Jet Racing at Reno - Point / Counterpoint
By Eric Tegler and Scott Germain -

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Eric Tegler

Reno 2000 saw a collection of jets come together to round the pylons in "race-like" fashion for the first time in many years. It was only a demonstration but has generated some enthusiasm from fans of air racing. The question is - Is it really that good an idea? At first glance, it seems attractive but the more you consider it, the less potentially appealing it becomes. Let's begin with the background of jet racing.

The first formal closed course jet races took place following WWII at the Cleveland National Air Races in 1946. Six P-80's took off for the six lap Thompson Jet Trophy Race around a 30 mile, three pylon course. Among the competitors was 24 year old, Maj. Robin Olds. Olds finished second to Maj. Gus Lundquist whose winning average speed was 515.9 mph. The competition was tight and Lundquist reported having trouble seeing the pylons and nearly running out of fuel. In the 1947 Thompson Jet Trophy, a field of six P-80's raced eight laps on a 22.8 mile course at similar speeds. Popped rivets, and torn, buckled sheetmetal confirmed the fact that the pilots were really pushing their airplanes.

There were no jet races for 1948 but they returned in 1949. The field was again limited to a single type. Three F-86's took to a 15 mile course and for ten laps the pace was hotter than ever with a fast lap of 635.444 mph. One of the three aircraft pulled out on the second lap when its pilot loaded it up so highly rounding a pylon that his seat broke. Crouching in the cockpit, he landed the airplane successfully. The two remaining F-86's continued on. The eventual winner, Captain Bruce Cunningham, took the checkered flag at 586.713 mph followed closely by Captain Martin Johansen at 580.152. The competition took a toll on both machines, Cunningham landing with the outer two-thirds of each elevator shredded off, the fuselage skin wrinkled at the nozzle and the tips of the horizontal stabilizer chewed. Johansen lost a 10 x 16 inch inspection door from his left wing. A single F-86 made a closed-course speed run in 1951 but no racing took place as the Air Force had decided after the 1949 race, that it was too dangerous.

The idea did not die however. It was revived at the 1973 California Air Classic (later known as the California National Air Races) at Mojave. Three T-33's and three F-86's took part in separate races, one on each of the two days of the event. The aircraft turned the pylons clockwise on a 15 mile course. The T-33's competed on Saturday in a six lap contest. Leroy Penhall, Jim Pearce and Gary Levitz formed up on the wing of Clay Lacy's Lear 23 which served as the pace plane. Penhall went on to win with a race average of 519.231 mph. The following day, the F-86's mixed it up for six laps. Gary Levitz, Leroy Penhall and Richard Laidlaw flew a very fast race, Laidlaw emerging as the winner at an average speed of 636.742 mph, topping the record established at Cleveland in 1949. It was a grueling six laps as evidenced by the haggard looking and perspiration soaked pilots who climbed out of the Sabres. Gary Levitz's first words to John Tegler upon stepping from the cockpit were, "Too many G's!"

Levitz's comment undoubtedly explains part of the reason why the format for the jet races was changed in 1974 and '75. For 1974, the jets would compete in a handicap format, each being released from a standing start at timed intervals. Handicapping the race was also dictated by the more varied entries which included Bob Hoover in an F-86, Dick Hunt in a Super Pinto, Leroy Penhall and Robert Laidlaw in T-33's, and Al Lecher in a DeHavilland Vampire. Two days of racing were scheduled as before, with the entire field competing in each race. Dick Hunt started second in the Pinto and won Saturday's six lap race at 470 mph followed by Bob Hoover who had started last. Penhall was in third, Laidlaw in fourth and Al Lecher brought up the rear in the Vampire. On Sunday, Penhall prevailed at 503 mph followed by Lecher, Clay Lacy flying Laidlaw's T-33, Hoover and Hunt. While the format was somewhat entertaining, the aircraft were clearly not being pushed as hard as the previous year. The fastest speed of the weekend was clocked by Hoover in the Sabre at 524 mph, over 100 mph slower than the record speed set in 1973.

Handicap jet racing was the formula once again for 1975 at Mojave. The field included two T-33's, a DeHavilland Vampire, a Super Pinto and a Bede Jet. Dick Hunt won in the Pinto on Saturday at 408 mph while Sunday's final was won by Bob Hoover in a T-33 at 446 mph. And that's where jet racing left off until last year's demo at Reno. The mixed collection of MiG-17's (three of them), one T-33, and one L-39 rounded the pylons in playful fashion with Jimmy Leeward providing the majority of the excitement with his afterburner lit for nearly a full lap. It was the first time most contemporary air racing fans had a chance to view jets flying in proximity around the pylons and was remarkable primarily for its novelty.

