By ANITA C. INFANTE, For General Aviation News
There is always a first time for everything and this year was the first time in the history of the Reno National Championship Air Races that two Sunday races were canceled: The final Unlimited Breitling Gold Race and the T-6 Gold Race.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the entire week of racing was canceled in 2001. But, with that exception, in the 47-year history of Reno there has always been a final Unlimited Gold Championship Race, considered by most to be the premier race of the event. (The only other time that a final Gold Race was canceled was in 1978 when a Formula One race was canceled, also due to weather.)
The two races were canceled because of high winds. Safety has always been a primary concern at Reno Stead Field, where the race courses change from year to year as speeds increase and development encroaches on the airport. The FAA and the Reno Air Racing Association (RARA) continually review safety procedures. Last year the FAA added a high wind restriction for winds above 25 knots. It is common at the airport for the winds to pick up in the afternoon, but on Sunday, Sept. 19, the winds steadily increased to 31 knots.
Earlier in the afternoon, the recovery for the Unlimited Silver Race was changed due to the high winds. The T-6 Gold Race that followed was the first to be canceled. In the Super Sport Gold Race, just prior to the Unlimited Gold Race, George Giboney called a mayday. He made it back on the runway, but landed hot and went into the sand, cartwheeling his aircraft. Fortunately, he was all right, but it was felt that the high wind played a part in the accident. After careful consideration by the pilots, as well as RARA, the decision was made to cancel the Unlimited race. While disappointment ran high, no one wanted to see anyone hurt.
With the exception of Sunday’s winds, the weather was beautiful during qualifying and the previous days of heat racing.
The number of race teams participating this year was down. The economy was given credit for that aspect, but the teams that did make it were committed to racing. There were new qualifying records set in several classes: Biplane by Tom Aberle at 260.805 mph; Jeff LaVelle in Sport at 362.481 mph; Nick Macy in T-6 at 244.539 mph; and Curt Brown in Jet at 543.568 mph.
In International Formula One (IF1), Steve Senegal came back to claim the Gold Championship title with a speed of 248.022 mph, bettering his time of 246.119 mph from his 2008 championship. He flies #11 Endeavor, a David Hoover AR-6. A surprise at second place was rookie Vito Wypraechtiger, with a time of 234.039 mph in #50, the Cassutt Scarlet Screamer. Wypraechtiger and eight crew members from Switzerland flew over to participate this year. In third place at 225.190 mph was Doug Bodine in #96 Miss Demeanor.
Aberle, who flies Phantom, a modified Mong Sport, continued to win in Biplane Gold by increasing his winning speed of 236.995 mph from last year to 250.808 mph, giving him his seventh championship title. Finishing second at 209.682 mph was veteran racer Norman Way in his Pitts S-1S, #27 Magic. At 199.095 mph, #10, the Pitts S-1S, Son of Galloping Ghost, flown by Mark Barber, finished third.
In order to provide a more competitive field, in 2007 the Sport Class was divided into two divisions, Sport and Super Sport, with the fastest aircraft competing in Super Sport. Jon Sharp in his NXT, Nemesis, dominated Super Sport for the last three years with a record speed of 407.061 mph in 2009. Because of family concerns Sharp didn’t make it to Reno this year, opening the door for Kevin Eldredge in his NXT, Relentless. Unfortunately, before Eldredge could qualify, he threw an engine rod, putting him out of the race. Mike Dacey in his Questair Venture, #71, Bad Intentions, was able to stay ahead of the competition and took the championship at a speed of 374.052 mph. John Parker in his Thunder Mustang, #352, Blue Thunder finished second at 355.993 mph. In third place was #44, the Lancair Legacy, Miss Karen II, flown by Lynn Farnsworth at a speed of 354.408 mph.
In the Sport Class a rookie, Jeff LeVelle, took control by setting the qualifying record and then finishing first in each heat race. His final championship speed for his Glasair III, #39, was 339.101 mph. He was also bumped-up to Super Sport, where he finished fourth in the final Gold Race. Second place in Sport,with a speed of 331.310 went to Lee Behel in his Lancair Legacy, #5, Breathless. In third place at 309.402 was #2, a Lancair Legacy, Modo Mio, piloted by Vince Walker.
Now in its ninth year, the Jet Class has grown steadily, with 16 qualifiers vying for position this year. After the final race, it was Curt Brown who retained his championship position with his fifth Jet Class Gold Championship Title, posting a time of 515.582 mph in the L-29, Viper. In second place, at 512.012 mph, was Mike Mangold piloting the L-29, Euro Burner. At 506.067 mph, Joe Gano took third in #2 the L-39, Pip Squeak.
There was much confusion about who would occupy the winners’ circles in the T-6 and Unlimited Classes since final races in these classes had never been cancelled before. It was decided that the results from the previous heat race would stand as the winning results. This, of course, hurt those who might have been holding back for the final race or who had mechanical problems that they had fixed prior to the final race, but happenstance is just part of the race environment.
In the T-6 class the championship title went to Dennis Buehn in #43, Midnight Miss, at 241.247 mph. In second place at 234.927 mph was #37, McDonald Racer, piloted by John Zayac. Third place went to John Lohmar in #88, Radial Velocity, finishing at 234.247 mph.
The Unlimited Class qualified 22 racers this year. The two legends of the Gold field, Rare Bear and Strega, have been fighting over Gold turf for more than two decades and this year’s final race promised to be a battle. The two aircraft finished first and second in the two heat races. After the final heat race, Steven Hinton was at the top with a speed of 473.437 mph in the P-51D Mustang, Strega. His time was well short of the speed record he set last year at 491.822 mph, but was a safe margin over John Penney in second place with the Grumman F8F Bearcat, Rare Bear, #77, at 447.755 mph. At third place was Miss America, #11, the P-51D piloted by Brent Hisey, whose race speed was 380.426 mph.
The disappointment of the canceled races added an additional layer of quietness in the pits that was commented on by more than a few people. Perhaps the reserved feelings were due to the fact that four classes lost pilots over the past year, including Lyle Shelton, an icon in Unlimited Racing, who was the owner of Rare Bear and piloted the Bearcat to six Unlimited Championships. The T-6s also lost a member of their race family. Al Goss would have completed his 30th year in race competition at Reno this year flying Warlock. He achieved Gold Standard as the T-6 Champion in 2004. Vicki Cruse was a World Champion Aerobatic pilot and the first female to qualify to race in the Sport Class. The IF1 Class lost Gary Austin, who fulfilled a lifelong dream when he raced at Reno for the first time in 2007.
For more information: AirRace.org