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Speeds up to 500 mph at 40 to 50 feet off the deck. Four-G turns. Throttles firewalled. Aircraft in a tail chase above, below, and outside your own. Heat, turbulence, anxiety, maydays, and dead-stick landings. Is this aerial combat? No. Itís the worldís fastest motor sport, pylon air racing.
In a sense it is, as Bill Destefani says, "Going to war without firing bullets." But it is more than that. Modern day air racing is a colorful spectacle which entrances competitors and fans alike; a blend of the past and the present. Highly modified 50 year old, ex-WWII fighters of the Unlimited class - worth at least a million dollars each - share the ramp with new hi-tech kit-based composite aircraft of the Sport class. Growling WWII trainers of the T-6 class provide sharp contrast to nimble Formula One and Biplane racers.
They all come together each September in the high desert at Stead Field just north of Reno, Nevada for the National Championship Air Races. Reno is the prime and only event on the air racing calendar these days. In an increasingly regulated and politically correct world, air racing almost seems an anachronism. The fact that it exists at all at the beginning of the millennium is, on one hand, surprising. On the other hand, consider that this is a sport that has been with us since the dawn of aviation. The first pylon air race was held in Rheims, France in 1909. Since then air racing has continued; interrupted only by war and a few brief spans of inactivity. Reno is a happening, a family gathering of like-minded enthusiasts - and a giant party. Reno is a celebration of aviationís energy and vitality to its supporters, a display of decadence and wastefulness to its critics. First and foremost however, it is about racing.
Go as fast as you can. Push your racer to the limit. Beat the other guys. Period. In pursuit of that objective, large amounts of money, time and effort are expended. A top team in the unlimited class can expect to spend more than $100,000 to enter a competitive aircraft. It can take a team the better part of a year to prepare a racer. Logistical challenges abound, egos are often on the line and there is no small amount of danger involved. Yet, the tangible rewards are small. That top unlimited team will likely recoup less than half of its expenses even if triumphant in the gold championship race. If less than victorious or even unlucky (blown engines or bent aircraft in the worst scenario), the costs can be much higher regardless of which class you compete in.
The 2000 edition of the Reno National Championship Air Races combined some good racing with high attrition. By the end of the week, the ramp was littered with wounded racers, especially among the Unlimited ranks. Amid the frenzied action of race week we stopped to wonder what makes the racers race? What fires their passion for air racing and why have many of them returned year after year? Their responses are a mixture, from humorous to serious. They reflect the diverse and adventurous personalities of those who populate the fastest motorsport in the world. They all share one thing in common however. They love air racing. Why? We put the question to some of the fastest racers and owners on the ramp.
Skip Holm is one of the most outstanding pilots in the world. His rŤsumŤ is impressive: He is a decorated combat veteran in F-4ís and F-105ís in Vietnam, and went on to become a Lockheed test pilot on some of the most exotic contemporary military aircraft. Holm continues his career as a civilian test pilot, coordinates and consults on aerial TV and film work. He also happens to be a former champion in Unlimited air racing. Skip took Dago Red through a flawless week of competition this year, winning the third championship of his career. The teamís veteran crew, led by master crew chief Bill Kerchenfaut, had prepared their sleek red Mustang meticulously. They were never seriously challenged for this yearís trophy.
Among the most talented of those who turn the pylons at Reno, Holm is driven by a competitive spirit. "Thereís really only one reason we come out here, and itís a combined reason," Holm muses. "We love racing and we love airplanes. Even though we love it, you can only do this once a year because it costs too much. And its too risky, and thereís too much of a chance of breaking stuff. Really - you canít even justify it more than once a year to your family. The competition is great and the camaraderie is terrific. Everybody here loves racing and flying. I like the competing. Thatís what weíre here for....boom."