Novelty aside, let's consider what jet racing could be at Reno. We'll start with the race course itself. In its current 8.268 mile configuration the course has obvious limitations. First and foremost, it's clear that speeds achieved by some of the jets which have raced in the past would not be practical. The Unlimited racers themselves will tell you that the course is optimized for a P-51. Jimmy Leeward may have flown a lap or so well in excess of 500 mph, but that was done with no other traffic in close proximity as might happen in a race. Even at those speeds which are below what might be achievable with an aircraft of this type (especially on a larger course), it's clear that jets racing each other would have a very difficult time staying within the confines of the course. RARA has no taste for aircraft overflying the populated areas near the course.

Aside from this, speeds will be limited, if for no other reason, than the FAA's insistence that no afterburners be used by jet racers. To quote RARA Board Chairman, Bill Eck, at the recent NAG Banquet, "The agreement before last year's demo was no afterburners. The first thing Leeward does is go 'boom', off goes his afterburner and our FAA monitor went boom right along with the afterburner." Clearly "re-heat" is out of the question at Reno. Right off the bat, this takes away much of the excitement that was generated last year. Think to yourself, what was the most common comment from those who witnessed the demo? It went something like this, "Wow! Did you see Leeward in afterburner!" Without that facet, the excitement level diminishes along with the speed.

Of course, speed is not only a function of the race course, but of pilot competency and aircraft availability as well. Piloting a racer at high speeds requires advanced skills. The kind of skills found among a relatively small group of civilian pilots. While flying jets on the course may in some ways be easier (less systems management) than piloting modified piston racers, higher speeds would demand greater judgment, reaction, and stick and rudder skills. Especially, in the heat of real competition instead of a demo. Many current Unlimited racers already comment that it is increasingly difficult to pick up pylons as speeds rise (note RARA's efforts to increase pylon visibility last year). Just as important as the skills required, is the inclination to race. An obvious point is that most of those with the requisite skills and inclination are already racing - in the Unlimited class. It's unlikely that a large number of these gentlemen would be attracted to jet racing. Other qualified competitors may exist but they are few.

Those who do compete will need airplanes. The most obvious candidates which come to mind are; the F-86, the MiG-15 and MiG-17, the T-33 and the L-39. Numbers of each type available come into play here. While it is not necessary to have more than perhaps eight aircraft of similar performance for a viable race, it quickly becomes apparent that the available pool of airworthy candidates is quite small for the majority of these types. A cursory search of FAA records yields these approximate figures;

F-86's - 37 total - optimistically 15 airworthy
MiG-17 - 10 total - perhaps five to six airworthy
MiG-15 - 32 total - perhaps as many as 15 airworthy
T-33 - 90 total - perhaps 40 to 50 airworthy
L-39 - 66 total - majority airworthy

These generous figures diminish further with practical considerations. As Unlimited racer and F-86 owner, Stu Eberhardt, points out, those machines that are considered "flyable" are frequently grounded for years at a stretch due to lack of parts availability. In addition, racing demands more than just a "flyable" airplane. It must be in outstanding condition to withstand the stress of racing. Such considerations effectively cut these numbers in half. Furthermore, the number of owners willing to race these machines drains the pool even lower. Matching aircraft of comparable performance narrows the field yet again. The F-86, MiG-17 and MiG-15 could reasonably race side by side. However they would leave the T-33 and the L-39 behind. Similarly, a T-33 will easily outpace an L-39. Baring aircraft modifications (problematic at best), this suggests that grouping aircraft by performance capability is a necessity.

Cost is another driver in aircraft availability and operational feasibility. Here, expenses are on a sliding scale but nothing comes cheap. At the top of the cost heap is the F-86. Stu Eberhardt will tell you that it costs $1000 every time he starts his Sabre jet. T-33's are nearly as costly. MiG's are somewhat less costly to acquire and operate, but by no means inexpensive (the MiG-17 gives the most bang for the buck). In the scheme of jet warbirds, L-39's are reasonable as well. While no one expects to make a profit air racing, there must be sufficient remuneration to make it practical. RARA currently devotes the lion's share of its purse to the Unlimited class and this is unlikely to change. Even with limited numbers, what's left for the jets? Insuring jets is another factor which few have considered - remember, we're talking racing here not a demonstration.

