John Penney was right in Holm’s outside hip pocket, He was racing/flying formation is some really terrible conditions. There was rain all through the Valley of Speed and around pylon four. As Dago Red and Rare Bear came around pylon eight for the first time, the crowd let loose with pent up energy - we were watching a race!

Holm, within the sealed cockpit of Dago Red, thought that the conditions were pretty bad. He was in marginal VFR conditions, racing, and had a lot of smash on the racing Merlin. He knew Penney was right behind him, and decided he didn’t want to race or fly formation as the second place airplane. "Stay in front," he thought.

As lap two began, Holm continued in the lead and Penney stayed right with him. Would one of the racers push too hard and melt down? Why was Mike Brown so far back? Czech Mate was tooling around at a fine pace, and would end up passing Dreadnought. Penney, with Holm just inside and in front, suddenly banked to the right a little. Bad air? Wake turbulence? Neither.

Penney brought some power off of the abused R-3350 and relaxed just a bit. "I’ve got this made," he thought. For the rest of the race, Penney followed Holm around the sticks and maintained his position a few seconds behind Holm. At the end, they came across the finish line in this order: Dago Red, Rare Bear, Mike Brown in September Fury at 455.8 mph, Sherman Smoot in Czech Mate at 427.4 mph, Brian Sanders in Dreadnought at 426.6 mph, Nelson Ezell in Fury at 404.9 mph, Brent Hisey in Miss America at 378.7 mph, Curt Brown in Voodoo at 364.7 mph, and Danny Martin in an ailing Ridge Runner at 304.4 mph. But it wouldn’t pan out that way in the end.

Holm, for all of his experience and ability, knew what had happened on lap two. He had cut pylon four. Not only had he cut it, he really cut it - by about 400 feet. ‘I couldn’t see," he explained. Since the weather had changed, the racer had been experiencing fogging within the canopy. The spray bars and heat exchanger under the cockpit pumped a huge amount of hot water vapor into the racer. This had lead to fogging on Saturday’s race, too. The team had worked on the problem as much as they could by applying anti-fogging compound.

Penney had a clear canopy and saw Holm cut the pylon, as did Brown in third place. They didn’t follow Holm in the pylon cut. In fact, the penalty assessed to Holm almost put him into third place. The final finish was John Penney in Rare Bear in first at 470.0 mph and Skip Holm in Dago Red at 456.8 mph in second. The rest of the pack finished as advertised.

Reno 2004 is history, and like many other races, lessons were learned. Sometimes the best doesn’t take home the winner’s trophy... The Dago Red team had five previous consecutive wins. Save for one small problem, they might have had six. The Rare Bear team overcame tall odds and never once gave up on their quest for the gold win. Even though the Dago team placed second, they can be proud of the fact that no other racer passed them or went faster than they did during race week. For that, they won the 2004 Thompson Trophy. The Rare Bear team got a sweet victory, the championship trophy, and the check for first place money. In their own rights, these two teams both came away winners this year.

Story and Photo Copyright 2004 by Scott Germain - WarbirdAeroPress.com. All Rights Reserved. Additional Photo by Bill Kerchenfaut (Bronze Race Start from Pace Aircraft)


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