Bill "Rhino" Rheinschild
Bill Rheinschild matched a career best finish in the unlimited championship this year, working his way up through several heat races to the gold race on Sunday. Attrition, mistakes by others and some hard charging by "Rhino" led to a third place finish at a throttled- back 415 mph. A successful real estate developer from California, Rheinschild is among the best of the non-aviation professionals who race at Reno. He made his mark in the unlimited class immediately by winning the Silver race in 1988, his debut year. Since then, he has consistently proven that he can race skillfully with the top competitors in the class. While Rheinschild certainly enjoys the competition, he approaches racing from a slightly different angle.
"Itís not the competition. Iím really not that competitive," he says. "My goal isnít to come here and beat somebody - although that sure is fun. Itís: ĎHow can we do a better job? How can we get a better time on the course?í Hopefully that will put us in front of somebody else and theyíll have to try and do a better job."
"It costs us $150,000 to come here, and max prize money is not near that. So in that sense its nutty. But the flyingís wonderful and its hard to convey how thrilling it is to be able to accomplish this. It is very, very difficult. When something is going wrong with that engine out in front of you, its not an automatic expectation that youíre going to arrive back safely and alive. So there is risk."
"Why do I do it? There are several different things. Number one, I love flying and this is the only place that you can fly these aircraft as they are meant to be flown - legally - in the US today. Number two, Iím now one of the sponsors of the rookie [pilot] school and an instructor here. I help with pilot training every summer so we can indoctrinate new pilots for the Unlimited class. When I started, it was, ĎNo balls, no air medals! Better dead than look bad!' I did everything wrong when I first got here. I thought, ĎGod, how do you expect anyone not to?í Now that we have a school, we can teach the people new to air racing from our past experience and it's no longer a matter of trying to join this Ďexclusive boys clubí. Itís about trying to be safe and proficient. Number Three, I have met some wonderful people through this and have made life-long friends. I've had wonderful experiences at the dinners and gatherings with them. Iíve also had the opportunity to be recognized as somewhat of an accomplished aviator, not in an ego boosting manner, but just a personal sense of gratification. Thereís a tremendous self-satisfaction in being able to do this."
"....Another thing - my children will disown me if they canít take a week off school in September and come hang out at the Reno Air Races!"
Matt "Redlight" Jackson
Aircraft restoration and maintenance specialist Matt Jackson has been competing in air racing for ten years. His best finish came in 1992 in the highly modified P-51 Mustang Stiletto, which he flew to fourth place in the gold championship. For the year 2000, Matt took the seat in another modified Mustang, Voodoo. Viewed as one of the serious challengers to reigning champion Dago Red, Jackson and Team Voodoo quickly became the prime rival for the overall win as other contenders fell out of competition with mechanical difficulties during race week. In the championship race, Jackson pushed Voodoo well in excess of 460 mph for several laps while chasing Holm in Dago Red. Unfortunately, the race was over before it began for Voodoo... Barreling down the chute for the start, Jackson nosed ahead of the line-abreast formation. When the racers were officially released he was still ahead and was consequently penalized more than 60 seconds (one lap) for jumping the start. Though Voodoo physically finished in the second position, the penalty dropped Jackson to fifth.
Jacksonís desire to race is deep - so deep, in fact - that he has financed many of his own efforts to race other competitor's aircraft such as Rare Bear and Stiletto. His enjoyment comes from competing and the feeling it gives him. "I guess the main thing is the love of flying in itself. Racing is, in my opinion, the purest form of flying," Jackson says. "Itís something that you can do with your friends and enjoy and thereís as much enjoyment before and after the race as there is during the race. Itís hard to describe. The adrenaline rush is incredible....of an untold magnitude. Call it ego. Call it excitement. Call it whatever you want, itís something that until you experience it, you can only guess what it is. Once you do it, it's like any drug out there. Itís an addiction. Itís not financially wise. Thereís no way to crunch numbers and make this work if youíre really going to be competitive. There really isnít anybody out here, I donít care how wealthy they are or successful in business, that can really afford to do this. I know that people think this is something that only wealthy people can afford, but there are actually people out here who donít have money doing it too."
