The 50th running of the Reno Air Races took place from 11-15 September in Reno, Nevada. Rob Edgcumbe was there for GAR and provides a look at how this landmark passed off and who proved to be the quickest in the “World’s Fastest Motorsport.”
1964 was the first year that the National Championship Air Races took place in Reno. What started out as a relatively small affair has grown over the years into a major event with multiple classes of racing taking place over several days. Interspersed with this is a flying display to keep the crowds entertained while the racers are preparing.
The fact this year marked the 50th running of the races is all the more important given what happened two years ago. The crash into the grandstands of P-51 Galloping Ghost piloted by Jimmy Leeward, resulting in the deaths of 11 people and injuries to another 69, brought that year’s event to a sudden end. Last year was the first after the crash and there was a lot of attention focused on whether the races would go ahead or not. In the end they did, with some modifications to safety procedures to try and avoid a repeat of what had happened the year before.
The number of attendees was down, not least because many wondered whether the races would happen at all and didn’t make plans to travel. Visitors come from far afield for this very special type of racing. As it was, the event went off smoothly with competitive racing across the classes and a dominant performance by Strega in the Unlimited Gold class.
And so we come to the 50th edition of the races. What would this year bring? Would Strega retain dominance, even if flown by someone other than Steven Hinton who had piloted her to the trophy last year? This year Stevo was in Voodoo and Strega was being flown by Matt Jackson. Rare Bear and Precious Metal had also undergone a lot of development. Would they provide a close run? Czech Mate was back after an absence for a number of years and might be a strong contender.
There is a lot more to the air races than just the Unlimited class of course. Competitors take part in Formula One, Biplane, Sport, T-6, Jets and Unlimited classes. These cater for all levels of performance and budgets! With the differing performance levels there are different courses for the classes to race around. Formula One and Biplane races start from the streamed departure on the runway and have the shortest of the courses. The Sport class is for quite high performance aircraft and has a longer course. They start from a line abreast formation with a pace plane. The T-6 race is also an airborne start but the entry to the course is from a different direction and their course stays a lot closer to the crowds. The Jets and Unlimiteds do the longest course, again with a line formation start with a pace plane.
Announcers keep you up to date with the progress of the racers with support for the different classes coming from some experienced racers joining the main commentary team. Additionally, the pace pilot calls can be heard as the racers get ready which helps build the atmosphere. Jumbotrons are also in place to show the action at the far side of the course but, from the stands at least, it is still easy to track the aircraft as they are at their furthest points. However, some of them are very fast and very low so keeping them all in sight during the race as they spread out can be tricky.
The T-6 race is one of the easiest to track. Not only is the course kept close to the crowds but the rules only allow relatively limited modification work. Consequently, they are all quite close in performance and the skill of the pilot becomes a determining factor. Close bunches of aircraft throughout the race is quite common and makes for some great looking flying.
Racing is not the only thing underway during the multi-day event. There is also a selection of airshow performers carrying out their acts. These include standard aerobatic performances, some more unusual aerobatics including this year a Beech Bonanza, a Learjet flown by Clay Lacy and a Sabreliner celebrating the display career of Bob Hoover. The Patriots jet display team brought its L-39s along and displayed each day and the Commemorative Air Force had a routine involving a Zero, a Bearcat, a Mustang and a Spitfire. Breitling, meanwhile, sponsored the appearance of Yves Rossy as Jetman. His performance is an impressive feat but it is still questionable how much the crowd can really appreciate of it from a distance. Sadly, the winds on the final day were a bit high so he did not get to fly. Unfortunately, the Hellcat that was visiting ended up in contact with the Jetman support truck resulting in propeller damage and potential engine damage which meant it didn’t fly again.
Come the final Sunday, the championships in each class were settled. What everyone wanted to see was the Unlimited Gold race. Tension had built up as to whether Strega would make it to the race. Earlier in the week, the canopy Perspex had come off during testing and the aircraft had not flown for a few days. Then, while running in a Silver race in order to get a qualifying time, the course deadline had been breached so the time was not counted. Only on Saturday did they finally set a time that would count and get the place in the final. However, they were starting from a poor position and Voodoo had been dominant in qualifying. Strega wasn’t the only one to have problems, with September Fury having an engine induction issue in one race that blew off some cowling panels. Fortunately, the engine continued to run and a safe landing was made.
This proved to be a crucial issue. Voodoo got off to a great start with Strega a long way back. Matt Jackson made swift progress through the field and ultimately ended up about seven seconds behind Voodoo. However, Steven Hinton seemed to have things well under control and held the gap at the same level for the rest of the race. All of the work that had gone into getting Voodoo back to race ready had paid off and the team was celebrating in style when Steven taxied back. The crowds soon gathered around and Steven showed his maturity as he spent time with anyone who wanted to congratulate him, especially some of the younger fans!
The races seemed to go well in this anniversary year. The crowds were reasonable in size but there were plenty of days when the stands were quite bare. A lot of discussion took place as to whether the races would happen again in 2014. The organisers were adamant that they are busy getting ready for next year but others were less certain. In the end, it will come down to the sponsors as to whether they believe the recovery from the accident two years ago is steady enough to justify their support. If it is, we shall look forward to the next 50 years of the National Championship Air Races at Reno.