The historical background of jet racing, as noted above, also indicates the daunting challenges of real jet racing. Cleveland demonstrated that it could be done but on a larger course and by government operated/maintained aircraft. Even so, risks were high. Airframes were very close to failure and pilots were near their limit. Hence, the Air Force's decision to halt jet racing in 1949. Mojave reinforced the lessons of Cleveland. On a slightly smaller but still large course, stress remained a problem when jet aircraft were truly pushed in competition. Gary Levitz was not alone in his comments and a much watered down formula was the result in 1974 and 75'.

It appears that RARA is aware of jet racing's past and of its difficulties as is the FAA. The organization (RARA) has announced that jet racing may take place in 2001 with the possibility that a mix of types including L-39's and perhaps F-86's and MiGs will participate. Regardless of the combination of jets which show up, long term marketability/viability will be an issue. Jet racing in 2001 would likely be popular again as a novelty but that novelty would quickly wear off once race fans realize that there is little true competition. As previously noted, matching aircraft by performance would be the most logical formula for true racing to occur. Putting the three types mentioned by RARA together leaves little doubt as to any race's outcome. The faster jets will win and there will likely be very few of these.

Consider a hypothetical combination of one F-86, two MiG's, and four L-39's. The four L-39's, though pretty to look at, will certainly not be candidates to win the race. That leaves the MiGs and Sabre pushing each other (if really raced) for the win. This amounts to two races in one. Such a combination in a single race (unless it is a "demo") is unlikely due to the speed differentials of the aircraft which (if really raced) would be wider than in the Unlimited class. With this and history in mind, the logical conclusion is that aircraft would be raced by defined performance parameters.

How many MiG's and F-86's would show up? A three plane field does not make for particularly exciting racing, witness the failed "Super Gold" Unlimited format in 1994. In terms of numbers, it is likely that the L-39 will be the dominant type on the ramp. With performance in mind, let's say that there will be single type L-39 racing. This may be a workable proposition but will it be an exciting or interesting one?

First, let's look at the most optimistic scenario. The ten L-39's that RARA says it would like to see do show up (this, providing the majority of pilots/airplanes attend the required Pylon Seminar). All of these aircraft are in top condition and their pilots are competent. They come down the chute and a race begins. The listed max speed for an L-39 is approximately 465 mph at optimum altitude. On the Reno course speeds would optimistically be 430 to 450 so one could expect a 430-something race average. Obviously, the piston powered Gold Unlimited racers can run considerably faster. The Unlimiteds would still be the main show for a host of reasons including speed. Champion, Skip Holm, trailed the Unlimiteds as safety plane last year in an L-39 and commented that it was funny to see the propeller driven racers accelerate away from him going down the chute with the Czech trainer at full grunt.

Unlike their Unlimited counterparts however, the L-39's performance from aircraft to aircraft would vary within a small range. The result could be something akin to a T-6 race. Once a jet is at 100%, it's at 100%. There is nothing left. Race fans know that T-6 racing is sometimes very close. It can also be very dangerous. The aircraft often run in a clump. L-39's would be doing this 200 mph faster thus increasing safety concerns. T-6 races also tend to string out by the second lap and often feature less passing than in other classes. First year jet racing (if real racing once again) would likely be tentative. How exciting would that be?

This is the optimistic scenario. The reality may very well be different. What happens if ten airplanes cannot be found and if there is a range of pilot abilities? Fewer participants, less competition, increased safety concerns. A well known Unlimited racer and jet owner refers to the L-39 as a "CEO airplane". It is a relatively inexpensive two-place trainer that a successful corporate chief could afford. The CEO with perhaps some light twin and high powered GA acrobatic aircraft experience can hire a talent like Holm to teach him to fly it and viola - he's a jet pilot. But, without a considerable amount of dynamic jet time how good will he be? Good enough?

The viability of any type of air racing also hinges on its marketability. Here again, the question of appeal is important. We argue that true competition is what draws a race fan. Competition takes place on several levels. We've already discussed competition on the course. There is also competition in the pits. One of the most exciting aspects of Unlimited air racing is the tweaking that goes on. This also happens in the Formula One and even the T-6 class (legally or illegally). Jets, L-39s or others, are not ideal candidates for modification. Most who would race them have neither the inclination nor the ability to modify them. In fact, what modifications would be possible? Beyond deleting tip tanks and minor weight saving measures there seems little room for practical modification. Just as importantly, what would the FAA allow? Moreover, how do you fiddle with a jet engine? And, is it as romantic as playing with a Merlin or a 3350?