"Itís interesting. Thereís a nervousness when you get ready to race because weíre taking these airplanes over their design limits - by a lot. Weíre taking engines that were designed to produce only half the horsepower weíre producing today and hurtling them at over 500 mph on the straight-aways, 50 feet off the ground. Is it fun? Itís exhilarating while youíre doing it. After youíre done it's fun but when youíre in the Ďofficeí doing it, it is intense! You are workiní it. You donít think of the race as fun while it's on. Itís fun when you get back down and you look back at what you just accomplished."
"I think you have to do exciting things in your life. When you do something thatís this exciting, you have the feeling these days that, Ďthis must be against the lawí. To try to justify this in a rational way is not easy. Still, I have always said, if the prize money and sponsorships went away tomorrow, this would continue because these guys would race for nothing."
Dan Martin has never had the fastest racer in the unlimited class, but he has arguably wrung as much or more from his relatively stock Mustang, Ridge Runner, as any unlimited competitor in any aircraft. Like many of the racers, Martinís first experience with air racing was as a spectator, watching it from the grandstands at Reno. As soon as he saw it, he was hooked. By the late 1970ís the construction contractor/aircraft restorer had a P-51 of his own. He took Ridge Runner to the pylons and immediately relished the competition. Charging hard was Martinís style of racing, "Go out, floor it and do the best I can with the equipment Iíve got." In 1982 he blew an engine in the Saturday silver heat at Reno. Unable to make runway 14, he set Ridge Runner down on a dirt road but swerved off doing extensive damage to the airplane. After such a close call, many racers would have called it quits. Dan did just that for 15 years. But the desire never left him. He was back in 1997 and has competed. Martin was running a strong third in the Championship this year until he burned a piston on lap six, declared a mayday and pulled out of the race. As a result, he finished ninth.
"The flying here is something you canít describe. Itís a license to do things that the FAA would bury yaí for anywhere else. Itís just an absolute rush to go out there - as long as youíre running well, of course - and go 430/440 mph lap average, 50 feet off the deck around the pylons, racing other people. The reason I come to Reno is because I love aviation and I love racing; whether its auto racing or race horses - anything that goes fast. Even with my accident, I never lost the desire to do this. I had to take many things into consideration after I crashed. I couldnít afford to do it financially at that point. You have to take into account the risks and your family, but that didnít mean I didnít still want to do it. These races here are legend, like the races before at Cleveland. Iím sure if there were still places to race in Cleveland it could be popular today too but there is no other place to race today. Reno is it."
"The best part about the racing may be when its over and Iím back on the ramp BSing about it. I think Iím like most people here. Iím a nervous wreck before I get in the airplane but the minute the engine starts all that goes away. Iím never hungry before I go flying here. Iím always thinking. I get in the airplane and everything else drops away. I go out, fly the race, land and get out of the airplane and Iím hungry as a bear. I have a big sandwich and a cold drink of something and itís just wonderful to talk about what you just did. Itís the exhilaration of having done it and the sheer power of the airplane. When you take whatís normally a 1500 hp engine (Merlin V-12) and pull 3000 hp out of it and go out and whip on it, itís just such a feeling... A handful for me. Iím 58 years old and Iím tearing around out there holding on. Itís just something else."
"After 15 years of saying, ĎNo, I donít think Iím gonna race anymore,í I decided to come back again just once. But then the bug bit me and we came back a couple more years and then after last year, I said, ĎI donít think Iím gonna do this anymore. But I was sitting on my couch at home this summer and it was the last day that we had to send our entry fee in, and I said to my wife, ĎWhy donít we go up there and just have fun.í She said, ĎBut youíre not gonna race, right?í I said, ĎNo, weíll just take the airplane up and get a space on the ramp and weíll have a place to park and we wonít have to walk around the ramp and Iíll probably have to go qualifyí ...íBut youíre not gonna go race are you?í Well... Here I am, and we qualified well and weíre racing and.......Sheís not here yet, but sheíll forgive me. I think..."
