Dispatch from my kitchen table: The sun is well above the horizon. Outside it’s the most beautiful day you’ve ever seen. Cool. Not a cloud in the sky. Not a breath of wind. My bags are packed and I’m ready to go.
But I’m not flying anywhere today.
My plane sits at KSXU in her hangar behind closed and locked doors, and I’m at home nursing a hangover. Yeah, I drank too much last night trying to drown the fact that I just lost.
My quest for the season Gold trophy is over. I’m destined to be second place, which in the racing world is nothing more than first loser.
Like most competitive people, I really don’t like to lose.
Of course, I fully accepted going into this that I could fail. In fact, with only four races left in the season it wasn’t looking good for the Race 53 gang at all.
In the next two races our rivals, Team Ely, were up against four slower planes in each race. Barring any stupid mistakes on their part — like being penalized for cutting a turn — they stood to rake in another 280 League Points.
In one of the races we were up against a plane we were no match for, and in the other race we were very closely matched. If things went badly for me I’d come out of both races with only 160 points.
Even if, through skill and daring, I took both heats, the most I could come out of the races with would be 220 points. Team Ely, already 40 points ahead, would be a killing 100 points up.
I could see no way on earth I could overcome that kind of lead in the last two races of the season.
And yet, I was convinced I was going to win. How, I have no idea, but there were signs everywhere.
The maximum occupancy sign at the Starbucks at Reno was 53, our race number. At the AirVenture Cup, our hotel room key had a big 53 on it. I just had my 53rd birthday. As did Lisa. The new license plate the state sent me is 053. Rio’s boarding pass on a recent commercial flight was position 53.
I’ve never been one to take much stock in omens, but suddenly my world was full of them. The number 53 was everywhere I turned, from highway signs to the change in my pocket at the end of the day. Clearly, I began to believe, the universe was sending me signals. I was going to win.
Of course, the problem with omens, as anyone with even a passing familiarity with Greek Tragedy knows, is that it’s hard to sort out good omens from bad ones.
The killing blow
Maybe the Universe was trying to tell me to save my money all along, because today — without even firing up my engine and taxiing out — I fully realize I’ve completely and thoroughly lost the season.
About 2,000 miles away from my lovely day, a giant killer of a storm named Matthew just changed everything for me.
Late last night, as states across the southeastern seaboard declared emergency areas and coastal evacuations began, the Race Director of the Southern Nationals wisely canceled the air race. I got the email less than 11 hours before I was set to lift off. Literally at the 11th hour.
Of course, I wasn’t surprised. I’d been watching the monster storm carefully all day long. I knew there was a good chance the race would be scrubbed. But hurricanes have minds of their own, and the race, in Greenwood, South Carolina, was so far away it would have taken me three days to get there.
As long as there was any doubt about whether or not the race would be cancelled, I fully planned to fly into the hurricane in my 1,320-pound plane.
Or so I joked to my family.
In reality, I planned to fly eastward to Oklahoma City the first day, then on to Little Rock the second day. If Matthew turned out to sea, I’d go the rest of the way. If he turned towards the coast I’d turn tail and run for home. Hurricanes, full of fearsome winds, move across the face of the planet so slowly that even an ultalight can outrun them.
I was hedging my bets.
But the dealer ended the game before liftoff. The race was pushed back two weeks. I opened my calendar and stared in disbelief. I was scheduled to be on the opposite coast that day, covering an important health conference for one of the other magazines I write for. There was no getting out of it. I’d made a commitment.
I keep my commitments.
But the new date killed any last hope of victory I had this season.
All season long, the fear of missing a race has haunted me. I knew missing a race would be the end of my quest for the Gold.
If I do poorly in a race, I still get points, but missing a race the other guys show up for would put me fully 100 points behind, a huge gap to try to make up.
