A Week of Drama
Reno 1999 was a Week of Highs and Lows
By Scott Germain / Warbird Aero Press

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If a movie script had been written for the 1999 Reno National Championship Air Races, there couldn’t possibly be more drama, anticipation or emotion packed into it. It simply would be unbelievable. Held during September 16 - 19 at Stead Airport, thirteen miles northwest of the city, the thirty-sixth running of the World’s Fastest Motor Sport featured stunning weather for the most part, a wide field of fast unlimited aircraft, and some of the best pylon racing fans have seen in recent years.

Qualifying was held Monday through Wednesday, and in all, thirty unlimiteds qualified. Top qualifying honors went to Bill "Tiger" Destefani in his highly modified P-51D Strega. Tiger took only two laps to post his 479.620 mph speed, narrowly beating Bruce Lockwood’s 479.237 mph. Lockwood, the 1998 National Champion and again in the cockpit of Dago Red, qualified in the first period on Monday, setting a high mark for the rest of the pack to shoot for. Even with a slightly shortened course, the speeds were high due to the 85 F temperatures and light winds.

There was speculation in the pits as to how well Strega would perform, after being rebuilt following a landing incident at the 1997 races. Damage was inflicted to the prop, engine nose case, wings, landing gear and radiator. The aircraft was disassembled and trucked back to Tiger’s shop in California, where it sat for over a year. Much work and further speed modifications went into the racer to get it ready for the 1999 event. Tiger’s high qualifying speed quelled any rumors and led to the building excitement for Sunday’s final Gold race.

Along with Dago Red and Strega, Rare Bear was also a extremely fast Gold racer, and holds the current piston engine world speed record at just over 529 mph. The Bear also suffered injuries in the 1997 races and had sat, forlorn and in need of money, at Stead for over a year. Flown by Matt Jackson this year, the aircraft had also received much needed attention during the off season, and the racer appeared to be in excellent shape. Jackson commented that in the off season, the engine had been thoroughly inspected and rebuilt. For the past few years, a mysterious loss of horsepower had plagued the crew and led to lower race speeds. During the engine inspection, it was found that a gap in the supercharger housing was sucking away the power. With this problem rectified, the Bear’s hyped-up R-3350 was pumping out it’s normal 4,000 horsepower.

Jackson, a newcomer to the Rare Bear cockpit, had gotten lots of practice flying the aircraft before the event, but had precious little time on the course. Flying an aircraft as modified and unstable as the Bear takes an extraordinary amount of skill, so he had his hands full learning the new course and how the aircraft would adapt to it. Even so, he pulled down a respectable 468.780 mph to clench the third fastest qualifying spot.

Brian Sanders, flying the immaculate Dreadnought Super Sea Fury qualified at 445.321 mph. Dubbed "The Buick" by other racers, the ultra-reliable R-4360 powered aircraft can always be counted on to provide excellent competition if the front runners break.

Ridge Runner, a P-51D owned and flown by Dan Martin, qualified next at 438.056. For a seemingly stock aircraft, this is an excellent speed, but close examination of the engine and airframe will tell the story. Martin’s aircraft is exceptionally clean, and features clipped wings, a modified race Merlin, ADI, and spray bars.

Another big surprise came from the pit of Critical Mass, another Super Sea Fury powered by a R-3350, similar to Rare Bear’s. With further aerodynamic modifications to the fuselage/wing fairings and vertical tail, the aircraft has shed its "dog" image and emerged as a capable racer. Owner Tom Dwelle qualified the crimson clipped wing racer at 435.015 mph, a good 30 mph faster than previous years!

Miss Ashley II rounded out the top Gold unlimited with a qualifying speed of 430.717. The purpose-build aircraft features a modified P-51 fuselage built from drawings, a counter-rotating Griffon engine, and the wings and horizontal tail of a Learjet 23. A new modification this year centered on the radiator inlet. The stock scoop had been discarded in favor of a streamlined fairing with a NACA inlet, giving the aircraft a sleek, yet guppy-like appearance. Prop seal problems early in qualifying were allowing oil to be pumped overboard onto the cowl and windscreen, making visibility difficult for pilot Gary Levitz. New, more pliable seals were found and installed.

A darkhorse aircraft was also present in the pits, and provided the first bit of drama during race week. Owned by Bob Button, the brightly painted Voodoo Mustang looked like 500 mph just sitting on the ramp. In a perfect world, this racer is every bit as fast as Strega, Dago Red and Rare Bear. This comes courtesy of Tiger Destefani’s shop, which after perfecting Strega over the years, had been contracted to turn Voodoo into an "improved" Strega clone.

