Air racing

It’s amazing how a simple conversation can start a lifelong fascination.

Dad, how come that plane doesn’t look like a regular P-51?
Well, that’s because it’s been modified a lot so it will go faster.
Going faster is good, right Dad?
Yes it is, son.

That conversation took place what feels like forever ago between a very young boy and his father. The setting was that young lad’s very first Reno National Championship Air Race which was to become a fixture in that young man’s life. Every other year after that, until my older brother went to college, we attended the Reno Air Races. I love aviation almost as much as I love shooting – perhaps that’s why the only thing I care about in a car is if it goes FAST.

For those of you that have never had the pleasure of attending one of the Reno Air Races, allow me to break it down for you. There are six different classes of race craft, five of which are piston powered. The sixth class is Jet, which is reserved for the Czech built L-39 Albatross. I’ve never seen this class race, as it was introduced after I had left for college and the Coast Guard. The other five classes break down as follows.

Biplane
If I had to pick a least favorite class, it would probably be the biplane class. I couldn’t really get excited about basically stock Pitts Specials flying a 3.18 mile course around 190-210 mph. The good thing about biplane class though is that it does provide a reasonable “entry level” for someone who wants to get into air racing but doesn’t want to break the bank.

Formula 1
The F1 class at Reno is strictly regulated – each plan must conform to a certain set of specifications. They all have the same powerplant, a Continental O-200 which produces 100hp. That is the same engine that resides in a Cessna 150. When I was growing up and going to Reno, the F1 class was absolutely dominated by my hometown hero, John Sharp and his plane Nemesis, which now resides in the Smithsonian. The thing about Nemesis was that it was so well built that it absolutely blew other planes away. I remember once it set a speed record in a qualifier run with the engine cowling removed.

AT-6/SNJ
The AT-6 class pits exact stock AT-6 trainers against one another. The AT-6 class flies about a five mile course, what makes this race exciting (and my favorite class) is because the only modification allowed is removing the back seat, all the planes fly about the same speed. It places significant emphasis on pilot skill and strategy, there have been more hair raising finishes in this class than any other I’ve witnessed.

Sport Class
Sport Class was relatively new to Reno when I went for the last time. It consists primarily of kit built aircraft, based around an engine of 650 cubic inches or less. There are few other requirements for Sport class which you can view on the page. Sport Class is seen by some, myself included, as the future of piston-powered air racing. The old warbirds that populate the Unlimited class aren’t getting any younger, meanwhile the aviation industry is feeding the Sport Class with new airframes and designs every year. According to my sources, this class should have some fierce competition in years to come.

Unlimited Class
Unlimited class is why people come to Reno. The bulk of the aircraft that make up the Unlimited class are heavily modified WWII fighters, although any piston powered aircraft over 4500 pounds empty is eligible to compete. The Unlimited class races the longest course, and goes the fastest of any class at Reno, faster even than the L-39 trainers in the Jet class. Some of the famous birds at Reno include Rare Bear, a heavily modified F8F Bearcat; Dago Red, a modified P-51 Mustang; and Dreadnought, a modified Hawker Sea Fury. The Unlimited class is absolutely fantastic to watch, as these aircraft come thundering around the pylon around 450 mph, engines howling…just the memory gives me goosebumps.

The Reno experience is unlike anything I can describe. I was introduced to car racing after I had been to my first Reno Races, to this day my reaction to car racing is “what, 180, 200mph? And they’re on the ground? Boring.” I can’t think of a better sport that encapsulates everything manly into one big giant ball of hot, steaming awesome.

The races are just part of the show every year at Reno. In addition to the racing, there is a huge airshow/exhibition every year, which brings the Blue Angels, the Thunderbirds, the Golden Knights, the Canadian Snowbirds, Wayne Handley, and all the big names in stunt aviation out. On a side note, if you’ve never seen the Snowbirds perform, you’re missing out. They perform some of the finest formation flying stunts ever, unfortunately they don’t appeal quite as much to American audiences because they don’t go quite as fast.

I challenge anyone who claims to be a NASCAR fan to attend Reno one year, and see if your little cars still seem as excited after watching to AT-6’s battle for position coming into the final lap. Like I said above, Reno is basically the sum total of everything manly; you’ve got the fastest sport on earth, low flying aircraft, military demonstrations, alcohol, and just a few miles away, gambling. The thought of it brings tears to my eyes, and is enough to kill a nanny-stater dead in their tracks.

Fly fast, fly low, and turn left.

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