Dispatch from T74, Taylor, Texas: I’m sitting in the cockpit, not ready to get out. The engine makes little pinging sounds as it cools. The canopy is open and the lightest of breezes ruffles my hair.
Off to my right a growing line of planes is queuing up to refuel before the awards ceremony. I hear the distant banter of my fellow racers, comparing notes on the final race of the season, the Rocket 100.
A first-time racer’s voice reaches me: “That was awesome!”
But still I sit in the cockpit.
I trace an imaginary line back and forth across the yoke with my index finger, then gently stroke the throttle, now fully back. I know I need to get out. To secure the plane with her royal blue tie-down straps. To clean the bugs off her windshield and wings.
But still I sit in the cockpit, not ready to get out.
Because once I get out of the plane, it’s all over. The most amazing year of my life will be over. Forever.
And I’m not quite ready for that. Not yet. A wave of depression sweeps over me. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve crossed the last finish line of the season, or if it’s because I’ve failed in my quest to be the best. To take the Gold.
For the third time, I run my fingers along the line of stainless steel bat switches, ensuring that they’re all off. Then I sigh, pull myself up and out of the cockpit, step onto the wing, and drop to the ground.
The race season is over.
All that’s left is to check my time and get ready to accept my trophy. My second place trophy, the one with no shiny metal airplane atop the pylon.
A questionable speed
As I expected, 27 slow airplanes did not suddenly show up to usher me to ultimate victory over Team Ely.
In fact, I was unopposed in my heat for the final race of the season, as were Linda and Mike Ely, who opted for the first time to join me on the shorter course, usually reserved for slower planes like mine.
I wasn’t sure why the pilots of the Fastest Cheetah in the Known Universe (as she calls her plane) — the powerful Elyminator — decided to slum it with me. But I didn’t have time to worry about it.
The course consisted of largely right-hand turns, which are trickier for side-by-side airplanes like Race 53, with the pilot on the left side of the plane. Right hand courses are uncommon in Sport Air Racing League races, so I don’t have as much practice with them.
During my practice run earlier in the day, I badly “busted” Turn 1, cutting to the inside of it. I discovered this back on the ground after reviewing my flight track laid over satellite images in the CloudAhoy app on my iPad.
I made a mental note to hold off on the first turn, but I still held my turns tight to the virtual pylons during the actual race, hoping to better my season-best speed from the Grove race.
Of course I knew I wouldn’t.
I knew that because I had 140 pounds of ballast in the form of my ultra overly-enthusiastic buddy and team photographer Lisa F. Bentson, who had been agitating for the right-hand seat at the last race of the season for days.
Originally my teenage student pilot son, Rio, was going to copilot, but he was sidelined by a nasty stomach bug so he, his mother, and his grandmother stayed home, missing the final race and the season champion awards. Pity. Rio bought the most awesome race flag bow tie for the awards. Not just anyone can pull off a bow tie, but that kid sure can. My wife also had packed her, “I can’t stay calm, I’m a racer’s wife” T-shirt just for the occasion.
In the race hangar, after I finally tore myself from the cockpit following the checkered flag, I found myself blinking at a projected Power Point slide, trying to make sense of what I was seeing.
My race speed was displayed as 138.05 mph.
Like a car that won’t start on a cold morning, my brain repeatedly stalled again and again as I stared at the number, trying to process it. At Grove I flew a stunning 122.52, a number so good it forced me to review all the data at my disposal to confirm it as the real deal. (It was.)
But more than 15 miles per hour faster, and with the added weight of a copilot on board? On a warm day? On one downwind leg, sure, but flying a circular course approaching the VNE speed of 144 miles per hour just didn’t seem possible.
I finally turned to League Chairman Mike Thompson, who was sitting calmly by awaiting my reaction, and I said, “That… seems… highly improbable.”
“We’ve triple checked the math,” he replied. “We figure you cut a turn.”
My blood went cold. Cutting a corner carries a penalty. Sometimes disqualification. It also shows you flew sloppily. Was it possible? I’m aggressive on the turns. I know from watching other SARL racers in the air approaching turns that I’m probably one of the most aggressive in our league. Partly it’s a race strategy to minimize my ground track for maximum race speed, partly it’s because my slow-moving plane can turn on a dime without a major airspeed penalty, but mostly it’s because I love the rush of the G-forces.
