Story and Photos by Scott Germain / Warbird Aero Press
The race course at Stead Airport in Reno, Nevada has seen a number of different racers turn pylons, blow engines and take the checkered flag. Stock warbirds, semi-stockers and highly modified racers have grunted around the sagebrush in the quest for victory. Preparation has been responsible for a large proportion of those who have won races, and luck also plays a part.
One racer that never had much luck has been Race 38; the hybrid Griffon engine Mustang developed and built by Don and Bill Whittington. The brothers had campaigned their Merlin engine Mustang, appropriately named Precious Metal in the late seventies and early 1980's. Unfortunately, the successful and immaculately prepared racer was torn up during a ditching in the Gulf of Mexico.
After that, the brothers Whittington built up another racing Mustang, this time utilizing the Rolls Royce Griffon engine. The idea was that the larger displacement engine would provide the speed of a racing Mustang and outlive the strung-out Merlins. Appropriately, the aircraft was built up for racing with a racing turtledeck, a cut-down canopy, clipped wings and a lightened airframe. The brothers again named their airplane Precious Metal, although the airframe is a totally different one than the original.
Over itís career with the Whittingtonís, the aircraft was known as Precious Metal or the World Jet Mustang. The aircraft has been raced with a stock radiator scoop and an original -D Mustang tail, along with a taller -H model tail and a slimmed down racing scoop. Whatever the configuration, the racer never enjoyed much luck or success around the Reno or Phoenix pylons. At one point, Don was scalded when a radiator fitting broke loose and pumped boiling coolant into the cockpit. He had to jettison the canopy and put the racer back on the ground.
Race 38 last saw action at Reno in 1995, where an excellent performance in the silver race resulted in a victory. Always a competitor, Whittington forfeited the win to bump into the gold race. After the long flight back to Ft. Lauderdale, FL, the aircraft was parked in the back of a hangar to collect dust.
Buccarelli always had a soft spot for the silver and green Mustang. "I knew some day I would race that airplane," Ron Buccarelli said with a grin. Buccarelliís smile wasnít one of ego or glory, it came more from personal realization and satisfaction. Itís one thing to bring a stock airplane to Reno, let alone jump into the sport with a highly modified racer like Race 38. Buccarelli explained the road he and his team have traveled to get here.
"Don Whittington is a friend of mine," he said. "I came out to Reno and Phoenix in 1995 as a spectator and saw the airplane race. I am a captain on his B-25, and have flown in his B-17. He let me fly his Bearcat a few weeks back." Along with some other heavy warbirds and a Vampire jet, Buccarelli has been involved with this type of flying for a good portion of his 13,000 flight hours.
"I had seen the airplane sitting in the back of a hangar for six years, with an inch of dust on it. I had gotten really tired of it," he laughed. "I told Don I wanted to take it out, clean it up and run it. I wanted to take it Reno and race it. He said, ĎGo ahead; have at it.í"
Ron and his crew worked towards that goal for Reno 2000, but time ran short. More importantly, the landscape surrounding Whittington and Buccarelli had changed. "I have a beautiful wife, and she got pregnant, so the time wasnít really good to go racing," he said. Additionally, the deal was in the works when long-time racer Gary Levitz was killed at Reno 1999. The Whittingtons were close to Gary, and his loss made it difficult to think much about racing or racing airplanes.
Determined, Buccarelli kept at it and set his eye towards Reno 2001. "I attended the 2000 Pylon Racing Seminar to meet the people involved and learn more about the unlimiteds. These guys are my heroes - my idols," he said. "I had read all the books on Reno, about the "Room of Hard Benches" and all of the personalities. I came to the conclusion that I really did want to go racing. I told Art Vance that I would be back," Buccarelli said with a laugh. "I think he was the only one who believed me!"
After pestering Whittington about the racer, Buccarelli formed a corporation with his long time friend Jere Creed, and finalized the deal to gain ownership of the racer. After dreaming for so long and working so hard to realize his dream, it all finally came together. Buccarelli and Whittington inked the transaction and the aircraft changed hands.
"Whittington never, ever had the airplane for sale to anybody at any price," he said while looking at the Mustang. "I guess we have a good enough friendship where we finally made the deal and I got the airplane. Don has been very gracious through the years, but it wasnít easy to persuade him to sell the airplane to me."
After Buccarelliís corporation acquired the racer, it went through an extensive annual inspection and several modifications were made to the aircraft. "You can see that the scoop is back to the original -D model style, which I believe is better for airflow," he said. "We thought it was impeding cooling."
The other modifications include a change to synthetic racing oil, and a change in the blower gear ratios. Buccarelli explained, "That really seemed to help. Itís not so high strung in terms of induction temperatures; itís manageable."
Whittington passed along as much information as he could about Race 38. He had been concerned that at speeds in the 450 mph neighborhood, the windscreen would flatten under the dynamic pressure, and a small gap would open between the windscreen and canopy. If the gap became large enough, enough air would be scooped up and rip the canopy off the airplane.
"We changed that, too," Buccarelli said. "It was made out of three-eighths inch material, and we had a new canopy blown out of half-inch thick material. We felt it was Ďtheí weak spot of the airplane."