The Elys have all the advantages. They are a two-person team, making them largely immune from schedule conflicts or illnesses. They fly an instrument-equipped plane, giving them greater power over the weather. I had worried I might come down with the flu or get fogged in somewhere and miss a race.
It never occurred to me that a race would be moved to a day I had other commitments.
But that’s fate for you. She’s such a bitch.
How do you feel?
The whole crew was on hand at the dinner table, looking at the latest hurricane projections before the evening meal, when the email came in.
It was supposed to be a send-off party as Rio was going to copilot out to South Carolina with me, and we planned to explore the east coast for a few days before returning home via Jasper, Texas, where the Ghost Run Air Race was set to run exactly seven days after the Southern Nationals.
Grandma Jean and Debs were probably secretly happy that “the men” wouldn’t be away for two full weeks after all, but the atmosphere quickly went from celebratory to glum. I was bummed that the trip I was packed and ready for was scrubbed, and with each passing glass of wine the full impact of missing the race was sinking in.
Logistical issues dominated the conversation. We need to cancel the rental car in Oklahoma City. Oh. And the hotel in Greenwood. I need to let my sisters know not to worry, I’m not going to fly their nephew into the eye of a hurricane after all.
Finally there was a break in the conversation. I swirled my wine glass, spinning the red liquid around and around, a blood-colored miniature of the giant swirling storm that just ended my year-long quest.
“How do you feel?” asked Lisa, her hazel eyes locking with mine, unblinking, serious.
How did I feel? I looked inside myself. I felt numb. Disappointed. Foolish. Angry.
And then a wave of regret crashed over me. Not only would I not be the winner, I never had been. For all my efforts, not once this season did I pull ahead of Team Ely. It was always neck-in-neck, or me nipping at their heels.
It was more of a chase than a race.
I’m 855 race points ahead of the third-place plane. If I stopped today and didn’t run the last three races of the season that I can get to, I’d still take the Silver Trophy in the production category — a large tower that the late Bobby Bennett of Race 193 called a “man-sized” trophy. That’s not a bad accomplishment for my first season in an unlikely race plane.
But it’s not what I set out to do.
The first place trophy is adorned with a metal race plane turning about a pylon. The first loser trophy just has the pylon. With empty air above it. I wanted that plane. Dreamed of it. Fought hard, and flew long and far for it.
As I was opening the second bottle last night… or was it the third?… I had to decide what to do about the rest of the season.
Racing ain’t cheap. Our engine sips gas at the rate of only five-and-a-half gallons per hour, but due to our slow speeds we put on a lot of hours reaching a race. So far this season I’ve flown over 180 hours just getting to and from the races. Plus, we have motel bills, and food.
And let’s not even talk about maintenance. Between the race mods and repairs the heavier flying has induced, I’ve spent more with my mechanic this year than the plane cost in the first place.
Did it make sense to spend more in a lost cause?
Of course it was always possible the Elys would suffer a cracked cylinder, a failed electrical system, or an ill-timed flat tire. All things that have happened to me this season, thankfully in ways that didn’t cause me to miss a race. If I skipped the last three, and they somehow missed a few, I’d kick myself forever for not going down fighting.
Plus, there’s the issue of sportsmanship. I challenged the champs and they took me on, albeit more fiercely than I expected. Even though my defeat looks certain, it would be poor sportsmanship to just throw in the towel.
Game still on, Linda
So I’m going to miss the re-scheduled Southern Nationals Air Race. I’ll miss the long three-day, 1,284-mile trip across parts of the country I’ve never flown over. I’ll miss the chance to fly a mere 200 miles more to see the Atlantic Ocean, fly over its edge and along it’s gray beaches.
But for the rest of the season, I’m still in. Full force. Like a category five hurricane.
Because even with the weather and my calendar against me, I still have the omens on my side.
My League Points: Unchanged since Pagosa Springs at 1,130 points for the season.
My League Standing: In second place, only 40 points behind the Team Ely… for a few more days anyway.