Dispatch from KTRL, Terrell, Texas: I want to win. There. I said it. Yes, I know we’re here for charity. And, yes, I know this is supposed to be just for fun. But, damn it, I really, really want to win.
I know that sounds shallow and selfish, but in my defense, I spent the entire season in 2016 either tied with long-time champs Team Ely or nipping at their heels. And now I’m a quarter of the way through the 2017 season and I’ve either been tied with the Race 35 crew or nipping at their heels.
It would be nice to be in the lead. At least once.
The green flag drops and the royal blue Stinson pulls onto the runway. I nudge my throttle forward and pull up to the hold short line. I slide my canopy shut and double check that my seat and shoulder belts are tight.Today we’re launching the Sport Air Racing League‘s Mark Hardin Memorial Air Race in 60-second intervals, double our usual spacing because the visibility is hovering just above the minimums.
I glace back over my shoulder. There’s the Tomahawk, Race 39. It’s piloted by racing vets Jim Ivy and Lupita Wisner, who in the past raced their Mooney, which they recently sold. On paper the Tomahawk is marginally faster than I am, but as it’s new to the circuit, I was given the choice of being ahead of it or behind it. I chose the lead. I’m banking on my tight turn radius letting me out-pace Tomahawk in the turns.
Macy Frazier, the public relations and development manager for Pride Rock Wildlife Refuge, is the race’s “flag girl.” She’s gotten into the spirit of her role at the race with painted on jeans and a skin-tight T-shirt promo’ing the Texas-based non-profit we’re raising money for.
Pride Rock is a retirement home for mistreated and unwanted lions, tigers, and cougars where the big cats (and a couple of bears) can live out their remaining days in peace and quiet, out of the public eye.
Frazier raises the green flag above her head, signaling me to get ready. I wrap my right hand around the throttle. Frazier whips the flag down, I push the throttle forward and pull onto Runway 17. Ahead, the Stinson is up, turning left onto the course.
The wind is light, the sky overcast. A damp, ugly haze hangs over the landscape, and it’s hot. Jungle hot. Oppressive, damp, sweat-soakingly hot. Race 53 seems lazy in her acceleration and in no hurry to rotate… Come on, baby… Ah! Here we go. Her nose is coming up now. Good girl!
I sense the mains leaving the runway and I ease the yoke forward. We skim along the runway, the little blue and white plane and I, tight to the surface, building speed in ground effect. I wave to the crowd at the terminal building as I pass.
There are the timers at the end of the runway. I click the small red button on top of my yoke with my thumb and broadcast, “Race 53, start.” Then I pull back, bank left, and I’m off. In my headset I hear Race 39 make his rolling call. Frazier has just flagged him onto the runway.
The chase is on.
It’s all about the math
I’m balls to the wall, the throttle all the way forward. The oil temp is a hair higher than normal and the cylinder head temp up about 20°, but they are both still “in the green.” My tach is right at redline. Race 53 is giving me all she’s got to give. The visibility sucks, but at least the air is smooth, and ahead is a dark speck that I know is the Stinson.
I’m gaining on him.
I’m trying to stay focused on being razor sharp on flying my course, but in my head I’m doing math. My friendly nemesis is flying unopposed, while there are three planes in FAC6: The Tomahawk, a 1939 Piper Cub, and me.
The Cub is a slow beauty, a genuine “L-bird” veteran painted in Army olive drab. Unless I get lost or crash, I’ll beat the Cub. If I stay head of the Tomahawk I’ll get 100 points for first place, plus another 10 each for the other two planes.
Right now, Cluck and I are tied. A win today for me would put me up 20 points over him, and put me at the top of the leader board.
On the other hand, if the Tomahawk catches me, I’ll only get 80 points for second place, plus 10 for beating the Cub; and Cluck will pull ahead by 10 points. It would hardly kill my chances for the season, but it would be a bummer. Because, as I said, I really want to win today, and be at the top of the pack.
Actually, a fourth pilot threw his hat into the FAC6 ring for this race: Jaydeep Satyambhai Rathod, the pilot I barely beat at Texoma. He wanted a re-match today, but his flight school grounds the Cessna 152 he flies when the temp tops 95°. It was 98° the day Rathod was set to come to Terrell.
Had he made it, the math would’ve been even more complex. And the odds even longer.
I glance back, out my right window. Then my left. No sign of the Tomahawk. But they’re out there somewhere.
I flash across Cedar Creek Reservoir towards the approach end of Runway 18 at Gun Barrel City Airpark, my turn point. I flip Race 53 up on her left wing and she corkscrews around the turn like a spinning top. As I roar out of the turn I spy the Tomahawk coming across the lake.
They are not far behind.
I change my radio frequency to the next turn. Sometimes I’ll listen to the turn behind me to try to count the seconds to see if I’m ahead or behind. We’re individually timed. I can beat the Tomahawk across the finish line and still lose the race if their time on course is even one second less than mine.
I decide not to listen.
First Place or First Loser?
On the tarmac in front of the terminal, all anyone can talk about is the photo finish. League Chairman Mike Thompson in Race 26, who was on the long course, caught up to me right as we both reached the finish line. He radioed me to give me a head’s up, then flashed past me well to my right and slightly below, going nearly 80 miles an hour faster than I was.
I didn’t give it the least bit of thought, but apparently on the ground it was a visual treat for the racers who had already finished and the locals who brought their children and grandchildren to the race.
No one seemed to have any clue what the spacing was between me and the Tomahawk behind me, including my own family! Usually, I have a pretty good idea if I’ve won or not. But not this time. I had to wait until the speeds were announced. It was agonizing, but worth the wait, as they say.
Race 53 clocked a new best speed of 118 mph, an entire race at her “book” yellow-line maneuvering speed. The Tomahawk? A respectable (but second place) speed of 116.13 miles per hour — advancing me to the top of the leader board.
For the first time.
My League Points: 630
My League Standing: I’m in first place among factory airplanes, and in third place overall in the League. On the experimental side, last year’s Gold Champ Ken Krebaum of Race 118 is in the lead with 680 points. Close on his heels is Dave Adams of Race 83, with 670 points.