Dispatch from SXU, the Santa Rosa Route 66 Airport, Santa Rosa, New Mexico: A 6-foot-long white shelf in my hangar displays last season’s trophies. Wood, brass, shining gold, marble and crystal. Each one unique and different, just like the air races where I won them.
Sure, it’s a bragging wall, but it’s more than that. It’s a tangible, 3-D scrapbook of the greatest year of my life.
Now, I’m getting ready to do it again. This year is going to be bigger and better than last year, and once again you’ve got a seat in my cockpit for the whole adventure. Buckle up. We’re going to the races.
Air Racing 101
I’m an air racer. Boy, I never get tired of saying that! But you know what? You can be an air racer, too. Get in your airplane and join me out on the race course this season.
What? What’s that you say? Your plane is too humble to race? Nonsense.
My plane, Race 53, is a 1947 Ercoupe. That’s about as humble as it gets. But she’s a 2016 second-place National Champion in the Sport Air Racing League (SARL), the race organization that lives up to its motto of “Racing For the Rest of Us” by welcoming any and all propeller-driven airplanes.
How on earth did an Ercoupe score so highly?
Well, with SARL racing, there are two ways to win. At each race you compete against planes similar to your own out on the course — but that’s only half of it. Your ranking at each race also gives you points toward the Season Champion title. The more you race, even if you’re not making top marks, the more points you get.
Danger in the air
So is this whole air racing thing dangerous? Not especially. This isn’t a Reno knife fight with all the planes head-to-head rounding the pylons like a latter-day chariot race.
In SARL we launch in speed order, so it’s generally follow the leader with a minimum of passing. Planes are timed individually from takeoff to checkered flag. The races are day VFR and each pilot chooses his or her altitude, so you can fly as high or as low as your skill level and the FARs allow.
So, really, it’s no more dangerous than any other sort of flying, and there’s only one race that requires a wife waiver.
But you have to expect that kind of paperwork from large litigation-skittish organizations.
When I took the form to Debbie, my wife of 28 years (who often comes to the races with me), I shuffled my feet, looked to the side and said, “Uhhhh… I have something to confess… I’ve been secretly air racing on the side.”
“You bastard,” she hissed, “I thought I saw oil stains on your collar!”
Then she giggled, signed the form, and told me what she always does before a race: “If you crash and die, I’ll kill you.”
Time to rumble
After a long winter nap, the race season is about to start. And it’s going to be a deliciously brutal season. There are 19 races on deck this year, with one more in the works. They’re as far east as Spartanburg, South Carolina, as far west as Holbrook, Arizona, as far south as Winter Haven, Florida, and as far north as Wausau, Wisconsin.
This year the races cluster in eastern Texas and the upper Midwest. All but two are far east of my home base here in New Mexico, so I’m going to be doing some serious cross-country this year in Race 53. Last year I flew nearly 18,000 miles to reach the races. This year it will be much, much more.
But that’s half the adventure.
I’m last year’s silver National Champ. Naturally I was shooting for the gold.
Before my first race I spent days studying a decade of league statistics from previous seasons. Looking at the number of races the then long-time champs for factory-built airplanes — Team Ely of Race 55 — ran each year, I figured that I only needed to race a couple of more races than they did to beat them.
I was actually more worried about how seasoned air racers would treat the guy who showed up to race in an Ercoupe, of all airplanes, than I was about the team I was setting out to topple off the podium.
I was worried about the wrong thing.
The SARL community turned out to be the most welcoming group of people I’ve ever met.
But as it turned out, Team Ely wasn’t racing the maximum number of races that they could. They were only racing the number they needed to keep ahead of the competition, and I was actually the first serious competition to come along in a while.
And, as I later learned, Linda Ely is widely regarded as the most competitive member of the entire league.
She was born with racing blood in her veins. No kidding. Linda grew up in an Indianapolis 500 family. Racing is integral to her life, part of who she is, and she embraces it with gusto. Race 55, her red-and-white Grumman Cheetah, is trimmed with a black and white checked race flag motif. Its intimidating race-fueled name: The Elyminator.
My airplane’s name is Tessie.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
But for my soon-to-be nemesis, it was more than just competitive spirit that kept her in the game with ferocious energy. My humble plane signified not only a risk of defeat to her, but also a risk of pure humiliation.
She wrote on her blog, “The thought of the Elyminator standing second to an Ercoupe, in official, saved-forever records, with end-of-year photos, and us holding a second-place trophy is motivating me to change a lot of plans this year.”
The possibility of that very upset, however, turned other people on, and our competition quickly developed into an epic rivalry that became the talk of the league — and the internet — as we battled for the title of first-place National Champion of the factory aircraft. A battle I lost.
But a battle I intend to press to the fullest again this year.
The Robin Hood of Air Racing?
I laughed out loud when I opened a recent email. It started out, “Although we are from Ely, Minnesota, we hope you knock the wheel pants off of Team Ely in 2017.”
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
I have fans, and they send me fan mail, a fact that I’m still trying to get my head around. One of my friends told me, “Well of course you get fan mail, you’re the Robin Hood of Air Racing.”
Well, I do have a merry team of helpers who love air racing as much as I do, but I’m not sure I measure up very well to the rest of the Robin Hood myth. Team Ely isn’t rich, for one thing. And I plan to keep what I steal from them for myself. Plus, wasn’t Robin some sort of nobility?
But I know what my friend meant. It’s human nature to want to see the status quo shaken up. To root for the anti-hero, the long shot, the everyman, the underdog — all titles I’m happy to embrace.
I get it. I’m racing for me. But I’m also racing for a crowd of everyday pilots who aren’t able to race themselves.
My League Points: Zero
My League Standing: Last year’s second-place champ, which means nothing whatsoever. The standings are reset each year and we all start the season on an equal footing.