Dr. Brent Hisey is fulfilling a dream. The Oklahoma City neurosurgeon never imagined heíd be racing a well-known P-51 down on the deck at Reno. Another of those racers who is not an aviator by profession, Hisey has nonetheless taken to air racing well, improving his technique, pushing Miss America faster in each of the five years heís been racing. He matched his best finish of those five years at Reno 2000, winning the Silver trophy. Hisey actually crossed the finish line second to Bill Rheinschild in Risky Business. However, as the first finisher in the silver, Rheinschild had the option to bump up into the gold championship. He elected to do so and it paid off. Meanwhile, Hisey was awarded the win. One thing is clear, Hisey loves to go air racing.
"I think that most of us come to Reno because itís Ďlife on the edge.í It doesnít get any closer to the edge than flying in the unlimited class in Reno. There is no room for error. Most of us appreciate that fact and that gives us a thrill. I think weíre all thrill seekers. Speaking for myself, I always wanted to be a fighter pilot and fly in combat. Iíll never get a chance to fly in combat. This is probably the closest to combat flying I can ever experience. The racing environment at Reno has high risk. Weíre flying very fast, very close together. Weíve seen our friends die. The level of flying and the intensity here...I donít think thereís another arena like it. Aerobatic performers certainly have their risks, other pilots take some risks but we never know exactly what our fellow racers are going to do; itís unpredictable. And in racing terms, if cars bump wheels at the Indianapolis 500, they may ruin their car . If something similar happens in air racing, someoneís going to die. We race in three dimensions. People pass above and below and those are areas we canít see very well. Thatís why we stress safety more than anything out here. None of us come here to die. We come here to race."
"It really is exhilarating. The other day (Tuesday) when we were qualifying it was rough out there. I was bouncing around the cockpit and the airplane was just humming and I was thinking, ĎIt just doesnít get any better than thisí. Coming here is fun, too, because we see people that are as crazy as we are and love the same thing, It's rare to find that at home. You really have to love it to do it. It requires so much financial resource, time, effort and emotional input into the airplane - even putting aside the danger. I donít think anybody does this for long unless they have a passion for the sport. Iím amazed, not only at the racers, but at the fans whoíve been coming here for years and years. You wonít find more die-hard enthusiasts of any sport."
Brian and Dennis Sanders have been around unlimited air racing most of their lives. Their introduction to the sport came through their father, Frank Sanders, a former national drag racing champion. The senior Sanders first participated in unlimited air racing in the early 1970ís. He went on to found Sanders Aircraft, a warbird restoration business, and he constructed - along with Brian and Dennis - the renowned Dreadnought racing Sea Fury.
Dreadnought quickly became a power in the unlimited class in the 1980ís, winning the championship in its first outing at Reno in 1983. The R-4360 powered racer went on to win a second championship in 1986, and has collected more runner-up and third place finishes in the unlimited class than any other machine. Brian Sanders began his air racing career in 1988, four years after brother, Dennis. Since then, the two have campaigned Dreadnought and two other Sea Furyís; the Sanders Sea Fury and Argonaut. Alternating cockpits each year, it was Brianís turn in Dreadnought at Reno 2000. Unfortunately, the race was almost over before it began for Brian. After qualifying at 438.018 mph, metal was found in the screen of the 4360ís oil screen, indicating a possible main bearing failure. Dreadnought was withdrawn from competition, but it was decided Brian would fly Argonaut in the silver final.
Few can successfully embrace air racing as a business, however Brian and Dennis Sanders are an exception. The two have expanded their fatherís restoration/modification business due to, in part, their success in racing. The fast and relatively low maintenance/lower cost R-3350 and R-4360 powered Sea Fury racers they have fielded over the years have been well received by the racing community. Today, their modification and fabrication skills are sought by those who wish to compete in a speedy Sea Fury. Consequently, the Sandersí philosophy of air racing is slightly different.
