Dispatch from SXU, Santa Rosa, New Mexico: I’m sitting outside my hangar in my “Air Racer” folding chair, race swag from the ninth annual Texoma 100 Race.
I take a puff on my cigar and regard my trusty plane with a loving eye. From my low angle in the chair just outside the hangar door, her nose juts up into the air. Ready to fly. Ready to race.
It’s 111 days until the next race season. Will I race again?
Well, that’s a silly question. Now that I’ve tasted air racing — now that I have Sport Air Racing League (SARL) blood in my veins — I will always race.
So really, the question is not will I race, but how much will I race? Will I just content myself with nearby races? Or the races I enjoyed the most? Or the ones with the best trophies? Or just go to new races, ones I’ve not yet flown?
Or will I go for the gold again?
That question has been weighing heavily on my mind from the moment I swept across the finish line above the water tower at Hutto southwest of Taylor, Texas, becoming the second-place National Champion.
Another puff, and the options float around my consciousness like the pale grey smoke of the cigar wafting higher in the cool autumn air.
I flew 17,748 miles this year just getting to and from races. I’ve added 222.6 hours to my logbook. And in one year of racing, I’ve spent more money than Race 53 cost to buy in the first place. Do I want to take on the time and expense to try to knock Team Ely of Race 55 off their pedestal?
Plus, I have other plans. Last year I set a World Speed Record. In the Ercoupe.
And now the giant wall planning chart in our home flight lounge has a red zig-zaggy line inscribed across it, touching each state in the lower 48. It’s the first draft of a month-long father-son trip designed to touch down in every state and kiss the cardinal points of the compass — landing at the farthest West, North, East, and South airports in the continental United States.
There isn’t time, energy, or money to do a trip like that and a full race season.
I tilt my head back and watch the cigar smoke rise, tumbling like water, high into the blue sky while I mull over the possibilities.
I had pretty much decided not to invest the energy in a second attempt for the gold. Then came the letters. Well, emails, actually.
The first was the season wrap newsletter to the league members from our Chairman, Mike “The Chief” Thompson. In it he summed up the competition for the 2016 production Gold trophy this way:
“The year ended on a somewhat anti-climatic note since mechanical difficulties interrupted a hard-fought battle for the Gold in the Production category. Race 53 and Race 55 have been in competition from the very first race this year and their point totals never did differ by more than enough where had either missed a race, the other would leap into an insurmountable lead.”
He then described the advantages and disadvantages we each had in our classes, and wrapped up with:
“Still, it was a mechanical failure late in the season that sidelined Race 53 for a couple of races that proved to be his undoing, and Race 55 locked up their fifth Production Gold trophy. Race 53 took home Production Silver — no small feat flying an Ercoupe in his rookie year. Congratulations to both teams!”
I thought it was a nice write-up. It was complementary to both teams and journalistically accurate. Apparently, however, Linda Ely disagreed.
The very next day she sent a re-written version of the Chief’s newsletter to the membership under the title of the Real Season Wrap. Her take on our mutually hard-fought battle was:
“Reigning Champs Race 55 and Rookie Race 53 have been in competition from the very first race this year and their point totals differed by an exciting amount for a large part of the season, but with Race 55 never falling behind. Eventually Team Ely raced ahead by more than enough into an insurmountable lead so that the last two races of the season could have been skipped. But they’ve been seven seasons in this League and love the League too much to have skipped these races, God Bless ‘em. Still, it was a mechanical failure late in the season that sidelined Race 53 for a couple of races that proved to be his final and more drastic undoing than had he not had those problems and Race 55 locked up their 5th Production Gold trophy. That’s why They are The Champs!”
She also said that I didn’t know who I was “messing with.”
Now that’s true.
Before the season, I had carefully studied Team Ely’s stats for all the years they had raced in the league and made the mistake of thinking that they raced the number of races that they could. That was an incorrect assumption. They raced the number of races that they needed to race to stay on top.
The team that loves the league too much to skip a race.
Oh dear. Now I’m sounding like Linda. Please disregard that.
Anyway, when I first read her re-write of the Chief’s newsletter, I was appalled. It was so disrespectful to rewrite what the man who created the League had written, and to put words in his mouth.
