As if on cue from an invisible orchestra conductor, everyone stands. Thousands of men, women, and children. As one, they turn their heads to the southeast, faces to the sky.
No, it isn’t for the national anthem. It’s for the start of the Unlimited Gold Race at the National Championship Air Races at Reno, Nevada.
A scratchy radio transmission is patched through the public address system: “Gentlemen, you have a race.” And with that, six beefy, big-engine ex-World War II fighter planes roar overhead and onto the racecourse.
It’s the grand finale of a day in the sun for the crowds, who took in 14 races on the last day of the five-day-long event, along with performances by a Pitts, an acrobatic Bonanza, a jet-powered racecar, and the Blue Angels.
The race contests included tinny Formula One planes, swift biplanes, Sport Class racers, snarling T-6 Texans, thundering jets, and power-mad unlimited race planes: P51 Mustangs, Hellcats, Yak-11s, and Sea Furies.
Anyone who thinks air racing is a dying sport hasn’t been to Reno. I promise you, air racing is alive and well, and people still love air races.
Lots of people.
Not All Air Races Are Created Equal
For quick background, there are five different types of air racing.
First, there’s straight-line cross-country air racing like the AirVenture Cup or the all-ladies Air Race Classic. Some cross-country races use the class system so that planes of similar performance compete against each other; others use a handicap system to level the playing field.
The second type of air racing is European, which also uses a handicap, but one that determines launch order, with all the planes arriving at the finish at nearly the same time — the first across the line is the winner.
The third kind of racing is the Sport Air Racing League races I fly Race 53 in: Short circular cross country speed-order races with planes of similar performance competing in categories and classes.
The fourth kind is the Red Bull Air Race with its aerobatic low-level coliseum course, one plane at a time.
Reno air racing is the fifth kind. It’s more like a horse race. The planes race each other in real time around a course entirely visible from the grandstands. But unlike a horse race, the race isn’t a single lap, but either six or eight laps, depending on the heat.
It’s a sport for pilots and spectators alike.
This year was my first visit to Reno, and I found that aviation was not only in the air, but everywhere on the ground as well. Even my rental car, a Ford Mustang convertible (hey, you didn’t expect me to cover the pinnacle of air races in a Kia, did you?) had a “ground speed indicator” instead of a speedometer.
Speaking of the ground, the grounds at Reno stretch in a narrow band for over a mile on the south side of Runway 08-26, with the race hangars and pits at one end and static displays of military aircraft at the other. In the middle are the grandstands, rising up off the tarmac like a linear baseball stadium.
Running the whole length of the event are vendor booths selling everything from official merchandise to toy airplanes, T-shirts, aviation jewelry, art, and food and drink: Deep fried Twinkies, burgers, chicken finger baskets, beer, and $3 water bottles.
The towering main grandstands, with 30 rows from top to bottom, are a permanent fixture at the Reno-Stead airport, but the general admission grandstands, nearly as large and in three sections, are temporary structures set up for the week.
Pits And Ramp
The pits are the section of the ramp where pilots and crews ready their planes. With a simple extra ticket (called a pit pass) fans can get up close and personal with the race planes and chat with their crews. A quick glance at the race program shows that there were around 145 planes entered in this year’s races, which include a series of elimination heats over four days.
Concrete barriers separate the pits from the race ramp. The ramp is where engines come alive. Planes are towed from the pits to the ramp by tugs, their pilots and crews arranged on their plane’s wings like knights of old sitting atop their steeds, off to battle.
Reno racing is known for its politics, egos, and money. And at the top, there’s no doubt that’s true. Buying, feeding, and maintaining a P-51 Mustang is not for the faint of wallet (which is why most of the Unlimited race planes have corporate sponsorship). But what surprised me was that there was a place for more “ordinary” folks as well, with RV-8s, Rockets, Lancairs, and Glasairs.
But no Ercoupe class.
I’m not much of a sports nut. I don’t follow basketball and have never watched the Super Bowl. My mother thinks she failed as a parent because I never know who’s playing in the World Series.
