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.
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.