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A few months ago, I reported on the retirement of Dago Red from further competitive racing. In terms of Reno 2005, this came late in the game for the players. The team members were left up in the air about what, if anything, they would crew at this yearís race. Two key members of the Dago team with question marks over them are pilot Skip Holm and crew chief Bill Kerchenfaut (right). One of these men has a solution so far, and it isnít Skip...
Kerchenfaut - just a guy with a screwdriver - has been invited to join the September Fury racing team. Owned by Michael Brown, the Sea Fury represents the epitome of the type. "When I heard about Dago," Brown said, "I talked to Dennis Sanders and had him call Kerchenfaut." Brown knew about Kerchenfaut and his reputation as a top-drawer crew chief.
While this was going on, Kerchenfaut was keeping mum to the outside world as he educated himself on Race 232 and Mike Brown. He was going to Ione to look over the airplane and get to know the players. Kerchís first question to Brown was an obvious one for a racer:
"Do you want to win?"
The answer was yes, of course. Brown (left) races to win. An agreement was reached. Bill Kerchenfaut has, in a way, returned to his roots. He was once the crew chief on Miss Merced, a Centarus powered Sea Fury raced by Sherm Cooper back in the early seventies. He has also crewed Greenamyerís Bearcat, as well as P-51's and J.R. Sandbergís P-63. "The only difference between the inlines and the radials is that all the spark plugs race at a different altitude on the radials..," he laughs.
A twinkle has returned to Kerchís voice since he got the news about Dago. For a while, he was without a "ride" this year, and was puttering around his shop in Santa Clara, California. "Iím really excited about this," he said. "I can get Mike more speed. Easy. Iíve already spent some time at Ione with the airplane, and I think I can make him go faster on the same power."
That agrees with Brownís thinking. His goal is to "...run fast and live. Weíre honored and fortunate," Brown continues. "We want to take it to the next level, and he is somebody that can help us do that. Weíve had a lot of talented people work on this program... Pete Law, John Smith, Al Loving and the Sanders... Bill will be able to give us a fresh look."
Brown was tight lipped when asked what he had in mind for September Fury at Reno 2005. "Itís Billís airplane now. Iím just the owner and the pilot. Iíll do whatever he says. After Tunica (in June), weíll do whatever Bill wants to. The engine is already finished, so we can go after it hard with some airframe modifications. This Sea Fury will go faster than we have already gone," he says.
In past years, it might seem that Brown has been a hard luck story with his Super Sea Fury. But he apparently doesnít see it that way. His first outing in 2000 resulted in a blown up R-3350 at the start of heat race 2A. He successfully made the runway as the engine seized completely. "That engine was a piece of... It was more of a mock up of what we had planned," he said. It doesnít appear he really counts Reno 2000 as a year he raced the airplane.
The next time Brown raced September Fury was Reno 2002, where he qualified at a speedy 468 mph and finished the gold race at an amazing 455 mph - considering the wind was gusting upwards of 50 mph during the race and he had the power reduced.
"You should go back and check the records and see how many racers have finished at 455 mph, and how many winning gold speeds are over 455," he says. His point is taken; since 1964 that has happened only nine times. Most of them are recently.
Even with his conservative speed of 455 mph, Brown knows what his Sea Fury is capable of - and itís far above that miserly mark. And if fans go off of his 2002 qualifying speed, we know he can go even faster than that. Brown has put big power to the racer at Reno only once, and suffered a massive engine failure during his qualification attempt at Reno 2003. All indications point to September Fury being extremely fast, and the addition of Kerchenfaut to the team will undoubtedly uncover some additional potential.
"People have never really considered the Sea Fury competitive with a race P-51," he explains. "Iíve always been a Sea Fury guy. I could go out and buy a P-51 tomorrow, have it modified just like Dago or Strega, and race it. But Iíd be ashamed of myself. Weíre there to compete in the Sea Fury and see if we can do what Dago Red and Rare Bear have done. And now... Bill knows the formula to going faster and winning. Just look at his history. Wherever he has gone, success has followed."
Brown isnít trying to blow his own horn, either. Heís low key about his efforts and simply goes about air racing the way he wants to. "You know, we could blow up coming down the chute again. Game over," he says. "Weíre just happy to have Bill on board. And former crew chief Al Loving (on right in photo) is leading the pack with his enthusiasm," Brown says. "Al is the most excited of all. Whatever it takes for us, heís there."
"Al Loving is about the best they come," Kerch says. "Iím flattered to be here. I really pondered this decision... First to leave Dago... But after I looked over the airplane, I got a good feeling about it and about Mike Brown. Especially his wife! Theyíre such a neat couple. He is a very unique human being."
After pausing for a second, he continued. "I think this airplane is capable of winning. Itís right up there. And weíre going there to win this year. If anybody stubs their toe... Weíre right there. If we do win, itís not me. This is important. Itís not one person. Itís a group effort to do this as a common goal. And weíll go about it safely, too. Take no unnecessary chances. I have a very good feeling about the airplane and the crew."
After Kerch had looked at the airplane, he couldnít see much wrong with it. "Al, Mike, and Dennis and Brian Sanders have the right attitude with the airplane. Their outlook on maintenance and upkeep are superb," he says. "And Iíve known Brian and Dennis since they were eight or 10 years old. Theyíre really good guys."
Brown has obviously put a huge economic investment into his air racing operation. "Heís done very well with it," Kerch says. "It shows his dedication to air racing and his desire to win. He wants to go and win. Theyíve done a magnificent job and they know what theyíre doing."
And what does the new crew chief have in mind for September Fury? "There is no question we can put more speed in it. Donít really know how much yet, because I donít know the power settings, what the engine is capable of doing horsepower-wise, and where it can live. I know zero about the R-3350, so Iíve been getting a crash course education about it. Mike has investigated the engine limits and found them," he says with some level of amusement, remembering the 2003 engine failure. "We want to drink champaign on Sunday."
More speed will come from some obvious, and many not so obvious modifications. "I wonít tell you," Kerch says. "Some will be obvious, and some wonít. There is easily another 10 - 15 mph there. If the airplane has done 468, then add 10 or 15 to that and you get 483. My goal is to run 485 consistently without hurting it. Then we have melt down power after that. This, I hope, is achievable. Nothing crazy, but just steps at a time. We can run the same power and go from 468 to 485."
After asking the same question another way, all Kerch would say is, "By the time the airplane gets to Reno, the wings wonít be able to fold." Kerch is also discussing telemetry with Michael Luvara at RCAT Systems, as well as the race team.
If the retirement of one of the fastest unlimiteds detracts from this yearís race, the fact that Brown has another weapon in his fold definitely raises the bar. Additionally, Strega is slated to return with Curt Brown at the controls and two Sparrow race Merlins. Rare Bear, at this time, is an unknown and things arenít looking too good. I will rest assured that another red, flaming racer will be at the head of the pack and gunning for the gold.
Story and Photos by Scott Germain. Photo of September Fury at Reno 2000 by Gerald Liang. WarbirdAeroPress.com. Copyright 2005. All Rights Reserved.
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