Since we're talking about appeal, ask yourself, which is more sporting - driving a jet around at 100% power or corralling an unruly Unlimited at 120 to 150% of its design power? This is an important consideration. Race fans know that competitive Unlimited racers are truly being pushed. An L-39 at full power is an L-39 at full power. It's not as exotic, not as exciting as an Unlimited. Just ask Skip Holm. At the NAG banquet, he jokingly referred to the L-39 as, "a pig, an old shoe and a Russian Cessna 172".

To wrap this all up, one has to think long term. Will jet racing ever really be air racing given its limitations, especially at Reno? Or will it merely be a part of the air show? Competition is the key. A demo is not racing. A staged bout of formation flying for six laps is not a race. If fans realize that no real competition is taking place, jet racing will loose its appeal. If jet racing takes place at Reno this year, it will likely be another "demonstration". Yawn.....That's fine if you enjoy it. Just don't call it racing.

Scott Germain

As Warbird Aero Press first brought to you, the Reno Air Race association (RARA) has decided to bring jet racing to Reno at the 2001 edition of the September classic. The demonstration race held at Reno 2000 caught the crowdís imagination and provided an exciting event at the end of Sundayís events. Overall, people were excited.

The addition of jet racing at Reno is a step in the right direction for the races. Although there is still too much airshow, the addition of the new class is an addition of what we come to Reno to see - racing. Currently, RARA is aiming for one type of aircraft; the Aero L-39. This type is currently the most numerous ex-military jet on the register in the States, and is relatively easy to fly. Operating expenses are also relatively low. Along with the relatively low operating costs, there are a number of factors that make jet racing an attractive addition to the races.

Even if the class features more than one type of aircraft, seeing the jets tear around the course is going to be interesting. Imagine an F-86 or two, several T-33's, several L-39's and the odd Vampire or Gnat. The actual racing may not be what we'd like to see in a perfect world, but how often so we see that anyway? The spectacle of jet racing will generate a lot of interest, noise and entertainment.

By adding jet racing, RARA will attract a younger type of fan that has grown up with movies like Topgun, nightly newscasts featuring current military jets and jet travel. Undoubtedly, watching jets motor around the course will be exciting for these folks, but they will also be introduced to other forms of air racing that traditionalists come to see. Overall, the addition of fans might not be noticeable this year, but given time and the proper marketing there should be an upward trend.

At first glance, the speed difference between the jets and the unlimiteds is considerable. But the racing at Reno has never been about all-out speed. The Formula 1, T-6 and Sport classes donít approach the 490 mph speed range of the top unlimiteds, and their fans bases are considerable. Other forms of racing - NASCAR, CART, IRL and IROC - race cars of the same design and specification. These races, hugely popular with their marketing strategies, provide excellent competition for the fans. With racing jets of the same type, we should see some close, exciting racing.

Having jets will also attract new participants. L-39's, as with other warbirds, are high ticket items operated by leaders of the business sector, successful entrepreneurs and self-made men. These type-A personalities are competitive by nature, and if involved with aviation, would be valued additions to our racing community.

The pilots already involved with the racing community will be there to help usher in the new guys. For several years now, RARA has run the Pylon Racing Seminar (PRS) where rookies can train for and earn their racing credentials. Granted, racing airplanes isnít flying a transport category jet from A to B, but it isnít rocket science, either. The PRS will allow the jet pilots to gain confidence in their abilities around the pylons, and make their races safe and exciting for everybody.

Along with new participants come new sponsors. Granted, a limited number of corporate sponsors are interested in air racing, but bringing jets into the equation might be the ticket to involve one or more companies in the event, or with a specific team. There are some exciting possibilities here; think about a gold level unlimited and jet racing team sponsored by Coca Cola. Honeywell, a manufacturer of jet avionics, could sponsor a racing jet. By doing this, the company would be able to showcase their avionics to the racers along with people who make avionics purchase decisions at corporate flight departments and airlines across the globe. Forward-thinking companies that take advantage of this could reap tremendous benefits.

RARA, as the organization that runs the races, has been the target of criticism for as many years as the races have been run. Some criticism has been on the mark, while some of it has been off in left field. Simply dismissing jet racing hobbles those at RARA that are forward thinking. The jet's might not hold the power or the glory of the unlimiteds, but that isn't what we want. The jets are an addition to the races, and RARA is to be commended for that. With the proper marketing and advertising, the races will benefit from more fans, more income and a solid financial future. It's not the total answer to keeping racing alive, but it is a step in the right direction.  We can sit back and see if the jet class can be made into the next step that will allow air racing to continue for years to come.

Who knows, maybe five years down the road, jet racing might be all the rage.

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