Dispatch from KDMH, Carbondale, Illinois: The carefully arranged chairs in the giant hangar are in disarray, hurriedly pushed and pulled to either side, parted like the Red Sea to make room to bring Les Burrill’s wounded bird— Race 11 — in out of the baking sun.
A small cluster of racers gathers around the green and silver plane, pulling off the cowling a piece at a time.
At Turn Four over the Grand Tower Bridge on the Mighty Mississippi, the Midget Mustang’s alternator belt broke. Burrill saw smoke, aborted, and returned to race central.
He’s thinking that the belt fell down onto the crankcase and started smoldering, but he won’t know for sure until he gets his eyeballs deeper into the engine compartment.
Meanwhile, the show goes on. Race Director Sam Hoskins is reading off the results and handing out our awards, but it’s an awkward theater in the round, with part of the crowd to Hoskin’s right, part to the left, and some — having dragged chairs back into the impromptu corridor — in the middle.Hoskins leans his tall, lanky frame into the microphone, studies the rumpled papers in his hands and intones, “First place, Factory Six,” I start to stand up to get my trophy, “goes to Kevin Krongos, in Race 42.”
I freeze, my butt dangling in midair over my chair. How can that be? I quickly drop back onto the folding chair, equally stunned and abashed. I hope no one noticed I stood up prematurely. Hoskins goes on, “with a speed of 125.24 miles per hour.” What?! No. Way.
I’ve been robbed.
Confusion on the course
I confess. I came to the Big Muddy Air Race fully expecting to get my ass kicked. Badly. FAC6 had a large, and tough, lineup this year with five racers. The ringer was an Eagle 150B, a space age 150-mile-per-hour wonder plane that could beat the rest of us without needing to use full throttle.
My goal was to come in behind it and ahead of the other three, a strategy that would still let Charles Cluck of Race 35 get a step up on me again in the League Standings, but not be a complete disaster.
That said, a complete disaster was a distinct possibility. Also throwing his hat in the ring was Dan Miller with Race 72, the draggy-looking but overpowered Piper Colt swinging its prop with 125 horses.
Miller beat me handily at the Bootlegger Air Race, but I’ve been running faster since, and I was hoping to gain ground on him in the turns, where I can maneuver tighter.
Speaking of Dans, Dan Bean was back in his 150 Acrobat. I barely edged him out at last year’s Big Muddy Race. If he flew more aggressively, he might take me.
Last up was the plane that I was least worried about, another Piper Colt, but this one with only a 108-horse engine. It was last place in our marshaling order, showing where the race director expected it to place. But thanks to the whims of The Fates — whom we’ve already established are air racing fans — nothing about the day turned out like I thought it might.
First, the Eagle made my day, a sentiment shared by my competitors, by being a no-show.
Then, out on the course the totally unexpected happened. With the Mississippi River snaking back and forth beneath our arrow-straight course lines, I stuck to Dan Miller’s six like a badger. In the straight-a-ways he’d barely pull ahead, but at each turn I closed the gap.
I honestly couldn’t tell if I was beating him or not. It would come down to seconds. None of the other planes had passed me, or even sounded remotely close behind as they made their turn calls. It was down to Miller and me.
Then, at Turn Five, Miller pealed off to the north and headed back to Carbondale. It was like a baseball player sprinting for home plate from second base: Miller completely skipped the last turn on the course.
Instantly, two figures materialized on my shoulders. The one on my left shoulder was wearing a red flight suit. The one on my right shoulder was wearing a white flight suit. The white-clad figure said, “Call him on the radio, William. Let him know he missed the turn. It’s the honorable thing to do.” The one in red said, “F’ him, William. This is an air race, and you just won.”
I didn’t call, but as I watched him fade into the distance I felt a pang of regret. Missing a turn disqualifies a racer, but the rest of the racers in the heat still get points for besting the DQ’d ship.
I like to win, but it would have been sweeter in a fair fight.
The awards ceremony is now over, the racers walking back to their planes to head home. Second Place Trophy in hand, I discreetly tap the Race Director on the shoulder and gesture toward an empty corner, “Sam, we need to talk.”
I’m going to dispute the results. It’s my right, a right formally codified in the League rules, but I’m not feeling good about it. Maybe I’m having some lingering guilt for not alerting my competitor to his error, or maybe it’s an inbreed respect for authority, but somehow disputing the results makes me feel like a whiner, a bad loser.
In most Sport Air Racing League races, the results are available for review by the racers before the awards are announced, but they weren’t in this case, and Krongos has happily strutted off with the First Place trophy in front of God and everyone.
But still, I know in my gut that the results are wrong. Away from prying ears, I say, “There’s a problem. Maybe he beat me, maybe he didn’t, but these numbers are plum wrong.”
Hoskins tells me that the finish line timing crew had some problems. Some of the race numbers on the planes were hard to see, and the timers suffered from a stuck mike and couldn’t hear the finish calls of some of the planes. He calls the chief timer over and the two of us sit down to study results.
First I check my CloudAhoy trace to see if my start and finish times are correct. They are very close. Next the Chief Timer checks the math on my run. It’s correct.
Confusing matters is the fact that Krongos was the only FAC6 plane that chose to fly the long course, so it was possible that the winds gave him an advantage. Still, the results are showing Krongos at a full 12.46 miles an hour faster than me, and if he really was, he would have passed me long before the short course diverged from the long course.
The Timer double-checks the math on Krongos’ times. No error. Then I spot it.
The race sheets show Krongos landing 3 minutes and 45 seconds before I did. But he didn’t.
A light bulb flashes on over my head. Did the Timing Crew confuse the two Colts? Miller skipped the last turn and landed well ahead of me, but his landing time isn’t on the final sheets, as he was DQ’d.
We go back to the rough sheets, and there it is: Short Cut Miller is recorded as landing 24 minutes and 51 seconds after me. Hell, 24 minutes and 51 seconds after I landed, Miller was well into his second pre-awards Bratwurst.
The landing times of the two Colts got swapped in a case of mistaken identity. With the right numbers plugged in, Krongos’ speed drops from an impossible 125.24 miles per hour to a respectable — but Second Place — 107.85 miles per hour, edging out Dan Bean in the 150, and making me the clear winner by nearly 5 miles per hour.
I had been robbed.
Top of the heap
The Chief Timer feels bad about the mistake and apologizes. More than once. But what now? We go to Hoskins. He reviews the info and agrees. The updated speeds will be submitted to the League.
I remain in the lead, Charles Cluck taking on and defeating a single slower Bonanza to my trio of slower planes.
I feel oddly dirty about disputing the results, but the win is mine fair and square. “What are you going to do about the trophies?” I ask Hoskins.
A pained expression passes across his face. I don’t envy him. I wouldn’t want to take away a trophy I gave someone publically.
After a long pause he says, “I think I’ll let him keep it. I’ll get you another one.”
My League Points: 760
My League Standing: I’ve held onto my hard-earned rank of First Place in the League for Production Airplanes and now have a commanding (but hardly bulletproof) lead over Charles Cluck of Race 35. Overall, I’m tied for second place with the Experimental Category racer Dave Adams of Race 83. Last year’s Experimental Gold winner Ken Krebaum of Race 118 leads the entire pack at 790 points.