As could be seen, the quality of work was impressive. Voodoo arrived at Reno with a full-out Dwight Thorne race Merlin capable of somewhere around 3,800 hp. The aircraft had been well prepared by the crew, and could be counted on to provide excellent competition during Sunday’s Gold race

What wasn’t counted on was Voodoo would provide some real excitement very soon. During Monday’s qualifying session, pilot Bob "Hurricane" Hannah was preparing to take the clock for his qualifying run. After pulling up sharply to avoid a slower aircraft, he reentered the course on the east side. Hannah pushed the throttle up for his run, and with airspeed building rapidly, heard a loud pop over the cacophony of the engine. In an instant, the RPM shot up somewhere above 4,000 and trashed the engine. As the frightening sound wafted over the pits, people looked skyward to find the origin of such a sound.

Knowing something major had just happened, Hannah again pulled sharply off the course and tried to convert his airspeed to altitude. But the effect of the flat prop blades made that very difficult. With airspeed and altitude now in short supply, he pointed the wounded racer approximately a third of the way down Stead’s runway 14.

"At this point, I looked down and saw 200 on the airspeed, which is the absolute minimum I want to have, so I just pushed the nose over. I’m coming around for the runway, and I see that it’s backing away from me, so I’m thinking I’m not going to make it," Hannah said. As the airspeed bled through 150, 140, 130 and finally 120, Hannah had no choice but to push the nose even lower to prevent a stall.

With the racer skimming the desert in ground effect, it became apparent - slowly - that he might make the dirt overrun, which meant he could lower the landing gear. As Hannah threw the gear down, the stick shaking in his hand, he also dumped full flaps. But he still had one problem; he wasn’t quite lined up with the runway yet. But any runway is a good one in this instance. The aircraft touched down on the right main wheel just as the runway pavement began. He then skillfully rudderd the aircraft to the left and rolled out safely. Several minutes later, he, owner Bob Button, the crew, and all who observed the event began breathing again.

Upon returning the aircraft to the pits, an inspection found the main engine bearings had been destroyed, and there was no spare Merlin. The prospect of seeing this beautiful racer in the pits for the rest of the week was a disappointing one. Years of development, lots of money, and much blood, sweat and tears seemed to be for naught because one oil line ruptured.

But racers are a wiley bunch...

After some discussion, Dago Red owner Terry Bland agreed to sell Team Voodoo his spare Merlin. It was either a move of confidence or racer camaraderie, or both. If Dago’s Merlin blew up, there would be no more racing for Team Dago this year. But without Voodoo in the race, there would be a severe lack of competition.

Speculation arose as to the longevity of the engine being installed on Voodoo. The same engine had powered Dago Red to a lap speed of 490 mph at Reno several years before, so it developed the required power. But, and it was a big ‘but,’ how much wick did this engine have left on it? Was it reliable? Would it last? Would it even run?

Voodoo’s mayday occurred during the Monday qualifying session, which meant there were two days left to get the aircraft running, flying, and qualify it. In other words, there was precious little time. Additionally, the RARA technical team required Voodoo’s original prop to be sent to California for inspection. As it turned out, the gross stress of over 4,000+ rpm had made the propeller unsafe to use. One more hurdle to overcome.

The Voodoo crew used up most of Tuesday preparing the new engine for installation, and trying to find a usable prop. Fellow racer Dan Martin agreed to lend a prop, but it wouldn’t arrive in time for qualifying. Enter Mustang owner and pilot Gene Mallette. It was uncertain how the deal went down, but Mallette flew up to Stead in his Mormon Mustang and allowed Team Voodoo to use the prop and spinner from his aircraft for their qualifying attempt.

With minutes ticking away, the prop switch was made and the aircraft was towed out to the ramp amid cheers and whistles. Could they do it? People were looking at their watches and shaking their heads. Time was seriously running out. The engine coughed, sputtered and complained. A stack fire started, but was rectified as the Merlin came to life. After temperatures and pressures stabilized, the engine was run up and pronounced fit. Hannah was already on his way to the aircraft to take off.

With less than 10 minutes left in the session, Hannah sucked Voodoo’s gear up and made sure the engine was indeed healthy. He entered the course and called for the clock. It was wasn’t the fastest the aircraft had ever flown, and they’d be placed in the bronze for now, but the qualifying speed of 376.197 mph at least got them in the game. As the racer flashed by the home pylon at the conclusion of the qualifying lap, a mere 40 seconds remained during the qualifying period. It was that close. As things would work out, Voodoo would bump up into the Gold race come Sunday, but its performance would not be up to par.

Weather during race week, for the most part, was excellent, with clear skies, light winds and temperatures in the mid 80's. The unlimited heat races on Thursday and Friday were simply sparring matches, since nobody was going to push too hard and run the risk of blowing an engine. The winning speed for Dago Red was a paltry 456.461 mph.