"Air racing certainly has become a big chunk of our business. Dennis and I do very well, even though we do no advertising. Over the years people have seen that our aircraft are prepared when they show up here and hey, we donít have to spend a whole lot of time working on them either. People know that we put the 4360 in Dreadnought, and that we built the cowling and exhaust to make it possible. Our workmanship speaks for itself and the racing is a good advertisement for us. If you look around the ramp this year, thereís five Sea Furyís that weíve put together. Weíve prepared almost fifty percent of the Sea Furies here. Most of all, though, this is fun..."
"This is one of the few times that you can get together with all of your friends in the racing/warbird group. Where else will I get to see Howard Pardue, Stew Dawson, Jim Michaels, Robby Patterson and Tom Camp... Itís an opportunity to hang out and race our airplanes. And of course, the flying is fun. For nine years I did formation aerobatics all over the country with Team America, and the flying was what I really enjoyed; the challenge. The racing here is maybe more challenging. I have fun just taking off and joining up in formation and thatís just getting to the start of the race. The racing itself involves a lot of formation flying skills and itís just fun to have 4000 horsepower in your hand and to go 500 mph down the straight-away and roll into the turns around the pylons wondering, ĎHow many guys are down there with a camera catching this?í"
Mike Keenumís Riff Raff team went into their third year of competition at Reno 2000. Each year the team has steadily improved its performance and this yearís race week was progressing nicely. Hoot Gibson qualified the R-3350 powered Sea Fury faster than ever at 407.330 mph. Pilot and aircraft had raced well in the Thursday silver heat, finishing fourth. But Friday was a different story. On lap number one of Fridayís silver heat, running at nearly 420 mph, the newly installed ram-air scoop atop Riff Raffís cowling failed. Pieces of ducting from the scoop were ingested into the engine, causing it to backfire violently and fail. Pieces of the scoop also damaged the Furyís horizontal stabilizer on their way past. Riff Raff was out, another of the many casualties at this yearís race.
There is potential for mishap any time you push the envelope in an aircraft and this is especially true in air racing. The maxim, "Expect the unexpected", is routinely proven. Hoot Gibson is an aviator who is used to pushing the envelope and dealing with the unexpected. In fact, heís made a career of it in spacecraft as well as aircraft. Gibson retired from NASA in 1996 after becoming one of the most experienced and respected astronauts ever. Between 1984 and 1995 he flew five Space Shuttle missions, commanding four flights, logging more than a month in space. Prior to joining NASA, Gibson served as a Naval aviator. He flew combat missions in F-4 Phantoms in Southeast Asia and made several deployments in the F-14A Tomcat, amassing more than 300 carrier landings. Prior to being selected as an astronaut, Gibson graduated from the Naval Test Pilot School at NAS, Patuxent River in 1977.
Today, Gibson is a captain with Southwest airlines. After a dream career so packed with rich experiences he has often been asked if there was any challenge left for him. His answer? Air racing. "The fun of being here is the fun of trying to go the fastest, the challenge of operating these airplanes in a race environment and getting the most out of them. If you look at flying experiences in terms of challenges and excitement, space flight was certainly very good for those two taken together. Flying Phantoms and Tomcats aboard aircraft carriers, which I did for a period of my career, certainly had those two factors. .....Well, Iím not going to sea on carriers anymore and Iím not going to space anymore. Where am I gonna find my challenge and excitement factors together? The answer is air racing. This rates right up there."
"Itís the people too. In the unlimited class, you have a bunch of guys that want to beat each otherís brains out on the race course. But in the briefings they shake hands and say, ĎGood to see you. How are you doing? How are the kids?í If somebody breaks an airplane theyíll go over to one of their competitors and, for example, say, ĎHey, have you guys got an extra exhaust bracket?í Theyíll dig it out and hand it to you. So, yes you are competing against these guys but people are also helping each other. Iíve been very impressed with the Unlimited people and the personalities and the way they work together."