But I knew in my heart (and from my emails) that people still love air racing as much as they did in the 1920s and 1930s when they turned out in droves for the National Air Races in Cleveland. What I hadn’t appreciated is the depth of that love for the sport and the level of knowledge the average fan has.
Listening to snippets of conversations as I moved about the grounds and grandstands, it was clear the sport was closely followed. Fans knew details of airplanes, airplane performance, and modifications from previous years. They speculated on the personalities and strategies of the racers.
And they proudly wore their colors. T-shirts are the wardrobe of the air race fan. Many wore shirts showcasing their favorite plane: P-51 Mustangs, Corsairs, Yacks, Hell Cats. Others, a specific racer: Rare Bear, Czech Mate, Saw Bones, Dreadnought, Mrs. Virginia.
Still others displayed their loyalty to the sport itself, wearing official Reno shirts of years gone by, some quite faded. One elderly gentleman had a hat so festooned with annual race pins there wasn’t space for even one more.
The fans were of all ages. Some so old they could barely walk. Some so young they were still at their mother’s breast (literally). Some children ran through the grounds, arms stretched wide, turning their bodies into airplanes; others danced with die-cast metal planes, holding the toys high above their heads, engine noises coming from their lips.
Fathers explained the finite details of aircraft to their offspring, sometimes in excessive detail. In other cases, 11-year-olds corrected their fathers. The crowd was equal parts X-chromosome and Y-chromosome, and the ladies were no less enthusiastic.
Some fans were pilots, but most of the people I talked to were not. They simply loved the sport. The action. The noise. The smoke. The competition.
All of this is even more remarkable when you consider that being an air race fan is not a cheap undertaking. My press pass got me in pretty much everywhere (except the cockpit, damn it), but it was a different story for my 14-year-old son Rio, my copilot on this trip. Sunday entrance, general admission with pit pass, was $75.
Reserved seating is even more expensive. “Box” seating is available for groups. Now mind you, there are no catered air-conditioned skyboxes here. Boxes are roped-off groups of sun-drenched chairs on the ramp in front of the grandstands.
In fact, there’s an appalling lack of shade at the Reno air races. With two exceptions, the clubs: The Chairman’s Tent and the Checked Flag Club. A daily pass to the Chairman’s Club is $110, which doesn’t include entry to the races, but does include shade, breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, and real bathrooms (there are hundreds of porta potties on the grounds, but long lines stretched from all of them. Hint: The shorter lines are found in the pit potties). The Tent has a splendid view. Given the cost of airshow food, you could come out ahead by joining for a day.
I will when I go back next year.
The Checkered Flag Club is a bar in a hangar, and a smaller member-only grandstand, along with a close-in parking lot (and shuttle service). Limit 225 people. $850 for the week, but you still need to purchase a general admission ticket, too.
Back In The Stands
The Merlin sings its distinctive high-pitched hiss, the radials give off their throaty roars. The line of six planes wavers, funneling down into a train as they close in on the first pylon.
The planes become fast-moving blurs on the far side of the course, light glinting off their canopies like diamonds. They fade to mere specks, then start growing in size again as they thunder down speed alley toward the grandstands again. One by one, they flash along in front of the grandstands, turning at show center, showing their bellies to the crowd, who shout encouragement to their favorite pilots.
Voodoo, a highly modified bright purple, lime green, and red 75-year-old Mustang P51D piloted by Steven Hinton is running away with the race, actually passing the two slowest planes on the course. As Voodoo streaks past the home pylon a white flag goes up. It’s the last lap.
It’s no contest anymore. The fastest loser (the second place plane) isn’t even in Voodoo’s prop wash. Some of the fans get up and sneak out of the grandstands to try to beat the impending traffic jam. Not me. I’m riveted to my seat. The checkered flag is waving. Voodoo rounds the last pylon, levels off, flashes by the stands and pulls sharply up into the clear blue sky.
And it’s over.
Until next year.
For full results of the races, go to AirRace.org