Dispatch from KSPA, Spartanburg, South Carolina: I pull the wicked-looking black helmet over my head and cinch the chinstrap down tight. Next comes the neck guard, a thick foam collar that encircles my neck below the helmet. I step down into the cockpit and settle in, pulling the dual shoulder straps across my chest and snapping them into the five-point harness.
The Pitt Boss signals me. I lower the helmet’s visor. All I hear is my own breathing.
Faster than I’d like it to be.
The green flag drops. I punch the throttle. The nine-horsepower lawnmower engine roars to life and I’m off.
My go-kart jets around the first turn, tires shrieking. I can feel the wind tugging on my shirtsleeves. The steering wheel vibrates in my hands like a jackhammer. I fishtail through a pair of 180s, the rubber tires lining the side of the track a blur. Damn I’m going fast!
I’m ecstatic. I’m going to win the first leg of the Bootlegger Challenge, a triathlon that includes a Go-kart Race, a Moonshine Bottling Contest — we’re in South Carolina, after all — and a short air race.
The Sport Air Racing League (SARL) has never had a competition quite like this one before, and it’s the chance for people like me with slower planes to end up atop the podium with a big, beautiful, shiny gold cup.
Then it happens.
One of the other SARL pilots passes me on the inside. Then another on the outside. Then a third. In no time at all the entire field passes me.
Before long they’ve lapped me. Not once, but twice. I’m clearly testosterone deficient. My colleagues are racing with a level of abandon that I just can’t summon. I up my game with each lap, but I fall far, far, far short of what it takes for victory.
My best lap is 28.54 seconds. The winner is new SARL member Matt McSwain, who, when not kicking all our collective asses in a go-kart, flies a Navion. He does the course in 25.43 seconds.
If it sounds like I’m not that far behind, don’t kid yourself. I came in dead last of the 17 pilots who participated in the challenge.
It’s not even noon yet, I’m in last place, and still I have two challenges go.
The Bootlegger Challenge
I don’t have high hopes for victory after my go-kart performance, but karts are only one-third of the contest.
Here’s how this creative new competition works: Your go-kart time, your bottling challenge time, and a quasi-handicap on the air race are all added up.
The air race is still scored like all other SARL races, but for the Bootlegger Challenge we must also predict our course time before the race. Any amount over or under is added to our challenge score.
To win the Bootlegger, you have to drive fast, bottle moonshine faster, and really know your airplane. And we’ve already established I don’t drive fast. Well, fast enough, anyway.
Why’s it called the Bootlegger Challenge? Because it’s sponsored by the Spartanburg micro-distillery Motte and Sons Bootlegging Company.
Contrary to myth, moonshine ain’t cheap. Not legal moonshine, anyway. So the Bootlegging Company is having us bottle water for the next contest.
There are four mason jars on the stainless steel table and a heavy ceramic jug. The clock starts when you touch the jug’s cork and stops when all four jars are filled three-quarters full and the lids battened down tight.
The first few racers have the most trouble with the two-part lids. I step up to the bottling table fifth. I clear my mind. Stay calm, I tell myself.Ready, set, go! I grab the jug and flip it up. Water gushes out into the jars. I move from one to the next, not stopping. There! They’re all full! Quick! Set the jug down! Pick up the lids!
Keeping the flat top inside the threaded rim, I flip the first on top of a jar and give it a spin. Then the second. The third. The fourth. I raise my hands into the air and step away.
My time is 29.90 seconds. I’m in the lead.
But not for long. The guys with the most testosterone haven’t even started yet.
The times get shorter and shorter, and the entertainment factor gets higher and higher. Waiting until nearly last, Mike Patey, Race 32, who flies an Extreme Lancair, tucks the jug under one arm and screws each lid on as he’s filling the next jar. His speed is extreme until he drops the last lid on the floor. But he still wins the challenge at 18.5 seconds. Holy cow.
Estimating flight time on a cross country is a basic pilot skill. But what about a 40-mile course with three steep turns, unknown low-level winds, and afternoon turbulence?
And it’s the first race of the season. Most of us have made new speed mods between seasons. I now have blade antennas for my com and transponder, no more draggy strut-mounted landing light, and wax from Reno’s team VooDoo covering my wings.
I sit down with pen, paper, and a prayer and choose a number. Committed, I mount up for the race.
Ahead of me, a draggy-looking Piper Colt is marshalled out onto the runway. Colts and their Tri-pacer cousins don’t look like much, but I’ve come to respect them. At the controls is retired Marine Captain Dan Miller, Race 72, and he can easily outpace me by five mph. Unless he turns right when he should turn left, the best I can do is second place in this race.
And I can also do worse. Behind me are two planes that are my equal. A second Ercoupe and and Cessna 150.
I’m given the go. I push the throttle to the firewall. Rotation speed! I slide Race 53 off the runway and hold her in ground effect, skimming the runway, building speed. I flash by the starters at 110 mph and lift slowly into the pale blue afternoon sky. I soar over the tree tops, turning south towards the famous Triple Tree Aerodrome, our first turn, slowly gaining altitude.
That’s when I notice that something’s wrong.
The little blue airplane is nowhere to be seen on my iPad. A quick glance down at my Garmin 345 reveals the problem.
It says: Acquiring GPS.
You’ve got to be kidding me. I’ve lost nav? Frantically, I pull out my cellphone. Bam! Race 53 jerks as I hit a thermal. The phone flies from my hand and is lost somewhere on the floor beneath my feet. I reach into the back for my backup dash-mount GPS, but the air is rough. I can’t get it to synchronize with the iPad.
My fingers bounce and skip across the touch screen. I give up and point my nose in what I hope is the right way, and wait for the stupid Garmin to find the satellites again. It seems like an eternity, but the GPS wakes up after a few minutes. I’m three miles wide of the course.
Ahead of me I spy Miller in the Colt. Not surprisingly, I’m not gaining on him. Then, a miracle. Between turns two and three he starts drifting off course. Farther and farther away. He’s lost! Or he’s got a bad GPS coordinate programmed in.
I’m going to win the air race!
Then, my joy is rudely interrupted. I hear Miller make the call for turn three. The plane I’m watching fades into the distance. It wasn’t the Colt, but some other highwing not even part of our fun. The Colt, which took off 30 seconds ahead of me, crosses the finish line three miles ahead. As expected, he’s beaten me, handily.
The top slot in the Bootlegger Challenge went to Mike Patey, who bottled fastest, raced his go-kart to fourth place, and estimated his air race time to within seven seconds.
Second place went to Bruce Hammer, Race 91. But the third place winner proved the theory that this contest leveled the playing field. Jethro Sepalla, who got his pilot’s license only two weeks ago, and was flying a Cessna 150, took the third place challenge trophy home with him.
Me? I’m proud to have come within eight seconds of my estimated race time, but I was in 13th place when the points for all three challenges were added up. In fact, I lost every challenge in the damn triathlon.
But looking back on it, I’ve never had more fun losing in my life.
My League Points: 100. Even though I only got 80 points for my 116.58 mph second-place finish in my heat, I picked up 20 more for besting two other FAC6 airplanes.
My League Standing: I’m tied for second place with five other factory planes. Dan Miller of Race 72 is at the top of the leader board with 130 points after coming in first in the more-crowded-than-usual FAC6 category.