Story By David Leininger
Photography by David Leininger, Gerald Liang and Scott Germain

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Warbird and unlimited air racers have always had interesting careers, owners and paint schemes through their histories. Now that unlimited air racing has turned 40 years old, we can look back to the early days at Reno and Mojave, and realize some of our current racers have a story to tell. David Leininger takes a look at the world's fastest Sea Fury. Click Images for a larger view.


In 1962, two abandoned Hawker Sea Furies were recovered from a farmers field in New Brunswick, Canada. After being towed 12 miles to the nearest airport, the aircraft were put into storage. One of the airframes was lost in a hanger fire, but the other was made airworthy and registered N232J. The aircraft was substantially damaged during a landing mishap and was returned to storage in Texas. Frank Sanders, one of the earliest people to begin restoring warbirds, bought N232J and parts from a second airframe from Brian Baird in November of 1969.


The Sanders family traveled to Texas and loaded their Sea Furies on a truck for the journey home to Santa Ana, California. Sea Fury N232J - serial number 41H609972 -  was a Bristol Centaurus powered MK 11 manufactured in September 1947. (The other aircraft would eventually be restored as Argonaut, which they still own.) Over the next year and a half, the Sanders restored and repaired the fighter into airworthy status.


California Fury

In September, 1970, Sanders obtained a certificate of airworthiness and entered airplane in the first of its many races. The California 1000 distance race was held in Mojave, California. Sanders, assigned race number 0, qualified third fastest in the field of twenty aircraft that entered. Bob Metcalfe and Lyle Shelton shared the piloting duties, and completed 60 of the 66 laps for a fourth place finish. He also entered N232J in the November, 1971 United States Cup Race at Brown Field in San Diego, California. Piloting the racer himself, Sanders flew the Sea Fury to a second place finish. Shortly afterward, he returned to Mojave in his second California 1000 Race. The race was shortened to 1000 kilometers that year, and he crossed the finish line first after 41 laps. The aircraft would not be raced again until the 1975 California National Air Races, where he qualified at 364.29 MPH. His final position for the event was sixth place.


The aircraft was sold to Dwight Simms of Mattoon, Illinois in 1978. After additional work on the plane, it was delivered to Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 1979. After that, N232J was sold to Englishman Robs Lamplough in 1988. That September, he brought the aircraft to the National Championship Air Races in Reno, where he raced the fighter as "232." After the races, the aircraft stayed in the U.S. until late 1989 when it was flown to the United Kingdom.


Fast Forward

California businessman Michael Brown had been a spectator at the Reno Air Races. From his seat in the grandstands, he had come to enjoy the sights, sounds and experience of the unlimited class. What he really liked was watching the Sanders' family R-4360 powered Sea Fury Dreadnought beat up on the 'little' Mustangs., A pilot himself, Brown decided to get involved in the sport - he bought a two seat Mk. 20 and had it rebuilt as N233MB, race number 911. The aircraft was completed to exacting standards, and was modified to use a Wright R-3350 engine. In the tradition his dad set during WWII as a B-24 pilot, he also named his airplane September Pops.


Brown began his racing career in 1998 while tracing tight lines around the Reno pylons. September Pops was fast enough to make it into second place in the silver race. In 1999, he worked his way into the gold race, where he finished well in fifth place. For some people, realizing that dream would have been enough. But not Brown; he wanted to win. 


The Players...

Dennis Sanders Mike Brown Brian Sanders

Al Loving   Randy Bailey


The Mk. 18 Bristol Centaurus was removed and replaced with a fuel injected Curtis Wright R-3350-93 engine. To handle the increased horsepower of the new power plant, a custom engine mount was designed, fabricated and mounted to the forward firewall. The aft fuselage, empennage, horizontal stabilizer, rudder, elevators, left forward cockpit and gear doors were all re-skinned during the process. In a quest for more speed, Pete Law designed a boil-off heat exchange system for the engine oil. The unit was placed in the aft fuselage behind and below the cockpit. New oil and fuel lines were installed, as well as new instruments and wiring. In a bid to reduce drag, the wing inlets on the left side were sealed, and the first of several induction systems was tried out.


September Fury debuted at the 2000 Reno races. The name was selected and voted on by the crew; it kept with the theme of 'September,' and let people know Brown was out for Reno gold. Brown's engine didn't last long, however. The -3350, purchased from Matt Jackson, came apart during the start of Friday's gold heat race. Brown made a tight pattern and put the airplane back on the ground. September Fury was out. This would be the first time the racer went home on a truck. 


After the races, the crew found the engine was completely destroyed. Brown turned to Jeff Abbott Aircraft in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, and wrote a check for a new engine. This was not going to be a run of the mill -3350, however. This particular engine, although still the only fuel injected -3350 at Reno, is a very special concoction of several -3350 versions . Brown and his crew won't say much about it, but it is safe to say it is a generation ahead of similar engines on Critical Mass and Rare Bear.


More Mods

Back at Sanders' shop, work began on several airframe modifications designed to squeeze every mph out of the airplane. Peter Gross, a Sanders Aircraft employee, designed a racing canopy to replace the stock unit. A new, albeit short, ram induction inlet was designed by Bob Smith and built by Pete Gross, Richard Webber and Angel Singh. Joe Marine fabricated several carbon fiber panels for the racer in a bid to reduce drag and streamline the fuselage. The aircraft's skin was also filled and smoothed.


