Dispatch from KOCH, Nacogdoches, Texas: My left hand is wrapped tightly around the yoke, my right hand grasps the windscreen support bar, and I’m holding on for dear life.
No, I’m not going that fast. In fact, I’ve had to slow down to keep my race plane out of the yellow arc.
I’m getting pounded to pieces by turbulence churned up by late-day winds screaming across southeast Texas — 14 knots gusting to 23.
My plane shudders, pitching up radically. As I push her nose back down, an invisible swirl of churning air kicks my left wing tip up, pitching me violently to the right. I correct, but a new eddy whistles through my twin tails, momentarily spinning me off course.
Ercoupes have a wing loading of less than 9 pounds per square foot, making them less adept at shaking off turbulence than most of the general aviation fleet; and I’ve made things worse for myself by carrying the minimum safe amount of fuel to keep the plane light for speed.
My carefully planned precision flying is out the window — it’s all I can do to keep on course. My altitude is all over the place as I race through columns of updrafts and downdrafts.
If I’d wanted to be in a Texas rodeo, I’d have taken up bull riding, not air racing. I wasn’t having as much fun as I thought I’d be having at the pre-race briefing an hour earlier…
Before engine start
In a cool hangar across the ramp from the Commemorative Air Force’s B-25 Mitchell Yellow Rose, 13 racers gathered to hear a race briefing from Sport Air Racing League (SARL) Chairman Mike Thompson and Azalea Air Race Director Ricky Jones.
Thompson and Jones reviewed the course, the safety protocols, and answered questions.
We were given our starting order for the race, based on past average times for veteran racers, and on reported performance for rookies. I was to be last in line. Engine start was in 20 minutes. We’d taxi out, parade-like, in starting order, then takeoff in 30-second intervals.
Each racer would make a “rolling” call as they started down the runway. The actual starting line of the race was the south end of Runway 18, but the wind forced a northbound takeoff. Thompson and Jones ordered a teardrop departure to the left, rolling out on course. Each racer’s time would start as they passed over the south end of the runway.
The race begins
In no time, as I sat waiting at the end of the line on the taxiway with my canopy open, I heard the lead planes scream overhead, one after another, each racer calling out his number as he passed over: “Race 32 start!” “Race 24 start!” “Race 390 start!” The plane ahead of me began to roll, I slid my canopy up, and pulled out onto the runway.
The Race Director signaled me, I advanced the throttle to the firewall and made my radio call: “Race 53, rolling.”
Meet Race 53
SARL racers are required to lease an official race number from the league for the modest sum of $50 a year, the funds being used to help cover insurance costs for the race hosts. Unlike some race organizations, SARL lets you choose any number you like, and the number is yours to keep as long as you stay current with the league.
When I joined, I made a long list of possible numbers, then invited friends, family, and my readers to vote. One number rose to the top of the heap — 53 — the iconic race number of the VW Bug named “Herbie” from the long-running series of Disney movies. I liked 53 both because Herbie is an unlikely underdog who rises to victory against superior competitors, and because it proves I can appreciate the humor of racing an Ercoupe against the fastest airplanes in general aviation.
When I had my race numbers made, I even had them styled in the same “gumball” logo that Herbie wore to victory time and time again. And in a final salute to the Love Bug, I put a race number on the “hood” of the airplane, in addition to the regulation numbers under the wings and on the fuselage.
Across the finish line
41 minutes, 28 seconds after I roared across the starting line, I bounced and lurched across the finish line, the dam at Lake Naconiche. I keyed my mike and reported, “Race 53, finish.”
The sky over the lake was empty. I had gotten there before the bulk of the other racers. In fact, at the first-ever Azalea Air Race, I successfully clocked the second-fastest elapsed time, coming in right after Mike Patey’s speed demon Race 31 — an Extreme Lancair with a 500-horse turbine engine.
I beat out another Lancair, a pair of Bonanzas, a Columbia 350, a Glastar, a Grumman, and a whole pack of souped-up Van’s RVs.
That said, I was still last place in the field of 13. How can that be?
It’s because I flew the “kiddie course,” more politely called the “short course.” Most SARL races include a standard course and a shorter course for planes with more limited power, speed, or fuel range. One race, two courses.
This keeps the faster racers from having to wait all day for the slower planes to get back for the awards ceremony. The big boys flew 167.438 statute miles at Azalea, while the shorter course — which was mine alone in this race — was 77.9538. Flying roughly half the distance let me finish “second,” but of course we are competing for pure speed, so elapsed time is moot.
Patey, in Race 32, clocked 301.84 miles per hour. Most of the racers flew in the 200 mile-per-hour range. My official speed?
112.79 miles per hour.
Laugh if you want, but that’s 2.79 miles per hour faster than Wikipedia says my plane can go, and appears to be a SARL record speed for an Ercoupe.
In smoother air, I’ll do even better.
It’s too soon after the race for the League standings to be officially posted, but a quick glace at the leader board tells the story: Besides me, there were four other Factory Category planes in the first race of the season.
Dale Burgdorf’s Race 31, a S35 Bonanza, took first place overall in Factory, plus he beat out Race 543, Stewart Canty’s N35 Bonanza by a commanding 35.53 miles per hour in the FAC1RG Class — retractable gear planes with engines greater than 280 horsepower. That gives Burgdorf 100 league points for his first place finish, plus 10 bonus points for beating another plane in the same class, making him the League Factory Leader. At least for one day.
Tomorrow, the Sunshine Express 400 blazes a trail from Greenwood, South Carolina, to SUN ‘n FUN, and the leader board will look different by sunset. Three days later, the SUN ‘ n FUN Sprint runs, and the standings will be shaken up again.
Meanwhile, at least for today, I’m tied for second place in the League with two other racers. In the Azalea race I was unopposed in my Class (the smaller divisions of planes within Categories), so I got 100 points for “winning” first place.
But the season has just begun. Trust me on this: In upcoming races there will be a lot more competition at the bottom of the heap!
Next week: Race 53 takes to the skies northeast of Austin for the Bob Axsom Memorial Air Race.
My League Points: 100
My League Standing: In a 3-way tie for Second Place