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The 2006 edition of the September classic was a big year of big predictions, big disappointment and some big blow-ups. In the end, a big red racer nicknamed "Chubby" took the checkered flag first. Is there a new radial kid on the block, and will the Mustangs and a famous Bearcat have to share the limelight from now on?  

With the 43rd running of the Reno National Championship Air Races in the can, race fans, crews and pilots alike came away from the event with one thing in mind; the climate of current racing has changed permanently.

One major reason for this lies in the answer to a question; who can build a racing Merlin that will survive race week? This year, every one of the highly modified racing Mustangs fell from the competition. Most of them had engine related problems; Strega, Merlin’s Magic, Dago Red all failed a Merlin (or two), while Cloud Dancer fell victim to a coolant leak.

The story of Reno 2006 began last year when front runner September Fury fell along the wayside before the races even started. The R-3350 was failing, and the team decided to stand down and put their efforts towards this year’s race. Over the past twelve months, many new members were added to the team; many of them from the stellar Dago Red team. Under the watchful eye of crew chiefs Bill Kerchenfaut and Al Loving, the racer was groomed and improved for the 2006 event.

Other teams also spent a lot of time preparing for the races. Bob Button’s Voodoo had its wing re-profiled and a Sparrow Merlin built up. Mere weeks before Reno, the engine made metal during test runs. Changes were made, and all seemingly looked good for September. Dan Martin also spent much of his time and resources preparing his leased racer for Reno. Terry Bland agreed to a deal with Martin and Mike Barrow to race the former champion Mustang. Another Sparrow Merlin was installed in this racer, and all looked well until getting to Reno.

Strega was also on hand for the racing this year, but they, too, had troubles leading up to the races. At one point or another, it was said that Curt Brown, Bill Rheinschild or Tiger himself would race. As it turned out, the Tige’ came out of retirement and fought troubles all week long just to get into the air. On the same note, Stu Eberhardt came back to Reno in Merlin’s Magic with a spicey racing engine, only to have more than his share of problems.

The other top racers made it look like they had an easy time of it... The Sanders family gassed up Dreadnought and flew it over the hill. Done deal. Sherman Smoot looked to have a rather easy week in John Moore’s Czech Mate, and made consistent top gold finishes. Jimmy Leeward, not able to get The Galloping Ghost ready in time, put a lot of speed mods and his Shanholtzer racing Merlin on Cloud Dancer. Lyle Shelton’s Rare Bear was also on hand, although it was clear they were playing catch up with cylinder changes, faulty takeoffs and carburator troubles.

Overall, there was a large field of really fast planes. Emphasis on "was."

The carnage began early and often. On Monday of qualifying, Ron Buccarelli aborted takeoff in Rare Bear as the engine popped and farted. On Tuesday, they were victims of several horrendous stack fires. The final blow came on Wednesday as Buccarelli rounded pylon eight during his qualification lap. The R-3350 popped once, and began shaking. Passing the home pylon, Ron pulled the sick racer skyward trailing white smoke. The engine was trashed, oil coated the sides and Rare Bear was out.

Things weren’t much better for Dan Martin and Dago Red. While spooled up on the course Tuesday, Martin pulled up declaring a mayday. Only after he got on the ground, was it evident how much of a problem he really had. There were large holes in the Sparrow Merlin, and the entire fuselage, canopy and tail were covered in oil and coolant. A faulty ADI component was to blame.

Dan should be recognized for his consumate piloting skills in getting that airplane safely back on the ground under those conditions. The team made an effort to install another Merlin, but after ground runs, metal was found in the screens and the team stood down.

Stu Eberhardt is the obvious winner of the Hard Luck award at this years’ race. While airborne on his qualifying flight, his P-51 Merlin’s Magic was tooling along just fine when his Merlin blew up in spectacular fashion. Not only did the engine blow, but the flailing rods just about sawed the engine in half. It looked like the heads were the only things holding the two halves together. Eberhardt herded the airplane to a safe landing on runway eight, but his tribulations weren’t over yet.

The crew worked hard to put in a rather stock Merlin so they could continue their racing effort, and actually qualified at a rather speedy 363 mph. But on Saturday morning, a loud pop was heard across the entire airport. While servicing the oxygen, a high pressure system was used to fill the low pressure bottles. The result was a bottle explosion that severed the Mustang’s sides, effectively breaking the airplane’s back. Luckily, nobody was really hurt and the damage was limited to that airplane. By Monday morning, the airplane had been de-mated, loaded on a truck and was on it’s way to rebuild.

But that’s not all, folks... The Merlin Death March continues... Bob Button had his colorful Voodoo P-51 on hand for the competition, and was aiming high with the modified racing engine and recent wing work. If it all worked well, we could expect to see speeds in the 440 - 450 range; it just wasn’t to be. With the pre-Reno engine problems, it was thought changing the lower end would put an end to the metal in the screens. All at least seemed well as Button qualified at a respectable 435 mph, but problems quickly arose.

As the racers took off for Friday’s heat race, Button aborted with a foul engine. After a shutdown inspection, they also found a good amount of metal within the engine’s screens. Another Mustang down. Yet another team with a lot of resources invested was out.

