Dispatch from KGMJ, Grove, Oklahoma: I click the mic button with my thumb and I roll the yoke to the left. One smooth motion. The horizon cartwheels right. I call “Race Five-Three, Turn One.” Suddenly a gorilla is sitting on the nose. I pull the heavy yoke back as the turn steepens and I lose lift.
Some racers let the nose drop in a turn to keep the speed up, but I’m too low. Besides, I won’t lose much speed. There’s no time to. With ailerons the full span of her wings, Race 53 turns on a dime with change to spare.
I look left, straight down the wing at my “virtual” pylon, a highway interchange this time. I’m right on the money, my wing tip right where it should be. From the cockpit it looks like I’m as stationary as a humming bird and the world is spinning beneath me.
I continue around the switchback turn. The wind howls through my twin tails. The g-forces push me back in my seat, push the breath from my lungs.
I love it like a drug.
Coming through 180°, I spot the rookie. He’s low like me, and fast. He’s about to start his turn. He snaps the high-wing Cessna up on one wing.
Damn, he’s good. If I’m not careful, this kid’ll beat me.
He’s a last-second entry. His plane is every bit a match for mine, but I’d assumed he’d make the rookie mistakes of wasting speed by going high and wasting time by taking the race turns wide.
He’s doing neither.
I roll out of my turn and inch the throttle forward. I’m kissing the redline, but still running smooth and cool. My airspeed is well into the yellow arc but the chilly morning air over the burnt autumn colors of dull red, rusty orange, and pale yellow is glassy.
Race 53 has fully recovered from her mysterious breakdown and is running like a thoroughbred racehorse. I’m seeing speeds I’ve never seen before.
I couldn’t be happier.
Well, that’s not true. Because I missed two races, I’ve lost any chance I had of beating Team Ely and being the Production Gold Champion for the 2016 Season.
But the new-found power and speed is one hell of a silver lining to go with my Production Silver Champion title that I’m in line for next week.
If it weren’t for the giant picture windows looking out onto the airplane below, you could mistake Sam and Terry Robinson’s hangar at Grove Municipal Airport (KGMJ) in Oklahoma for a posh city condo in a high-rise building. Their entertaining space in the loft of their hangar is stunning. They hosted the pre-race party, a Sport Air Racing League tradition that’s taken as seriously as the air racing itself.
I guess a lot of the racers have been following my series of articles on the season because the very first question on everyone’s lips when I arrived wasn’t, “Hi, how are you?” but, “So what the heck happened to your carb?” Followed by, “Oh, and good to see you again. Glad you made it.”
So I’ll tell you what I told each and every one of them: It’s the craziest thing, but…There’s a little bit of corrosion inside of the copilot wing tank. We were aware of it, and had planned to rebuild the tank at our annual at the end of the race season. It didn’t seem to be one of those must-fix-right-now kind of problems.
Now, for background: Ercoupe fuel systems aren’t like those of other airplanes. The two wing tanks are inter-connected. There’s no fuel selector valve. An engine-driven fuel pump draws fuel up from the pair of wing tanks to a header tank, where the fuel is gravity fed to the carb.
The pump pumps more than the carb needs, and like one of those chocolate fountains at a fancy party, fuel is constantly overflowing from the header tank back down into the wing tanks. There are filters in the fuel lines at both the pump and at the carb and in fact, we’d been picking up some junk in the filter leading into the fuel pump.
But apparently particles small enough to pass through both the filters were circulating in the fuel system as well, and ended up piling up in the float needle seat in the heart of the carburetor.
The float needle itself is a simple device that controls how much fuel gets into the carb bowl. When the level of fuel drops, the float raises the needle and fuel enters the carb. When it’s full (enough) the float rises, the needle falls, and it pinches off the fuel flow.
Unless a bunch of rust particles keep it from seating properly. Then fuel is always entering.
And in our case, this caused the bowl to overflow, right into the air box.
When Race 53’s engine was started, it fired up fine due to the “dry” air in the system. But right after starting, the carburetor drew in air across this puddle of fuel, pre-enriching the air, if you will. The carb then sprayed more fuel into this fuel-soaked air, making it too rich to burn, and her engine stalled.
Like I said. Crazy. The response from my fellow racers was a sympathetic nod, followed by, “Well, that’s airplanes for you. It’s always something.”
