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If you attended the 1999 Reno National Championship Air Races, you witnessed one of the best unlimited gold races in recent times. The Fastest Mustang battled the Mustang With the Most Wins for the checkered flag. At the start of the race, Dago Red got caught high and dropped four seconds behind Strega. For the rest of the race, Dago closed the gap and nipped at Strega's heels until the last lap. Both Mustangs were running hard - Melt It hard - and that's just what Strega's Merlin did. Dago Red, flown by Bruce Lockwood, flashed by the home pylon at an average race speed of 472 mph for the win. And they deserved every bit of their victory, too. They were the Champions.
But there was an aircraft in the gold race that symbolized something very significant. They weren't running hard because they couldn't. They weren't in the lead because of a laundry list of hurdles that presented themselves during race week. If you knew the story of Team Voodoo at Reno '99, you were one of the people at the crowd line cheering wildly for that last place purple Mustang. They were the Winners.
Team Voodoo owner Bob Button has come to know adversity throughout his involvement with unlimited air racing, but you wouldn't know it with his pleasant attitude and joking manner. Painted in various shades of purple and white over the years, he has campaigned his #5 Mustang since he bought it in December,1994. Over the years, the aircraft has been modified and groomed, but has run the usual gamut of problems and teething that all new racers experience. This run of bad luck and slow development finally lead to a sign hung on Voodoo after the near disastrous pitch-up episode during the 1998 races. "Family Sacrifice Must End - For Sale or Trade."
"Last year was very emotional," Button says, surveying the unlimited pits on Sunday morning, "For two reasons... One, obviously, we got ourselves into a real potential problem. In the previous two years, we had been building up the airplane, so there was no preparation time available to us. I also made some mental mistakes and allowed things to happen that shouldn't have happened." Indeed, pilot Bob Hannah had a wild ride when the elevator trim tab broke off the aircraft and pitched the racer up at approximately 10 G's. Hannah took a G-induced nap but recovered consciousness high over the race course. The flaps had been mis-rigged, and led to undesirable pitch trim forces. At the speeds they were flying at Reno, the tab was sticking way out in the breeze and it had fluttered off. "The second thing was; I had two years of coming up here and not taking home any money. We lost the ADI pump when Sherman Smoot was flying it in '97, and the trim tab in '98. It was some poor decision making I made. Those kinds of things are not going to happen any more," Button says. He is serious. "We're going to have a well prepared, tested airplane up here."
Reno 1999 fulfilled that promise. As Button explains, certain events added solidity to the Voodoo air race team and the aircraft itself. "We brought Jack Hovey out here. I basically begged him to come out here and get back in the race game. He's one of the most knowledgeable minds in racing. He's been at Reno from 1972 to 1986, but he just got tired of it all. So he's back on board with one of his guys. It has just made the difference. We also had Bill Kerchenfaut come in and help us sort it all out."Skip "I'll Fly/Race Anything" Holm was hired to flight test Voodoo and consult on fixes and further modifications (or de-modifications) to bring the aircraft into an acceptable race configuration. When all was said and done, the former Lockheed test pilot made the comment that he thought this was one of the nicest flying - and fastest - racers he'd flown.
Could Voodoo pull an underdog move and take the gold race? More far-fetched scenarios had occurred around the Stead pylons. Jeannie had been rebuilt from a wreck in four days and won the championship. Ron Hevle took the untried Dago Red to victory on its initial outing, as did Skip Holm in Stiletto. Even a battered Tsunami was rebuilt in a matter of a few days to make it to Reno. Hope was mixing with high potential for Team Voodoo at Reno 1999.
Unfortunately, history was holding different cards for the '99
races. The chain of events that faced the Voodoo crew at Reno '99 are the type
of things that (please excuse the tired cliche) build character. One would have
excused the crew of throwing their hands up and saying, "What
next...!?!?" As covered in "A Week of Drama," the failure of a
ten dollar oil hose lead to a trashed Dwight Thorne race-prepared Merlin and
severely overstressed their propeller.
Unfortunately, history was holding different cards for the '99 races. The chain of events that faced the Voodoo crew at Reno '99 are the type of things that (please excuse the tired cliche) build character. One would have excused the crew of throwing their hands up and saying, "What next...!?!?" As covered in "A Week of Drama," the failure of a ten dollar oil hose lead to a trashed Dwight Thorne race-prepared Merlin and severely overstressed their propeller.