"Iíd like to feel that Iím attracted to it for the same things draw other people to it, the challenge, the thrill, the excitement. Iím not a risk taker, although I do enjoy thrilling things. I love air racing and I have always been intrigued with it since I was a little kid, and in particular, pylon air racing. Iíve always wanted to do this. I knew I wouldnít be able to afford an unlimited air racer but I could afford a Formula One. My first race was at Clover Field in Friendswood, Texas, with my Formula One. It was great! Speed is something that Iíve always enjoyed. I donít drive cars fast but speed in the air is just thrilling. You remember one of Roscoe Turnerís quotes from back in the 1930ís? ĎThere is no excuse for an airplane unless it is fast.í I feel that way. Iíve always been intrigued with sleek, fast airplanes and always wanted to race in the unlimited class here at Reno. So this is a dream come true for me."
While many of those who compete in air racing fly and own the aircraft they race, there are also owners who choose to have their aircraft flown by others. Though they donít fly the pylons themselves, the owners are every bit as competitive as the pilots. Bill Rogers has been involved in air racing for more than 30 years as a crew member, mechanic/designer and for the last four years, an owner. From 1997 to 1999, Rogers was co-owner and designer - along with the late Gary Levitz - of the beautiful Griffon powered P-51R Miss Ashley II. After the tragic loss of Levitz and Miss Ashley II, Bill returned for 2000 with co-owner Dale Stolzer and pilot Art Vance to campaign the ex-Lloyd Hamilton R-4360 powered Sea Fury, Furias.
Short on time to prepare Furias for Reno 2000, Rogers and his crew focused on making the aircraft reliable and attractive. Improvements in performance are in the works for next year. The big Sea Fury arrived at Stead resplendent in a new paint scheme evocative of the unlimited racers that flew at Cleveland in the late 1940ís. The aircraft performed well all week, racing its way into the silver final on Sunday. Unfortunately, Furias was literally unable to start the race. A magneto failure prevented Art Vance from taking off and joining the race. Rogers was philosophical about the disappointment, saying, "Wait until next year." Count on Rogers and Furias to be back strong in 2001. If thereís one thing the maintenance chief for Southwest Airlines is passionate about, itís air racing. He gives an ownerís perspective.
"I suppose we race because we always have the big quest for speed, and you always want to be the one to go 500 mph. Weíve tried different philosophies and different planes and I guess, once youíre here, going 500 is just the icing on the cake. When youíre here, youíre with friends that you havenít seen for a year. Youíre borrowing tools or spark plugs from your competitors. It really is an extended family once you get into it. You might not talk to them for the rest of the year but once you get here its, ĎDamn Iím glad to see you. How have you been?í"
"Also, this is probably one of the last forms of real unlimited racing. Hydroplane boats have been restricted down to the point where theyíre limited by fuel flow and propeller size. The auto racing guys are restricted like crazy. This is the last form of truly unlimited racing and it allows you to do whatever you want to do. If you want to go real exotic, ala Miss Ashley, you can go all out. If you want to go conservative and just fly around and have a good time, hey thatís fine. No one looks down on you for doing either one."
"I guess once this gets in your blood it's just there. Iíve only missed Reno 3 times in the last 30 years and I regretted it for 10 months each time until I got ready to come back the next year. As far as Iím concerned, I wonít miss a year. Iím here as long as its here."
The winningest pilot and aircraft in the history of unlimited air racing were both present at Stead this year, however neither raced. At Reno 1999, #77 succumbed to engine failure. Commitments to rebuild the Bearís turbo-compound R-3350 were not honored and, with a shortfall in funding, Lyle Shelton and Rare Bear were out of competition for 2000.
If anyone knows what it takes to race and win in the unlimited class, itís Shelton. Lyle is second only to Darryl Greenamyer in wins at Reno, tied with fellow six-time champion, Bill "Tiger" Destefani. However, he has far more wins overall than Greenamyer, Destefani or anyone else. From the races at Reno and Mojave, to Florida, New Jersey and more, he has more laps around the pylons than almost any other competitor. Shelton also has experience as an owner, a capacity he hopes to be in next year with the return of Rare Bear to competition, provided sponsorship can be found. Like the others at the top rung of competition in air racing, Lyle is drawn by the desire to compete and win.
