Dispatch from T74, Taylor, Texas: I’m singing out loud, off-key, in the cockpit. I can do this because I’m alone in the plane. I’m not normally the singing type, but I’m in a buoyant mood.
First, after a weather delay, we’re finally on the race course. Second I’m flying. And third, my airspeed indicator is showing 118 mph, and with a delightful tailwind I’m doing a kick-butt 139 mph over the ground.
Yes, Mother Nature is giving me a helping hand, but my speed mods seem to be helping, too.
Raindrops zip across my bubble windshield as I belt out another chorus: “I’m racin’ in the rain, just racin’ in the rain…What a glorious feeling, I’m happy again… I’m laughing at the clouds, so dark up above…”
I key the push-to-talk switch on my Warren Gregoire slip-on yoke grip cover, “Race Five-Three, turn two.” I snap the yoke left, pulling back. My little racer cartwheels to the side, right wing rising high into the grey sky, the attitude indicator spinning like a top.
The G-forces start to push me back in my seat.
60° of bank.
I glance down. The numbers on Coffield Regional’s Runway 35 revolve around the tip of my wing as I make the 320° heading change above the race turn, nearly doubling back on my course.
As we’re in Texas, I let out a good, “Yea-haw!” Then roll sharply out of the turn. I change my frequency from Coffield’s 122.9 back to the race frequency of 123.45. I’m 21 miles out from the next turn at Granger Lake Dam.
I’m on the short course of the Bob Axsom Memorial Air Race, which looks like a nautical pendent, with one gentle turn, one modest turn, and two switchbacks. It’s a hoot to fly.
Who was Bob Axsom? He was one of the early Sport Air Racing League (SARL) racers, flying under the number Race 71. He died in his sleep three years ago at age 77, just weeks before being inducted into the SARL Hall of Fame. Axsom was a retired NASA engineer who’s credited with creating the technology that led to today’s cockpit Synthetic Vision systems.
About half the racers who knew him described him as a “true gentleman.” The other half called him “quite a character.”
I suspect both statements are true.
Axsom flew a deep blue RV-6 with red sunbursts on the wing. I’m told that he personally developed many modifications for Race 71 that made it the fastest plane of its kind on the planet.
Of course Axsom wasn’t the first to look at an airplane and ask: “How can I make this mother go faster?”
Ever since the second air race in history, designers, mechanics, and pilots have been trying to figure out ways to wring more speed out of race planes. In Racing’s Golden Age, in the 1920s and 30s, technology surged forward around the pylons.
And that’s still true today. In a light-hearted snub on the limits of speed, many of the SARL racers wear T-shirts with the letters Vne (the never exceed speed for an aircraft) with the universal “no” symbol of the red circle with a slash superimposed over them. No limits. Not to speed. Not in air racing.
But to go faster you must either add power or reduce drag.
There’s not much I can do about power. While I could legally put a slightly larger engine in my Ercoupe, that’s not something I can afford on my beer budget, and, at any rate, it would only buy me an extra 5-horsepower.
So for me, the only cheap way to buy speed is through the magic of aerodynamics. If I can make my stubby, draggy little ‘Coupe slicker, she’ll fly faster.
I gathered the Race 53 Fan Club at the hangar, and we studied our favorite airplane with critical eyes. The list of possible improvements is long. Some are complex — among other things, I’m shopping eBay and Barnstormers for “pants” for my nose wheel — but other ideas are simple-minded. In the extreme.
While we keep Race 53 in a hangar, in times past N3976H must have lived on a ramp somewhere, as she has canopy cover snaps. Well, more correctly, I should say she had canopy cover snaps. We took them off right before the Axsom race.
How much could the drag from canopy cover snaps possibly slow down a plane? I don’t know. Not much. But gaining a second over an hour-long race can be enough of an improvement to win.
Next, I filled various empty holes in the airframe with silicone (like where the radio range aerial brackets attached to the tops of the rudders back in 1951), and I also ordered gap tape to smooth out rough surfaces where various fairings meet the airframe, but the rolls didn’t arrive before the race.
Still, my ground crew and I did have time to install an extremely high-tech aerodynamic landing light cover to “slick up” the airflow over our landing light, which is a four-and-three-quarter inch diameter flat disc positioned exactly perpendicular to the airflow — drag city.
OK. You got me.
The high-tech aerodynamic landing light cover is a three-liter soda bottle with the bottom cut off. We only chose a three-liter soda bottle because the two-liter bottles were too small in diameter.
It got some laughs at the race, but probably reduced my parasite drag more than the stupid snap removal did.
A trophy… Of sorts
How’d my first round of low-budget speed mods work out? My airspeed in the cockpit looked great. Of course, Mother Nature helped with that tailwind around the bulk of the zig-zaggy course, and I also was able to trade altitude for speed on the upwind leg — so I felt pretty damn good about my performance.
Still, there’s no real knowing how you did until you see the leader board. And when I saw it, projected on a rollup metal door, I got the shock of my life.
My “official” time was 198.76 miles per hour. I beat out the Mooney 201 J, the Mooney M20C, and the Grumman AA5A, to take first place in the Factory Category.
Which seemed highly improbable to me. There had to be some sort of mistake.
And there was. My elapsed time of 56 minutes and 45 seconds was accidently plugged into the long course, not the short course. When the new distance was plugged into the calculation, I dropped to 10th place out of the 10 airplanes that completed the course (one bowed out before the race due to weather and one aborted during it due to a mechanical issue), coming in last. Again.
But still, I beat my speed at last week’s Azalea race by 2.66 mph for a new best-ever Ercoupe speed in a SARL race of 115.45 miles per hour, a performance for which I won a trophy.
A SARL tradition in many races is a prize for last place. Yes that would be me. My trophy? An official Disney Planes aluminum lunch box.
When League Chairman Mike Thompson presented it to me, he joked that I flew so slow I’d need to pack a lunch for the next race. It was all in good fun, and I was tickled to have won something. I don’t have a fireplace, or a mantle, but if I did, the little metal lunch box would have a place of honor on it.
Or, as it weighs nearly nothing, maybe I will use it to carry snacks to next weekend’s race. I’ll need my energy. It’s going to be a heck of a competition this time.
After two easy wins for League points, thanks to being unopposed in my class, next weekend’s race — the Texoma at Sherman, Texas, north of Dallas — is going to be a real fight.
To hold my place, and maybe move ahead of the competition, I need to beat out another Ercoupe, a Cessna 150M, and a Cessna 120. The other ‘Coupe should be closely matched to me. The 150 has a theoretical speed of 125 mph, and the 120 is supposed to be able to hit 120 mph with the throttle to the firewall. It will be a close race, and winning will come down to pilot skill.
Or maybe to a few speed mods.
My League Points: 200
My League Standing: After four SARL races, two of which I flew, I’m tied for first place in the Factory Category with Team Ely of Race 55. Team Ely and I are also tied for 4th Place overall in the League.