At this rate, the fans were understandably becoming disenchanted. Almost all of the racing Mustangs were out, except for the wiley Tiger in Strega, and underrated Jimmy Leeward in Cloud Dancer - sporting a host of racing mods this year. But Tiger was also beating back the Merlin Demons... His qualifying speed of 442 mph left fans wondering where the drive was to get at least a 480 mph lap. Did he really have the horsepower it would take? Where they sandbagging and awaiting their time? Only the Tige’ knows...

Leeward, on the other hand, arrived a bit late to Reno but got the program squared away. His qual speed of 434 mph suggested he was holding something back. As a stocker, Cloud Dancer is a pretty quick airplane, but it wasn’t stock this year. He had the clipped wings, low canopy, low-profile scoop and a Shanholtzer racing Merlin to make it all go. He was probably saving something for race day.

Overall, the racing in the unlimited class this year was rather sedate, if not for several spectacular sights. First off, Mike Brown put the racing folks on notice that he had truly arrived. He ripped off a qual lap at 478.512 mph in September Fury. He already had the world’s fastest Sea Fury, but this speed was unreal and a true testament to his drive, and the talents of the dedicated crew. If there were any racing Mustangs capable of it, they would have to push to the limit and survive to get by Brown.

If anybody thinks Brown "backed down" during the week, compare his 478 qual lap and his 481 gold speed and explain it to me... Please...

Matt Jackson was doing the driving in Dreadnought this year, and he wrung every mile per hour out of the old girl. Sherman Smoot, once again in the seat of Czech Mate, was a steady third all week long in the racing action. Without any impetus to push, he ran strong in the 440 mph range. Just to give you some idea of what a value this airplane is, it’s for sale at a price in the $300,000 range. Want to race in the gold at Reno? Talk about bang for buck!

The rest of the racing at Reno was highlighted by several really great battles. All week long, Dan Vance in September Pops and CJ Stephens in Argonaut fought tooth and nail in almost every race they flew in. Saturday’s silver unlimited heat was a prime example after Friday’s cold and windy weather. Vance and Stephens went at it for six laps, and crossed the finish line at 405.174 and 404.786 mph respectively. Talk about a race coming down to pilotage!

Reno 2006 also saw the return of a true F2G Super Corsair to the pylons. Yes, the Planes of Fame’s F2G raced before, but it was a modified F4U-1 turned corncob. Bob Odegaard brought Cook Cleland’s F2G race 57 to Reno this year, and because of so many racers on the wayside, he got to race. It had to be a highlight for the fans to see the orange Corsair win it’s first race since the 1940's. Odegaard took heat 1C on September 14th at a speed of 357.776 mph.

Other notable events included the fact that once again, for the second year in a row, no Mustang finished the gold race. Both Strega and Cloud Dancer launched for the gold race, but Cloud Dancer called a mayday during the join-up with a cracked coolant tank. Leeward banked left, back towards Stead streaming coolant, and landed safely before the race start. Meanwhile, the pack came down the start chute and began going at it.

And go at it they did; Matt Jackson had his left hand against the stops, but there was no catching Brown in 232. Smoot cobbed his -2800 and had a great third place seat to watch the drama unfold. Meanwhile, everybody that poo-poo’d Tiger’s earlier maydays out of his races had to eat their words. He started wide and outside in eighth and seemed to be flying a different race. Then he literally rocketed past everybody to take second place before the end of the pace lap! Fangs out, Tiger continued to the point where he had second place in the bag, but he could not close the interval with Brown out in front. Come lap five, Tiger felt some shaking, and some smoke popped out of the last cylinder on the left bank of his Merlin. First, he made a "kind-of" pull up at pylon two, then a real mayday as he climbed past four. The last runner was out, and as long as Brown didn’t blow up or make a mistake, he had his first unlimited gold win.

Right from the start, it was clear that if anybody had to get past Michael Brown, they would have to earn it. Every heat race of the week saw Brown put the power to September Fury and improve his race line. His qual speed of 478 was stunning it itself, but his winning gold speed of 481.619 mph was a new benchmark in unlimited air racing. We might be used to, or at least we’ve accepted, that a top-notch racing Mustang can fly laps at 500 mph. But now we’ve seen a 10,000 lb (probably a bit heavier than that) Sea Fury go 480 with consistency - our calibrations are now changing. This was the second fastest gold race in history, and a racer nicknamed "Chubby" kicked everybody’s ass. And there might be a lot more left under the flaming red cowl.

The difference in all of this is the absence of Dwight Thorn - arguably the top race Merlin builder. This has caused other Merlin builders to continue their education on making engines that can last for race week. If recent history is an example, there is - with respect to them - room to grow and learn. This is no slam against engine builders Mike Barrow or Rick Shanholtzer whatsoever. This year, Merlin failures were caused by other component’s failing. That, in turn, caused the engine to fail. They are making headway and improving their products all the time.

Our current balance has now tipped back to the reliability of the radial engines, albeit at speeds commensurate to the top racing Mustangs. If that is the case, future Reno’s are going to be either very exciting, very interesting, or both.







Story by Scott Germain - WarbirdAeroPress.com. Copyright 2006. All Rights Reserved. Thanks to Chris Luvara / StickAndRudderPhoto.com for use of his photos. See more Reno news in the next edition of Warbird Digest Magazine. 

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