Dispatch from KSXU, Santa Rosa, New Mexico: I’m an unlikely air racer. First, I’m 52 years old. Second, I have no sponsors beyond my 401K plan. Third, my plane is… ah… pedestrian when it comes to airspeed. Still, with all those cards stacked against me, I plan to race this season.
And I plan to win.
You’re invited to come with me, to share a cockpit view of the season, race by race. Along the way you’ll get to meet the people, see the planes, and learn the rules and the ropes just as I do.
It’s not Reno. It’s not Red Bull. Instead, I’ve joined the Sport Air Race League (SARL), the non-professional air race organization that summarizes its mission as: “Racing for the Rest of Us!”
SARL races aren’t the head-to-head dash around the pylons of days of old. Rather, for safety, they are timed-interval races with launches in fastest-first order. It’s not a spectator sport. It’s racing for pilots.
Why race? My wife asked me that just last night and I couldn’t answer.
Mallory said he climbed Mt. Everest “Because it’s there.” The movie “Top Gun” brought us the famous quote “I feel the need… the need for speed.”
Likewise, I find myself called to air racing. It could be that I’m lusting for adventure, or that my nature requires a challenge.
Or maybe it’s as simple as the fact that the only trophy I ever won in my life was for third place worst kite crash in Cub Scouts, and I’d really like a better one. Or maybe two.
Oh, hell. That’s not honest. I want to fill my hangar with trophies!
This desire for trophies, small icons to glory, is new to me. I’ve only recently discovered that I’m a competitive person, and it actually came as a quite a surprise. I never even played sports in high school, instead I was on the newspaper “team.”
And that’s where my life took me. Despite a college diploma in aviation on my wall and a commercial pilot’s license in my wallet, it’s the written word that’s kept my family fed. I spent scores of years in journalism, and then wrote for magazines about health for a decade before moving from the newsroom back to the hangar.
You might have seen my byline in Pilot, Sport Aviation, Safety Briefing, Flight Training, Flying, or Smithsonian Air & Space. Yeah. That’s me.
Hey, speaking of hangars, what’s parked in mine?
OK, I confess. It’s not really my airplane. I’m flying my mother’s airplane. At 90 she’s still going strong. Oh. Not the plane. My mother is the one who’s 90. The plane is only 69 years old.
The family plane is a 1947 Ercoupe 415-CD, admittedly not the first type of aircraft that springs to mind when you think of air racing. She’s a two seat, low wing, all metal, twin-tailed steam-age classic, with an 85-horse four cylinder Continental engine spinning a drag-inducing climb prop that’s good for pulling us into the air from our nearly mile-high airport, but not so great for maximizing speed.
Still, despite these seeming disadvantages, this little plane is the fastest in the world, at least of her kind. Last summer I set a World Speed Record in her, thanks to careful planning, practice, skilled flying, and an epic tailwind.
That’s the same recipe I’ll use to race — minus the tailwind, as most SARL races are roughly circular courses. But planning, practice, and skill are on the table because I know a secret: Flying fast isn’t the only way to win. Flying smart is half the battle.
Planning to win
Because of the way the league is structured, it’s entirely possible I could not win a single race trophy (which would bum me out, I’ve seen pictures and they are awfully pretty) and yet still be the league champion.
How is that possible?
You earn points for each race you fly. Even if you don’t come in first you can still get points. If you fly enough races, you can end up with more points than pilots who fly fewer races, even if they fly faster.
The League Champ trophy doesn’t go to the flier who wins the most races, it goes to the aviator with the most points. We’ll talk about this more next time. But for now…
Let’s get ready to race!
The first race launches April 2 in Nacogdoches, Texas (KOCH). Follow William’s racing adventures throughout the season here and in the print pages of General Aviation News.