Each hurdle was quickly met with a solution. Button bought
Team Dago Red's backup Merlin with a handshake. Gene Mallett flew his P-51 to
Stead just so Voodoo could get qualified with a mere 47 seconds to spare. The
next day, Mallett's prop was put back on his aircraft, and competitor Dan Martin
loaned another prop so Voodoo could continue to race during the week.
Each hurdle was quickly met with a solution. Button bought Team Dago Red's backup Merlin with a handshake. Gene Mallett flew his P-51 to Stead just so Voodoo could get qualified with a mere 47 seconds to spare. The next day, Mallett's prop was put back on his aircraft, and competitor Dan Martin loaned another prop so Voodoo could continue to race during the week.
One could argue the existence of God at this point, and come up with good pro- and con- arguments. Sure, the hurdles were put there, but so were the solutions! Even if by a very fine, light colored hair, Team Voodoo were still hanging in, but they were already limping badly. Reno gold would elude the team this year.
In the end, Voodoo was going to begin Sunday in the bronze consolation race. In a bit of behind-the-scenes talk, it was agreed that Voodoo would walk away from the rest of the bronze pack, even with the mere use of takeoff power. So the aircraft was auto-bumped into the Silver race and it won that race at a respectable 427.889 mph, a speed that would have meant a third (!) place finish in the gold final.
The problem at that point became wear and tear on an engine nobody knew anything about, and had zero faith in. With about thirty minutes to turn the aircraft after the silver race, there was no time to change the plugs on the finicky Merlin. Those specially prepared spark plugs saw 18 race laps on Sunday! As it turned out, there was barely enough time to fuel the racer, add ADI and spraybar water, and allow Hannah a quick trip to the blue room...
As Voodoo was tugged out and fired up for the gold event, the crowd was behind the team one hundred percent. Sure, Strega and Dago were going to be out in front. Dreadnought would be there to clean up the mess and take second, and Dan Martin - HELLO!!! Here was another surprise! A stock looking Mustang that can do 430+ mph!. Even with Rare Bear out of the picture with engine ailments, if Voodoo could run, it was going to be a great race!
But it just simply was not to be... One magneto failed on or soon after takeoff, so the sleek #5 was really flying on half an engine during the gold race. The racer, looking like ten million bucks and 550 mph just sitting on the ramp, was relegated to a hobbled status. One might think this would appear to be an embarrassment. This simply does not look cool. Uncouth. Desperate.Exactly the opposite.
The simple fact that Button and Team Voodoo forfeited their silver win so they could compete in the gold race - a race they simply had no chance of winning - the race they came to be in - shows the level of determination and competitiveness within their ranks. Hannah took the aircraft and did the best anybody could have done with what he had. He wasn't putting 130+ inches of manifold pressure on the engine, and he wasn't carving wingtip furrows in the sagebrush. The bandaged, safety-wired, and speed-taped racer represented the little kid on the block who kept getting beat up, but also kept on coming back to the playing field. This showing garnered a large amount of respect.
Button observes, "Our competitors are all watching the new kid on the block, which is us. And they all help out. That makes all of this struggle alright. We're ready to go home happy." Button has already focused on Reno 2000. "In about a month, we're going to start thinking about next year and we're gonna be revved up and excited."
This pure racing attitude; the tenacity and professionalism of the Voodoo crew, was not lost on the fans and participants at Reno '99. People were physically rooting for the aircraft whenever it was pulled out of the pits. "I appreciate that," Button says. "I've been astounded... Like when Gene flew up to loan us his prop so we could qualify. That was something. I hugged the man, which, he thought, was probably a little strange."
The very people involved at Reno - the support within the unlimited camp - allows Team Voodoo to take such adversity in stride. "Everybody shares with everybody." Button points to the Strega pit. "I got a prop seal from Strega; from Billy. It's just like Ike Inns said to me, 'You know, if it were just for the racing and the money, I'd never come up here. But you just meet some of the damn nicest people.'"
These very people are known as Champions, Racers, and in the case of the Voodoo team, Winners.
Story and Photos Copyright 1999 by Scott Germain unless noted. All rights Reserved.