"As part of a small group of people that compete in air racing, I think that what weíre doing is the toughest challenge in aviation. Itís a team challenge for the crew and an individual challenge for the pilot. Horse racing is sometimes referred to as, ĎThe sport of kingsí. Iíve heard air racing referred to in that way as well, and it's really true. Youíre not gonna make money going air racing. You do it because you want to compete. Itís very demanding.Youíre thoroughly at work in the air. Youíre keyed up to keep up with the airplane and busy until the mags are off. Then maybe you have the feeling of exhilaration, but not during the race."
"For a lot of people, thereís the camaraderie of this sport, but thatís further down the list for me. We want to go out and win, period. Over the years, Reno has been the place to do it. I think most of us have been to airshows all over the world, but thereís nothing like the tempo, the spice, the excitement of air racing. Competition is in the air. Oshkosh is laid back and friendly and relaxing. Reno is uptight and quick moving."
Ray Cote is synonymous with Formula One air racing. For 34 years he has been competing and winning in the most active class in air racing. Some would say the most pure, as well. The unlimited, T-6, biplane and sport classes have all featured terrific racing but they have done so overwhelmingly with aircraft not originally designed as racers. Formula One aircraft, built from the ground up as racers, have one purpose and one purpose only. Racing.
That suits Cote perfectly. He is a racer through and through, and has accumulated a record thirteen Formula One championships at Reno. At times he was unbeatable, often dominating the class for multi-year periods. Cote even tested the waters in the unlimited class, racing current class champ, Dago Red, in 1987. But Formula One has and continues to be the racing class of choice for Ray. At Reno 2000 he was as formidable as ever, flying his well developed Alley Cat in characteristic Cote fashion - a low, tight, perfect line around the pylons. Gary Hubler in #95 Mariah battled Cote throughout the week, providing some great racing. But ultimately, the winningest pilot in Formula One won again. After three decades of competing, "The pull of air racing is still strong," explains Cote.
"I think itís the egotism of knowing that you can build something better than the next guy. I love flying, and the excitement of racing a Formula One is something that I can afford to do without sponsorship. I guess that the thrills of being able to win first place - and weíve done that 12 times - is an experience I want to relive. Iíd like to make it a bakerís dozen. "
"Being able to be here and participate in the group activities is a wonderful experience. The racing is about both fun and competition. Itís also satisfying knowing that youíre going up against the best aerodynamic designs and a group of very experienced pilots, knowing that you can be on an equal plain with them."
The only man to challenge Ray Coteís dominance of Formula One in the modern era of air racing is Jon Sharp. From 1986 to 1999, Sharp notched 10 championship victories at Reno; nine of them consecutively. From 1991 through 1999, Sharpís originally designed Formula One Nemesis was practically unbeatable everywhere it competed Together, they lost only five races over their entire career. Few aircraft in the history of air racing have even approached the level of success of Nemesis.
The lionís share of the credit goes to its pilot of course. A Lockheed engineer by trade, Jon Sharp was the motivating force behind Nemesis, bringing together a talented team of engineers and engine specialists to create a completely new kind of Formula One. With the benefit of computer aided design, wind tunnel testing and sophisticated use of composites, Nemesis became, and still is, the most technologically advanced Formula One ever. Sharp flew the sleek racer to 47 victories and established qualifying and race records which will be hard to surpass. Though modest about his abilities, Sharp is a fine pilot and aggressive racer. He returned to race again at Reno 2000, but not in the Formula One class. This year he competed in the sport class, splitting the racing duties in Wright Wride with the SX 300ís owner, Dan Wright.
Why the switch to sport class racing? Because Jon Sharp enjoys the challenges of racing just as much as the racing itself. With the retirement of Nemesis this past summer, Sharp and Team Nemesis have embarked on a new challenge: the design of an all new sport class racer named Nemesis NXT. The fun and challenges of air racing are what keep Jon Sharp motivated. "I think if you look around here youíll find a lot of people whoíve had Ďladder accidents.í I think I fell off a ladder and hit my head. that's the only way I can explain this. Actually, that really did happen to me shortly after I began racing....It may have something to do with this..."
