Dispatch from 2,500 feet above Georgia: I’m so bored I could puke. This is an air race, but watching paint dry would be more exciting. I’m about 150 miles into the Sunshine Express 400, a cross country “race” across South Carolina, Georgia, and down the Florida peninsula.
I hate cross country races. It’s all about precision navigation. A complete void in the fun department.
Hell, on a real cross country, I can do steep turns or other maneuvers if I get bored. I’m free to investigate interesting things I see from above.
I could — if I wanted to — do what a lady pilot recently told me she does for fun in her Cessna 150: “strafe” trains and try to scare skiers with her plane’s shadow.
But any of those reliefs from boredom would cost me time. And, supposedly, this is a race, so every second counts, and can’t be wasted.
I’m still on course. Still on altitude. There’s nothing wrong with the plane, but I scan my meager instruments one more time just to be sure. With nothing to do for hours, my mind wanders to the question of the hour: Where’s Team Ely?
My rivals of last season are missing in action. They didn’t show up for the Bootlegger Challenge, or for today’s race. If they are racing this season, they’ll be starting several hundred points behind me, and it will be hard for them to catch up.
I enjoyed the chase, the competition, someone to be neck and neck with. But as it turns out, there’s a new face on the scene to fill their shoes, and he’s as dead set on the Factory Gold title as I am.
A New Nemesis?
Meet Charles Cluck. He has long grey hair worn in a ponytail forward over his shoulder. He sports a short-cropped beard and has piercing blue eyes. In his youth he was a roughneck, and he’s now a safety instructor for guys out in the oil fields.Ironically, his Race Number is the reciprocal of mine: He’s Race 35. Cluck flew the last race of the season in 2016 and got bit by the racing bug.
For racing, he flies a VFB. That stands for Very Fast Bonanza. His 200-mile-per-hour 300-horsepower monster competes in FAC1RG, so like the Elys, Cluck and I don’t fly head-to-head (thank God), but we compete for the same league points.
And, boy, is Cluck after those points.
He’s dually motivated by the fact his fellow Houston-area Bonanza owners brag on how fast their planes are, but in his view, don’t do anything to prove it; and the fact that it strikes him as just plum wrong that something as simple minded— to a Bonanza owner — as a Grumman Cheetah should be the five-time Factory champ.
So he’s decided to do something about both of those things. Like me, he plans to race all the races this year, so with the Elys apparently out of the picture, it looks like Cluck and I are battling it out for the Gold this year.
As the green countryside slides below me I wonder, will he rule the FAC1RG field in his VFB? Perhaps, but it’s crowded at the top.
We have other Bonanzas, a Mooney 201 Missile, Myers 200s, a Cessna 210, and a new racer in a BL 17 Viking that are all in the same class — and all damn fast planes. Time will tell whether or not Cluck can win every time he flies.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the pile, I’m happy to say more and more humble planes like ours are showing up to race. Being in the middle of my pack makes every race a challenge, but I love it!
Both Cluck and I stand to either win or lose a lot of points at every race. In some ways it may be more of a fair fight than I had with the Elys, when the only way to beat them was to hope that they’d fly against fewer planes than I did.
Only one thing is guaranteed: The competition between Race 53 and Race 35 won’t be boring.
Cluck and I spent some time on the ground together drinking a few, and getting to know each other. He’s intelligent, laid back, and well read. He has a dry, borderline sarcastic sense of humor, and is probably too nice a guy to be a proper nemesis, but he’ll make a delightful rival.
And that’s how air racing should be. Compatriots on the ground. Hell-bent for leather rivals in the air.
Back to the beginning
Dispatch from KOCH, Nacogdoches, Texas: I’m back where it all started, in the oldest city in Texas. Last year, in the bumpy Texas skies I was the rookie racer in my first Sport Air Racing League air race. Now I’m back as a seasoned vet and a National Champion.
But the skies are still as bumpy as the dickens.
Ahead of me is a Skylark, banking into Turn 1, a delightfully wicked switchback. He’s not in my class, but he elected to fly the short course with me. It shouldn’t be possible, but it seems like I’m gaining on him.
My turn. I thumb the mike as I snap the yoke left, “Race 53, Turn One.” The horizon flips up on end. The g-forces push me back in my seat. My twin tails whistle. Shadows race across my panel as I turn nearly 300° towards the next turn. With full span ailerons, Race 53’s turn radius is just 380 feet, and she turns nimbly around the pylon.
I’m holding just shy of the yellow arc on my airspeed indictor as I fly through aerial pothole after aerial pothole. Even with lap and shoulder belts painfully tight, my head repeatedly strikes the cockpit roof in the hot churning afternoon skies.
Midway through turn four I chop my power and dive toward the finish line, a spot on the grass well outside the runway that we can pass over at any altitude we please. I want to trim the grass with my propeller, but with my light wing-loading and the gusty conditions, I don’t dare. I blast across the finish line at 400 feet, make my call, and pull up and away, looping lazily around into the pattern for recovery.
Another racer advises he’s behind me. I radio back I have him in sight. A minute later I hear, “Ercoupe are you on one-twenty-three-zero?” I look down at my radio, and to my horror see that I’m still on the frequency for the last turn, not the finish frequency.
I picture myself sitting in the corner at the awards, wearing a dunce hat. I quickly hit the flip-flop switch and broadcast, “I am now.”
I guess in returning to the scene of my rookie race, it’s only fitting to make a rookie mistake.
My League Points: Unopposed in my class at both the Sunshine and Nacogdoches air races, I’m now at 300 points. My speed for the Sunshine race was 116.41 mph, and at Nacogdoches a slower 115.67 mph, but much improved over my debut race at Nacogdoches in 2016 where I clocked 112.79 mph!
It looks like our speed mods are paying off, with this season’s speeds overall better than last season’s so far. In fact, I beat the Skylark by two seconds on the course, although there are no points for besting a plane in a higher class.
My League Standing: I’m now in second place among production planes, with a solid margin above the rest of the pack. New rival Charles Cluck, Race 35, stands at the top of the Factory leader board at 310 points. At our next race he’s taking on three other fast planes to my one. Anything could happen. And that’s what makes this so much fun.