Surprisingly, Race 38 weighs in at only 6,900 lbs. "Yeah," he said, "Even with the bigger engine, itís pretty light - as light as a stock Mustang." Another part of getting the racer ready was to go through the ADI and spraybar pumps and clean them out. "Itís got two spraybar pumps; if one goes out the second one automatically picks up. The same with the ADI pump; if one pump goes out the second one goes on if I have it armed. Itís a safety feature when youíre pulling big power. If your ADI system goes out at high power, youíre probably going to blow your engine," he explained.
Learning how to fly the racer has been rather exciting, as it would be for any pilot without experience in racing Mustangs. "I got some T-6 time, then went to Stallion 51 and flew with Lee Lauderbeck. "Lee is an excellent instructor," Buccarelli said. "Lee puts you right at the edge. He taught me things that I never knew before. He likes to put you right in the buffet - and not just straight and level - in steep turns, going into a loop, on the bottom of a loop, in rolls..."
Buccarelli was all ears for Lauderbeckís knowledge. "He taught me that the airplane will really talk to you. Youíll feel the buffet, youíll hear the scoop whine. It was very good to see exactly where the stall was, and to know that relaxing the stick would get you flying again, almost instantly," he said. "Iím glad I got the best training I could."
Although several people advised to have a test pilot evaluate the racer first, Buccarelli decided to go fly. Needless to say, his first flight was "very exciting."
"Building up to the first flight was very exciting," he explained. "We had prepared a long time for the flight, and there is no pilotís manual; itís all word of mouth." Buccarelli had collected as much information on the racer and itís qualities as he could.
"The first time I attempted a takeoff," he said, "I got halfway down the runway and the engine sounded like it blew up. It backfired quite a lot. Some people said I had the mixture too rich. In my 13,000 flight hours, when you fly an airplane, you generally put it full rich for takeoff. But I knew the racer couldnít hold that, so I had used less than full rich." He parked the plane and tried to figure things out.
Buccarelli returned for another test flight and used an even more lean mixture for the takeoff. "The same thing happened; it backfired big." He got the power off the airplane and got it stopped just short of exiting the runway. At that point I had enough," he said. With the racer firmly tied down, Buccarelli returned to his instincts and did what he thought was right. "I tied it to a tree... I didnít want to be a test pilot on the runway any more. I ran it up to 45 inches and left it in auto-lean. It seemed like it was making enough power to knock down buildings. It was really something," he said.
Buccarelli fed power to the Griffon 58 and began his takeoff roll. "Iím ripping down the runway and it doesnít feel like itís going fast enough. I had to make a decision. I really didnít want to abort the takeoff as I didnít have much runway left, and I didnít want to push more power," Buccarelli explained. "I believe I can go up to about 120 inches, but I didnít want to backfire it again. So I just left it there and it finally got off the ground."
Unfortunately, a small mistake was made in raising the landing gear. "I got into a climb and lifted the gear handle up." he said. "I was so excited about flying this airplane for the first time, I had forgot to push a button to pressurize the landing gear system." With the gear doors blocking the airflow to the radiator, all of the cockpit indications for oil and coolant temperature pegged in the red. "I thought I was going to have a catastrophic engine failure. It was eminent with the temperatures I was seeing."
The racer continued to receive attention from the crew, and several more flights were performed to test systems and gain experience. "The engine quit on rollout after one flight," he said, "So we took it down and repaired it. Since then, it has performed flawlessly." After that, he got dialed in and started putting time on the aircraft from its Ft. Lauderdale base. "Iíd go out and fly around the airport, then go out over the Everglades and practice pylon racing out there.
When Buccarelli spoke about the flying characteristics of the racer, the obvious came up first. "You canít see much out of it at all!," he exclaimed. "Itís kinda like flying a Mustang... It feels about the same in takeoff and landing as a stock Mustang, except it has no P-factor. Itís like flying a jet; you donít have to be on the trim all the time in this plane. It flies straight, and sheíll stall at 90 mph, believe it or not."
Race 38, in Buccarelliís opinion, is very stable at high speeds, and gets a bit tricky and unstable below 200 mph. "It likes to go much faster!," he says. "But I enjoy flying the airplane now. At first, it would take all of my focus just to fly the airplane and concentrate. It wasnít that much fun in the beginning because of how different and difficult it was."
Buccarelli explains his outlook now, "After a while you get used to it, just like any other airplane. I feel confident in it when I jump in."
Buccarelli brought Race 38 to the 2001 Pylon Racing Seminar and got some experience in the aircraft in a race environment and down on the course. Under the watchful eyes of the unlimited instructors, Buccarelli made steady progress throughout the three day school and looked quite confident flying the pylons. With his race checkout under his belt, he will arrive at Reno in September, ready to do battle around the race course.
As Buccarelli surveyed the Reno ramp, he summed up with, "We havenít exactly decided what weíre going to name it. Precious Metal is in there... There is a high possibility we will rename it that. Maybe Very Precious Metal!"
Story and Photos by Scott Germain / Warbird Aero Press. Copyright 2001. All Rights Reserved.