I had a hard time getting my head around that. Then I got insulted over the tone directed at me. What ever happened to good sportsmanship?
Then I got mad.
But only for about 10 seconds. After that an eerie calm descended over me and I knew what I had to do.
I had to beat Linda Ely. As simple as that.
I went into our flight-planning lounge and started drawing little checkered flags on our wall chart with a dry erase marker. One above each airport where I knew, or suspected, there would be a race in the 2017 season.
This year’s race season barely over, it’s time to get to work on the next one. The game’s still on, Linda.
As the Chief pointed out, it was a “mechanical” that truly sidelined me. Had that not happened, would I have won? To be honest, probably not.
After all, I never once pulled ahead of the Elys. We were tied for the first two races. She pulled ahead of me in both the third and fourth, and never looked back. I regained some ground in the fifth and sixth but never got ahead.
And so it went. She’d gain a little. We’d tie for points at a race. I’d gain a little. But the gap in the point total widened as the season went on, and while it was never beyond possibility that I’d beat her, the odds looked worse and worse as the season advanced.
Of course I worried about weather. They have an IFR airplane, and have arrived at races through weather that lesser-motivated pilots would cower at.
Race 53 is a VFR airplane, and more than once I left days early to make sure that I got to a race. They are a team of two fully licensed pilots. I have my two student pilot helpers and a great ground crew, but I lived in fear of the common cold.
And I worried about what undid me in the end: A mechanical failure in a 69-year-old airplane.
We actually had a number of breakdowns over the course of the season, but our awesome mechanics always got us running again. In the end, however, we broke down away from home in the hands of strangers. They did their best, but could not get us back in the race.
What’s to prevent that from happening next year? I’ve decided to take a page from another part of aviation. As private plane owners, we’re only required by regulations to undertake an extensive inspection of the family plane once a year. This is called an “annual.” It’s thorough and it’s expensive, and things that need to be fixed are always found.
In other parts of the aviation world, rented planes are required to have inspections just as thorough every 100-flight hours.
I decided to do voluntary 100-hour inspections throughout the race season next year in an effort to head off mechanical trouble at the pass.
This is war…for some
I had a lot of fun racing this year, and I actually ended up enjoying having a “nemesis.” Hey, I never had one before, and there’s a lot to be said for it —especially if both parties are having fun with it.
For instance, when we arrived at our hangar to depart for the AirVenture Cup and discovered the tire on the nose gear flat as a pancake, we cheered ourselves up by joking that our nemesises had flown up from Houston in the dark of the night, picked the lock on the hangar door, and slashed the tire.
Of course they didn’t. But the mental image was more amusing than the fact that I’d apparently run over a cactus on our dirt taxiway.
But I don’t think that my nemesis enjoyed our relationship as much. Of course, I guess defending a title is more stressful than challenging a title.
Not that I’ll ever know. If I win the gold next year, I’ll be satisfied to slow down, race less, and work on that 48-state flight. After that, who knows? Maybe I’ll fly around the world.
In an Ercoupe.
But back to competition. Ken Krebaum, Race 118, unseated long-term champ Jeff Barnes of 411 this season. But they still get along great. They talk, joke, laugh, and I think genuinely respect and like each other. On the ground.
Naturally, in the air, they want to kick each other’s asses.
And that’s the way it should be. But Linda Ely won’t even look me in the eye on the ground. Not even when I shook her hand and congratulated her on holding onto her title.
So while I would prefer a less frosty competition, we both have to be true to who we are. I don’t think she either likes or respects me. And in fairness, I have spoiled her easy run. But, hey, if you don’t want to risk losing, you should take up painting by numbers, not air racing.
At dinner one night I read both emails to my family. My mother, a woman actually more competitive than Linda herself, exclaimed, “This is war!”
I can’t repeat what my wife said. My son, who up to that point was adamantly against another year of racing — as he had decided all the omens we’d seen were bad ones and we’d lose a second time if we tried again — was suddenly “on board.”
So that’s it. The 48 states will still be there another year. Race 53 and I are going for the gold once again.
I hope you’ll follow the rematch here in the pages of General Aviation News starting in March.
Actually… I hope for more than that.
I hope you’ll come race with me.
My League Points: Zero
My League Standing: Not established until the first race of the 2017 season!