The temporary fix was to drain all the fuel from the system, clean out all three tanks and the carb as well as possible, and to install finer screens on the fuel system.
And of course none of this explains why I now have so much more power and speed. But I’ll drink to this unexpected good luck.
And speaking of adult beverages…
Some league pre-race parties are just restaurant gatherings of the racers who arrive the day before the run. Others, like the one at Grove, are community-wide events attended by racers, race volunteers, turn point judges, timers, and local race enthusiasts.
Terry told me that she and her husband built the space in their hangar for airport entertaining, and included a bedroom, as they assumed they would sometimes use it as a crash pad for themselves. But so far they’ve never spent the night in their hangar loft. She told me, “By the time I get the dishes done after a party, I just want to go home to my own bed.”
The hangar bedroom was put to good use however, as my rivals, Team Ely, crashed for the night in the Robinson Hangar. The community reached out to house most of the racers.
I was hosted in a similar hangar owned by Dave and Onie Irvine, who were kind enough to take me in and let me spend the night in their hangar apartment. Dave raced his 182 a few years back, but his hangar also houses a turbine Piper Meridian that I tried to talk him into racing.
“It’s too slow down low,” he told me. But there was a twinkle in his eye at the suggestion.
I’ll bet it’s on the starting line next year.
The Grove pre-race party featured perfectly grilled pork loin, midwestern potato casserole, green beans, oven-warmed French bread, the moistest chocolate cake in history, beer, wine, soda, water, and the best conversation to be had anywhere.
Air racing is odd and wonderful in this way. We’re a competitive lot, or we wouldn’t be racing, but we have enough in common to be good friends, too. We’re a small band of brothers and sisters within the already small community of aviators.
The Sport Air Racing League bills itself as “air racing for the rest of us,” and that’s true. Hey, if an Ercoupe can almost win the championship, truly no plane is too humble.
But there’s more. This community of racers was welcoming right from the get go. I was never — even brand-new to the league with my unlikely race plane — made to feel unwelcome in any way. I was accepted, included, and brought right into the fold from the start.
I’ve become fond of many of my fellow racers over the course of the season, and now I look forward to our social gatherings almost as much as I do to the races themselves.
I chop the power over Turn Five and let the nose drop. I need to shed some altitude. Fast. I need to be at 500 feet AGL over the finish line. My airspeed pegs 130 as I dive toward the Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees. Glancing back over my shoulder, I see no sign of my young rival.
I level off when the GPS shows me at 501 feet, scream across the runway, make my finish call, pull up, and give my signature wing wag, knowing I flew a good time.
On the ramp, after my prop stopped spinning, I discovered that the other racers had seen good speeds in their cockpits, too, thanks to the low altitude and cool air. Between the conditions and the new-found power under the cowl of Race 53, I fully expected to have a new record-fast race speed.
But when Grove Airport Manager, and hostess-with-the-mostest Lisa M. Jewett read off my time for the Ozark-Grove Air Race, I nearly fainted.
Are you sitting down?
122.52 miles per hour! That’s fully 3.6 miles an hour faster than our best-of-season time for the one-way AirVenture Cup race, and 5.73 miles an hour better than our previous best of 116.79 on a circular course set in early August at the Indy Air Race.
And it’s an impressive speed for an 85-horse Ercoupe.
Damn, I love this little plane!
And what of the rookie? His name is Brian Buford, Race 94, and I shook him in the long straight-away after Turn Two. He clocked a final time of 113.88 in his Cessna 150. Which is still respectable for the plane, and impressive for a first-time racer. He’ll be a force to be reckoned with if he takes up racing seriously next season.
I hope he does.
My League Points: I’m now at 1,240 points, picking up 100 points for placing first in my Class at the Grove race, and 10 more for beating the Cessna 150.
My League Standing: At the last race, which I missed, Ken Krebaum of Race 118 knocked me out of my second place overall standing, which only matters to my personal pride, as it didn’t affect my Championship points — he races in the Experimental Category.
Under normal circumstances, I would not have been able to get back ahead again, but in air racing, nothing is normal. Krebaum came down with a bout of food poisoning and missed the Grove Race.
I’m back in second place overall, and although I closed the gap, I’m a very distant second behind Team Ely for the Production Gold trophy.
Currently the Elys lead me by 270 points. To even tie with them at the last race of the season next week, 27 slow FAC6 planes would need to show up, race against me, and lose.
Hey, it could happen. But I doubt it.