Saturday dawned overcast and much cooler, with drizzle passing through the area throughout the day. The races, however, were not affected, and by the time for the gold heat rolled around, there was a fair amount of sunshine. Eight shining racers taxied out for Heat 3A, a race that would give the crowd just a taste of what the final race on Sunday would bring.

In an interesting twist of events, Dago Red had developed a problem with the nose gear case on their Merlin. But Button’s Team Voodoo came to the rescue, and loaned the nose case off their blown Merlin. It seemed every racer had a part or component off of another racer. Tiger’s crew also had chased down some cooling problems in Strega’s radiator, while Miss Ashley II’s crew finally solved their electrical problems. All the top racers would launch for the Gold heat.

Steve Hinton, flying the T-33 pace aircraft gathered the racers in echelon formation and lead them around Peavine Mountain, and down the chute onto the course. As the racers completed the pace lap, Strega had jumped to the lead with Dago Red nipping at her heels. Dreadnought, Critical Mass and Ridge Runner followed close behind, but it was clear this was a two-plane race between the Mustangs. If one or both blew their engines, then the reliable Dreadnought and Critical Mass would be there to clean up.

But the palpable excitement of the race was dashed in less than four seconds. As the pack flew past the home pylon, Miss Ashley II seemed to level for a second with some sort of problem. In one sickening instant, the racer pitched down severely and broke apart. Video of the race shows the horizontal tail separating from the fuselage, leading to an extreme pitch up and failure of the left wing. The fuselage and wing fell to the ground amid a small neighborhood in Lemmon Valley.

As the racers continued around pylon two and three, a quiet confusion came over the fans, crews and officials. Small red pieces were floating to the ground. Black smoke rose from below the horizon while emergency vehicles responded. One moment ago, pilot Gary Levitz was rounding pylon one, the next he was gone. No noise, no bang, no failing engine.

The conclusion of the race saw Tiger take the checkered flag at a sedate 463.590 mph, with Lockwood and Dago Red right behind at 459.342. Nobody was pushing too hard, saving their engines for the real show tomorrow. Throughout the race, Rare Bear was obviously nursing a sick engine after suffering several exhaust stack failures through the week. At one point, blue-hot exhaust had melted off cylinder cooling fins. Saturday saw a broken valve, a chewed up piston and a burned piston on display in front of the aircraft. As the crew worked on the plane, one commented, "At least we have an engine to fly home on." Another Gold racer down.

Any victory, personal or otherwise, was hollow this day. As the aircraft landed, fans, crews and friends consoled each other. It was eerily quiet across the whole airport. Gary Levitz, a 26 year veteran of racing at Reno, and a well known and respected warbird pilot, was dead.

If any good news came from this tragedy, it was the fact that nobody on the ground was seriously injured. Talk in the pits, the stands, and on the evening news centered on the encroachment of housing near the airport and the possibility of moving the races. These debates will undoubtedly be handled in the near future.

As Gary would have liked it, the races continued on Sunday, with a glorious day in terms of weather, and some level of excitement in the air. Fans were considering the prospects for the race. The final Gold race is what it all comes down to at Reno. This year, fans would see two highly modified Mustangs, Strega and Dago Red, go head to head. And don’t count out the Super Sea Furies, always right behind and able to run full power all day long. Ridge Runner appeared to be capable, but a little slower than the Sea Furies. Any mistakes would allow the quick red and silver Mustang to move up a spot. Risky Business, a modified P-51 flown by Bill "Rhino" Rheinschild, had moved up to the Gold race, and was on par with Ridge Runner. Voodoo had won the Silver race earlier, and elected to bump up to the Gold race. September Pops, Spirit of Texas and Howard Pardue’s Fury were all seemingly stock Sea Furies, and would provide some great racing at the tail end of the pack. Overall, it was a fast group of aircraft, and the crowd was ready to rumble!

One by one, the pilots climbed into their cockpits, strapped in, and mentally prepared for what lay ahead. Tiger, the Flying Farmer, was confident he and Strega would again take the checkered flag first. Bruce Lockwood, a quiet, talented guy, knew he could stay with Strega the whole way - if Dago’s engine held together. Brian Sanders, with Dreadnought’s 4,000 horsepower in his left hand, would be right behind the front runners the whole way. Tom Dwelle, with a faster Critical Mass, had a chance if the tightly-wound Mustang engines blew up. Each pilot eyed the other planes, the other pilots, and concentrated.

"Gentlemen, you have a race!" It was Steve Hinton in the T-33 pace plane pulling up and releasing the racers onto the course. Ten aircraft, each producing 3,000 - 4,000 horsepower, clawed for position to make the first turn. Immediately, Tiger flogged Strega and leapt out to the front, with Dago Red right behind her. As Dago Red crew chief Bill Kerchenfaut likes to say, "You want to lead the last half of the last lap on the last day." Lockwood knew this, and kept Strega right out in front.