Brown brought his two Fury racers back to Reno in 2001; September Pops looked the same and had some slight changes, but September Fury now sported the new canopy, panels and yellow primer paint. Unfortunately, the terrorist attacks grounded all flying in the United States during race week. Along with all the other racers, Brown was disappointed. Nobody got to do what they had worked all year to do - race.


Brown, the Sanders, and the September Fury crew hadn't wasted their time for nothing. The 232 Sea Fury was one of the fastest racers at Reno - but the new mods hadn't been tested at speed on the course. With another year to refine, the team went back to work. The short trunk induction system was inefficient; it took in turbulent flow from the top of the cowling. That was changed to a long trunk design similar to Dreadnought's. A number of other items were worked on to cumulatively boost the racers speed.


Good Finish

Reno 2002 saw Brown blister the course during qualifying. September Fury clocked a 468.266 mph, making it the fastest Sea Fury in the world. All the hard work over the past two years paid off for Brown and his team. He would go on to finish second in Sunday's gold race with an average speed of 455.965 mph. Their success can be attributed to the constant refinement and improved systems. Behind the scenes, crew chief Al Loving deserves a lot of the credit for ensuring the racer is in top shape before Brown settles into the cockpit.


This second place finish was not the end of Brown's desire to win gold at Reno; not by a long shot. "There is still a lot of development for the racer,” Brown said. As the team goes deeper into the flight test program, Brown is confident in the aircraft’s potential. 


Most of the work on the racer had been complete, a stage that allowed Brown to settle on a final paint scheme for his beast. Most people thought it would look like the purple concept that had been painted on the team's race trailer for some time. Brown turned the racer over to Rene Quintal and Carlos Lopez at Power Pac. Their instructions? Give the racer a look to go along with the speed. They came up with what may be the most exotic scheme on a racer to date. 


At the 2003 Pylon Racing Seminar, Brown debuted his wildly painted racer and caused a lot of excitement with the racer's new look. In the end, the aircraft was painted in Viper red with white, yellow and blue flames, a white spinner, and a white turtledeck. Brown also brought his new Grumman F7F-3 Tigercat to play with.

Fury With Fangs Gets to Race... Almost

Hopes were high for the 2003 Reno races; Dago Red had won for four consecutive years, Voodoo was still quick, Dreadnought was coming back, and there was a whole slew of -3350 powered racers ready to take up any slack. 

Rare Bear even managed to get back into fighting shape and post the fastest qualifying speed of the class. Winning would not be easy for anybody. The big talk was that three teams felt they could break the 500 mph barrier during qualifying - Dago Red, Rare Bear and  Brown's September Fury.


Brown was confident about September Fury's performance. During Monday morning's unlimited session, Brown launched in 232 and cruised the course for a few laps. At a relatively low power setting, the racer sounded great and seemed to be going pretty fast. Then he straightened out his throttle arm...


After half of his hot qualifying lap, his elapsed time was showing a speed in the 508 mph range. Brown passed pylon five, and just passed six, the engine let go in a spectacular fashion. A little white smoke began trailing the racer, then heavy smoke as Brown pulled up and off the course.  Click Here for Video


Brown shut down the engine and climbed for altitude. An accumulator had been installed that would allow the prop to be brought to low pitch and extend the aircraft's glide in just such a case. As the racer soared over the deadline, the slipstream made an eerie sound as it slowly bled speed and gained altitude. Brown kept a left turn the entire time and was setting up to land on runway 14. 


The onlookers in the pits, as usual, held their collective breath as September Fury banked further left to line up on the runway. He had the runway made, but he was still getting the gear and flaps down and trying to slow down. He got the racer onto the runway at what looked to be an impossibly fast speed. As Randy Bailey flew overhead in September Pops, he radioed Brown and reminded him he could put the prop back to the high rpm setting to help slow down. The smoking racer rolled to a stop near where he stopped in 2000 after his first engine failure.


Once back in the pit area, the crew found a broken connecting rod had shoved its piston through the cylinder. The oil and fuel in that cylinder caused the smoke and some fire until Brown shut the engine down. To say Brown and the team was disappointed is an understatement. With such high hopes, the team's 'big stick" was out for 2003. To add insult to injury, Brown tried to qualify his Tigercat the next day, but had to land when he got an oil chip light on the left engine. That racer was out, so the team was down to September Pops to carry the banner at Reno 2003.


For the second time, September Fury was taken apart and trucked back to its Ione hangar. This has to be frustrating to the race team, Michael Brown especially; but it's a tribute to the man and the team that they continue chasing their dream to the checkered flag. Work is now underway to prepare the racer for Reno 2004. Brown's determination drives him to push the limits of the Sea Fury farther than anybody has before. In doing so, he has brought a reborn racer back from the past. Brown and his crew will be giving Dago Red, Rare Bear and the rest of the competition a real run for the gold at Reno.

The author wishes to thank Michael Brown, Randy Bailey, Al Loving, and Brian and Dennis Sanders for their contributions to this story. Copyright 2003 Dave Leininger. All Rights Reserved.

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