I knew I was tight, but I was sure that I stayed outside the turn points. Luckily for me, I run CloudAhoy in the background on races too, a vaccine against just this kind of travesty.
“I’ll go fetch my GPS recorder,” I said, and headed back out onto the ramp.
I was confident that I ran the course legally. Confident, but not 100% sure. Race 53 is a tricky little plane to race. First off, with interconnected rudders and ailerons, you can’t dip a wing to see where you are relative to a turn point. If I dip my wing, I just turned. So I fly the course based on GPS markers on Garmin Pilot. When the nose of the little blue plane on the iPad is about to kiss the orange square that marks a turn, it’s hard-over on the yoke.
And most times, I don’t take the time to look down below me at the turn point as I round it. Race 53 is probably out of “rig,” because you literally cannot take your hands off the controls for even a second without her snapping right and diving. In a steep turn my eyes are straight forward, on the horizon.
But I always record the races on CloudAhoy and review them later. I’ve never busted a turn in a race.
But there’s always a first time.
Vindication and correction
Using my index finger and thumb to zoom in, I enlarged the ground track around the first turn, the one I muffed in practice. My track around it was clean, if a hair wider than usual. I held the iPad up to Thompson. He shook his head. “You verify. I trust you.”
I checked Turn 2. It was fine. Next I checked Turn 3.
Turn 3 was a hangar at the north end of Coffield Regional Airport. My ground track cut the very corner of the building. So is the turn point the center of the building, or the entire building?
“OK, you need to look at this one,” I told Thompson.
He glanced, chuckled, and waved a hand dismissively, “It’s fine.”
Turns 4 and 5 were legit, as well. “They’re all good,” I reported.
“Can that thing give us your elapsed time?” he asked.
So I set to work, tapping the controls on the app to place the little yellow tracking plane right above the start. I copied down the recorded start time. Then I “fast forwarded” the controls to get a finish time. The start time I had was within a second of the ground observer’s recording. But my finish time was 9 minutes slower. We’ll never know, but I’m guessing that in the heat of battle a quickly drawn 9 could have become a zero.
Thompson plugged in my recorded course time, and noted that my speed went “the other way.” Now, instead of crazy fast, I was crazy slow at 116.27. Actually, given that the day was warming up and I had enthusiastic ballast, it wasn’t bad, and was, in fact, my third highest speed of the season on a circular course.
Following a hangar lunch, it was time to hand out the trophies. Race awards were given for the Rocket 100, then plaques for season leaders in each Class. Race 53 received the First Place Plaque for FAC6 airplanes.
Then the wedding-cake sized trophies for the season champs were given out.
To the applause of my peers, I accepted the Silver National Champion trophy for production airplanes for the 2016 season. A trophy, in Mike Thompson’s words as he handed it to me and shook my hand, that was, “Hard won.”
All smiles, Linda and Mike Ely claimed the Gold, as I had known for a month that they would.
But they didn’t stand next to me for the group picture of the award winners.
The sun is low in the western sky as I walk back out to Race 53. I pat her affectionately on the spinner, then walk around to her tail and place the 2-foot-tall silver trophy on her horizontal stabilizer, snap a picture with my iPhone, and forward it home.
Next, I phone home to check on Rio’s health, thank my mother for loaning me the keys to her airplane, and tell my wife that I love her and that I’m sorry she missed the closing chapter on our race season.
They all think the trophy is beautiful. And they’re right. But I’m still down in the dumps.
All season long, I’ve bought into the notion that there is a winner and a couple of losers who did better than the rest, but not good enough to win. I’ve never really accepted the idea that second place is still a winner.
Now, sitting on Race 53’s wing in the dying light of the last day of the race season, I study the plaque on the trophy. Below the SARL logo with its crossed checkered race flags are these words: Race Season 2016, National Champion, Production, SARL Silver.
And then it sinks in. Me. A National Champion. A National Champion air racer. In an Ercoupe.
My final League Points for the 2016 season: 1,340
My final League Standing for the 2016 season: Second place in the production Category, and second place overall of all three Categories. Team Ely held on to their top slot, ending the season 270 points ahead at 1,610 — a resounding victory.
But on the other hand, had I not been sidelined by a “mechanical” it would have been a squeaker. One that could have gone either way. In the experimental category, Ken Krebaum of Race 118 unseated long-time champ Jeff Barnes of 411.