Racing for the rest of us

With Reno just days away, here’s a way for every pilot to get involved in sport air racing…

Looking for away to practice your airmanship but tired of the $100 hamburger? Maybe it’s time to enter the world of sport air racing.

You don’t need to have a lot of money, a highly modified airplane, or even a great deal of technical skill to compete in these cross-country races.

“The fastest airplane wins,” explains Red Hamilton, a long-time air racer and member of the Sport Air Racing League (SARL). “It’s not like the Reno Air Races where you go around and around pylons. It is cross country air racing. There are turn points along the course. It’s racing for the rest of us.”

Marilyn Boese and Red Hamilton

According to league officials, SARL exists to “promote open course air racing for experimental, production and vintage military aircraft.”

“There are lots of classes, virtually one for any airplane,” says Hamilton, who races a Wittman Tailwind, in addition to his Cessna 180.

Hamilton has been racing long enough to set some records. His Cessna 180, for example, holds the class record at 187.24 mph on a closed course. It also happens to be the oldest Cessna 180 that is still airworthy, he said.

His Wittman Tailwind, which sports a Lycoming O-320 under the cowl, has the closed course record for its class, as well, at 236.18 mph.

The races are open to anyone with a pilot’s license and an insured, airworthy aircraft. Classes include Experimental, Production and Heavy Metal. Aircraft are classified by several criteria, such as engine size and horsepower, induction type, retract or fixed gear, and single or twin engine, in order to make the competition fair, according to league officials.

Safety is the top priority of the league, officials add. Races take place in VFR conditions only.

The race course is a route over a geographic area ranging from 100 to 500 miles. The airplanes do not do laps in a geographically confined area, which keeps insurance costs low.

Prior to the start of a race, a briefing is held that covers everything from course outline to safety and emergency procedures.

The races are organized and run by volunteers. Race entry fees range from $20 to $30, set by the organizer of each race. This is in addition to an annual $50 fee for a racer’s SARL race number.

Races are held all over the country. Some past venues include Ephrata, Wash., Three Forks, Mont., Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Sherman, Texas, Indianapolis, and Mitchell, S.D.

The host of each race selects the course. The SARL website provides guidance for the hosts for laying out the course, suggesting “Natural landmarks are usually out in the sticks and might be a lake, hilltop or other prominent point identifiable from the air.” Man-made landmarks, such as tower, towns, and cross roads can also be used.

Racers are warned to keep altitude separation as required by the FARs and to be especially wary of aircraft that are not participating in the race, but are in the vicinity of the course.

Some courses are more challenging than others, according to Hamilton.

“The race we did in Three Forks is a good example,” he says. “There were 12 turns on that course.”

The races are held once or twice a month.

“There will be about 21 this year from April to November,” he says. “You can see where the upcoming races are on the website and then pull up Google Earth views so you can look at the course. You can see the route, GPS coordinates, distances and headings to be flown in advance.”

There is no regulation about crew size during the races. “You can fly by yourself if you want, or you can fly with a passenger, or a navigator/communicator,” Hamilton says. “I haven’t seen anyone turned away.”

When Hamilton races, he is accompanied by Marilyn Boese, who helps with navigation and the radio.

Like Hamilton, Boese sees SARL as a way to go fast and have fun, as well as get more people involved in aviation.

“All of us who are interested in flying and fly small planes realize that, overall, people are not that connected with airports, but you know that people are interested in aviation,” she said. “You see little kids walking around with their arms outstretched making airplane noises. Air racing brings them out to the airport. They like to see the airplanes come in. Sometimes hundreds of people come out to the airport to watch the launch of a race.”

For Hamilton, the races aren’t necessarily about winning. While he enjoys the competition and the thrill of speed, it’s the people — especially the other racers — who make the sport so enjoyable.

“There was a race when one of the guys had an exhaust tube break, creating an immediate maintenance problem,” he recalls. “Another racer dropped out of the race to help him find a spot to land. He abandoned his race to help another racer.

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