"I love to race, but I never got a break to go race a really competitive car. No one ever came up to me, other than in go-karts, and said, ĎHey, Iíve got a neat car here. Why donít you drive it.í Iíd love that and Iíve been a guest racer in the go-kart series in Saugus, CA. Itís a ball. I just flat-out like to race. Because I was a pilot, my opportunities to race came through air racing and looking back on it, I wouldnít trade it for the world. To have been at the top of the class I raced in in my sport is indescribable."
"The third dimension in air racing is a whole new world. Thereís nothing here like drafting, which you find in auto racing. You draft here and you go slower; thatís if youíre able to stay right-side up. I really believe that in air racing, tactics are more important during the race than in auto racing; and I find that interesting. In auto racing tactics are more dictated by the team than by the driver. But everything is in the cockpit in air racing. The crew canít really play a part while youíre on the course."
"More so than in any form of auto racing, you have to trust your life to the people you race against. You only Ďhit the wallí once. We canít swap paint here. Going 350mph at 25 or 30 feet and rolling up to 90 degrees angle of bank, looking at weeds sailing by you faster than you can imagine is nothing but fun. If you like speed, youíll love this. Interestingly, maybe the most exciting part is when we pull up off the course after the race. Youíve been going fast, fast, fast and now you have to back out and get ready to land. Youíre not a race driver anymore...You become a stick and rudder pilot. You land and you realize what you just did and its wonderful."
Bill "Tiger" Destefani
Six time unlimited air racing champion Bill Destefani returned to the 2000 Reno National Championship Air Races for his eighteenth and, it was planned, final year of competition. However, the best-laid plans of many competitors at Reno this year didnít work out quite they way they expected. Tiger was among them. Favored as one of the top three rivals for the win, Destefani was confident he could beat the challengers and make his exit from air racing in style with a record tying seventh championship at Reno. It was not to be.
During a qualifying run on Monday of race week, Stregaís highly tweaked Merlin burned a piston, forcing Tiger to abort the run. The team made a valiant effort to effect the necessary repairs; they replaced a cylinder head and bank overnight. Tiger took Strega out on the pylons again and posted a moderately fast qualifying speed but it all came unraveled. Destefani saw his engine oil temperatures skyrocket and quickly brought the racer back to earth. Metal shavings were found in the engine, indicating a failed main bearing. Tiger and Strega were out.
Reno 2000 was not what Destefani expected. Strega was wounded and he didnít get to race one last time. Given the outcome, itís likely that 2000 will not be Tigerís last year of competition. Heís already indicated that if he can garner the proper sponsorship, heíll be back. "I came to race and I didnít get to race. We canít let it end like this." Destefaniís main motivation to go air racing is to compete - to beat every other Ďhot stickí on the ramp. Itís an attitude that has made him one of the most successful air racers ever. For Tiger its all about the racing.
"Why do we do this? Weíre fucking nuts! Weíre whacked! ....Really, for me its the competition. Iím here to win. Most of these guys who come here, yeah, they like the fun of it for the week that weíre here. Probably, for them, it's more the camaraderie, the seeing everybody, the parties, just having a good time. But for me and a few of the others this is all about competition and wanting to win. Itís the racing. I couldnít just come here and drone around with this airplane and do just fine and go home. I couldnít do that, which is probably why Iím as competitive as I am. Iíve gotta go win the damn thing!"
"Thatís the main issue, but Iíve also enjoyed it. There are many aspects of it that I donít enjoy, but the one that really gets me, is the feeling of Sunday when weíre coming down that chute and Steve says, ĎGentlemen, you have a race!í You push that throttle forward and feel all of that horsepower and you say to yourself, ĎYeah! This is the way to go!í That plus the competition...You just canít combine them in anything else like this. Thatís why Iím here and why Iíve kept coming back. Itís the closest thing to going to war without firing bullets!"
Story by Jan Tegler. Photos by Scott Germain / Warbird Aero Press. Copyright 2000. All Rights Reserved.
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