The end of the pace lap saw speeds around 490 mph, but that included the dive onto the course. As the speeds settled in, timers saw speeds in the 470 neighborhood. Strega was pushing, and everybody knows Tiger was going to win or break trying. Lockwood, flying less than a second behind, had more throttle left for the last few laps. He was waiting for his chance.

As expected, Dreadnought was in third place and flying a consistent, tight line around the eight mile course. Critical Mass was close behind, followed by Martin’s Ridge Runner. Voodoo, running rough and bringing up the rear, was obviously not producing the required horsepower. There hadn’t been time to change the plugs on the finicky Merlin after winning the silver race, but seeing her in the race at all is a tribute to the entire crew, and their true racing attitude.

As the race wore on, it became apparent two things were occurring. The front runners were saving a little something for the last lap. Strega and Dago Red are capable of laps around 490 mph, and they were 20 mph off that pace. With the warm temperature - perfect conditions - these speeds were attainable. Critical Mass was also on the move, making a move on Dreadnought for third place. The longtime wish of race fans was being realized! This was a Gold race!

The second event playing out was the possibility of attrition. The aircraft had been flown all week. They were being pushed hard, worked on, fixed and stroked. Problems were chased. Some were fixed. Some were not. Something had to give; and it did.

First to go was Dwelle in Critical Mass. On lap five, the big racer flew down past the home pylon throttled way back, with white smoke puffing from the exhaust. One lap later, Dwelle called a mayday and landed safely on runway 26. During Dwelle’s approach, further drama was unfolding on the far side of the course. Lockwood was still in Tiger’s hip pocket, just waiting to make his move. Out of his peripheral vision, Lockwood saw condensation streaming from the wings during the pylon turns. He saw it on Strega too, just ahead.

Farther back in the pack, Risky Business found some extra horsepower and moved up to sixth place, and seemed to be making time on the Sea Furies. During the next few laps, the Mustang would pass the round motors, leaving September Pops, Fury and Spirit of Texas to settles matters for fifth, sixth and seventh place.

"Race Seven is a Mayday..."

The final act had begun. The attrition card was being played, and Bill "Tiger" Destefani lost the hand. During qualifying, he had swaggered out, climbed into Strega, and ripped off a 479 mph qualifying lap. All week he had been in first or second place during the heat races. He was down his long-time crew chief, who was now working on Dago Red. He chased cooling problems all week. He toyed with the induction mixture settings. He fought hard to win this race.

"Win or break" was Tiger’s motto, and he held to it.

Lockwood, flying just behind Strega, may have known it a split second before Tiger did. The smoke from the exhaust stacks, then Tiger pulling up, signaled the real end of the race for first place, and put Dreadnought firmly in second. All Lockwood had to do was not cut any pylons and take the checkered flag.

Above the course, Tiger had his hands full with a dying racer. Next to a fire and Voodoo’s runaway prop and engine failure on Monday, this was the next worst-case scenario a race pilot could expect. Tiger wracked Strega over and aimed for runway 14, as Hannah had done. Still trailing smoke, Tiger appeared to also be a bit low to make the runway. As Strega glided through 100 feet AGL, Tiger was still about 40 off runway heading, but in the turn with the gear and flaps down. He made it with room to spare, and let the racer roll out to the end of the runway, stopping next to Dwelle in his broken Sea Fury. One had to wonder what was said between the two as they sat there at the end of the runway.

Long time race wags had pronounced Dago Red’s 1998 victory a fluke. Indeed, there was no Strega, Rare Bear or Voodoo to challenge during last year’s race. But Dago did win, and they were the Champions. This year, with so many fast aircraft in the race, there was true competition. Lockwood flashed across the finish line to take the checkered flag, removing all doubt as to the level of professionalism, talent, dedication and shear determination this race team possesses. These are traits of true Champions.

So what if Strega didn’t break? Well, it was one of the best races on the books as far as Reno goes. Fans would have found Valhalla if it ended up being a two-plane drag race on the last lap. As it was, the crowd was on its feet, beating anything they could find, willing their favorites to go faster.

Even though it came down to two aircraft, the final Gold race at Reno epitomized the whole week of racing. The competition, much like the drama and emotion of the week’s events, was intense. There was drama. There was frustration. There was elation, as well as sadness. For Team Dago Red, the champagne sprayed high and far as Lockwood shut down the Merlin and held his hands up in triumph. For Dreadnought, they came and did what they figured they’d do. They’d place second, and take home a good check to cover their expenses. Dan Martin finished third, and educated the crowd about how much a strong engine on a seemingly stock airframe means in racing.

Did Lockwood win because Tiger broke? Who knows. It would have been great to see if he didn’t. But, as any of these pilots will tell you, that is racing…

Story and Photos Copyright by Scott Germain unless noted. All rights Reserved.

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