For me just getting there will be a day-long, 620-mile cross country with three fuel stops. It’s not the closest race that I’ll run, but it’s by no means the farthest from my home base, either.
But I’m excited to finally be on my way, after all, I’ve been planning this for more than half a year.
And what is the plan, you ask?
In the first Disney “Planes” movie, Dusty Crophopper’s fuel-truck coach, Chug, relies on a book called “Air Racing for Dummies.” It doesn’t exist. I know this because I actually checked for it on Amazon. Instead, I had to write my own playbook, and it consists of both race tactics and race strategy.
For tactics, the plan at each race is to peddle as fast as I can. OK. That was a joke. Everyone knows Ercoupes don’t have pedals — not even rudder pedals.
But I’m going to make every second count by leaning my mixture carefully, redlining my throttle, holding tight to the course, making my turns sharp and steep, and trying my darnedest to keep my altitude. I’ve been practicing all these things. Weekly.
So much for tactics. But to understand my strategy, we need to talk a little more about how the league is structured.
League Category and Class
Each plane in the league is placed into both a category and a class.
There are only three categories: Experimental, Factory, and Heavy Metal.
Experimental is for any homebuilt airplane, Factory is for any factory-built plane, and Heavy metal is for the heavy hitters that can fly more than 300 mph — think Mustang or Bearcat — and vintage planes built before Aug. 31, 1945.
Inside these three broad categories, the planes are broken into classes based on their engine size and power, induction type, number of engines, and gear type. Most of the league’s members fly in the Experimental category, where, if I counted right, there are 29 classes.
The purpose of these breakdowns is to have similar types of airplanes competing against each other, as the league doesn’t use any kind of handicapping system.
In any given race you fly against everyone in your category. All the Experimental classes vie for the same prizes, all the Factory planes take each other on, and all the Heavy Metal fliers duke it out with each other.
But separate from the race trophies are league points that determine who the champions are at the end of the year. League points are calculated on how well you fly against your own class, the smaller classifications of planes within the categories.
So my league points will be based on how well I fly against other planes in my class, which is FAC6, defined as, “Any Factory-built aircraft with less than 130 hp.”
It’s the lowest power category of Factory planes in the league. And it’s broad width presents both an opportunity and a challenge. I have an 85-horse engine. Against at 65-horse Cub I’ll fare pretty well. Against a 110-horse Cessna 152, I’ve got a problem.
It is possible to be a league champ without ever being a race winner. How is that even possible?
This is how it could happen, in theory. Let’s say at the Azalea Air Race only four Factory planes show up to race. Let’s pretend they are a Mooney 201, a Bonanza, a Cirrus, and me.
I promise you that the other three pilots will take home the gold, silver, and bronze trophies, and I’ll go home empty-handed because I’ll get my twin tails waxed flying against those planes.
But, as none of those three planes (far) ahead of me are in my class — both figuratively and literally — I’d still get the same league points as the race leader, simply for being the fastest in my class.
If I can amass enough points from each race I fly, whether I win or not, I can take a league champion trophy for the Factory planes at the end of the season.
Is that sneaking into the winner’s circle via the back door, or a smart strategy? I’ll let you decide. But either way, it won’t be easy. I’ve got some really tough competition.
Still, if racing were a slam-dunk, it wouldn’t be any fun.