Some people say air racing is dead. I say those folks aren’t playing with a full deck.
Not only is the game of air racing alive and well, this year I was dealt a royal flush, and won a huge pot of fun.
The Ace of Hearts
A handful of ace aerobatic pilots from around the world are breathing new life into the old-school spectator sport style-air racing with the eight-race global Red Bull Air Race World Championship.
Originally launched in 2003 — with a hiatus from 2011 to 2013 — the Red Bull races quickly became a huge hit overseas. In 2016, the English Ascot race sold out, and 120,000 screaming fans packed the artificial beach facing the course at Chiba, Japan.
I can’t even imagine what it would be like to race in front of 120,000 people.
Meanwhile, here in the U.S., after a disappointing start, the race is growing in popularity. In 2016, the final leg of the series was held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time. The race drew a crowd of 40,000 fans, and was a historic return that many people are unaware of.
You see, the first ever race of any kind at the storied “brickyard” was an air race — the 1909 Balloon Race — which, ironically, also pulled in a crowd of 40,000 fans who watched the nine gas-filled balloons duke it out for the gold. How’s that for full circle?
But back to the Red Bull, each pilot faces off against another in a series of elimination heats. There are wins at each race, and rankings at each race build points toward the season championship. It works a bit like pool tournament. Only with airplanes.
At its core, it’s purely a speed contest…well, technically a time contest…but speed is time and time is speed, right? Anyway, runs through the track often clock in at around a minute, and wins are recorded in fractions of seconds, so it’s a breathtakingly fast sport.
Still, it’s an odd sort of race, if you think about it, because each competitor is on the racecourse by his or herself. Sure, they are competing for the best time, but they aren’t racing each other, at least not in real time.
Regardless, it’s a great sport to follow, because unlike many of the other flavors of air racing, it’s a season-long event, and with racers from all over the world competing against each other at each race and throughout the season.
So for those of us on the ground, it’s all the fun of a good airshow with the excitement of a horse race, the World Series, and the Olympics all rolled into one.
The King of Hearts
The National Championship Air Races are the undisputed home to the Kings of Speed, where planes can crack the 500 mph barrier down on the deck. This year, the races marked their 54th year of drawing people from around the world to the barren high-altitude desert north of Reno, Nevada.
Each year, more than 100 airplanes compete over a five-day period for top honors in six classes of airplanes ranging from hulking unlimited powerhouses to tiny nimble biplanes. Four separate racecourses are laid out north of the grandstands at Reno Stead airport, their turns marked by traditional pylons. The races around the pylons are low and fast, making the King of air races a feast for racers and spectators alike.
Unlike Red Bull, the National Air Races keep the traditional race format from the Golden Age racing in the 1930s. The race heats are modern-day Roman chariot races, mano a mano, in 3-D, with all the race planes snarling around the course at the same time.
It’s noisy, exciting, and fun, fun, fun. With a dizzying array of qualification heats in the six classes, it seems like there are always planes buzzing past the grandstands, and what little free time is left over is filled by world-class airshow performances and fly-bys of everything from classic war birds to the latest and greatest in military airpower. Talk about a treat for the airplane lover!
But beyond air racing in its purest form, and the excitement of the airshows, what really makes Reno special is the amazing access that fans have to the racers and their airplanes. A pit pass allows fans to get within spitting distance (don’t you dare) of the fastest race planes on the planet, and opens opportunities for fans to be able to chat with the race pilots and their crews.
I’ve been to Reno twice, and I spent the entire week there this year. Would I recommend a full week? Probably not, unless, like me, you have a crazy thirst for racing, but trust me on this, one day isn’t enough. You should really give it at least two days, and, really, I think three days is the best way to really take in all there is to experience at the King of the air races.
The Queen of Hearts
There’s no doubt that the Air Race Classic (ARC) is the queen of American air races. This women-only cross-country race, while technically only running since 2002, traces its roots back to the Powder Puff Derbies of the 1930s, and the original Women’s Air Derby of 1929.
In its modern incarnation it’s a killer-long course, in recent years well in excess of 2,000 miles.
The women fly in teams, piloting a wide range of stock general aviation aircraft, each of which has been meticulously “handicapped” to equalize their various powerplants and airframes.
The planes don’t race directly against each other; rather each team is trying to beat its own best time through airmanship, tactical and strategic planning, and weather knowledge.
The winner of the race is the team that beats its handicap by the largest margin.
This year the race terminus was in my back yard, hosted by my friends in the Rio Grande Norte Chapter of the Ninety-Nines, so much of my clan was on hand as the planes landed.
My son Rio and one of the Forty-Nine-and-a-Halfs — what the local Ninety-Nines call their husbands — were on the ramp at KSAF with ice cold water for the exhausted race teams as they landed, my wife was involved with the decorations, and our buddy Lisa hosted her chapter’s hospitality suite.
I was out of state for the race but I was still able to watch it in real time, and cheer for the two local teams, thanks to technology. ARC organizers built a splendid website that tracked all the planes in real time, with moving map markers showing the name of each race team, where their plane was, and their speed and altitude. Clicking on the marker on the map took you to the team’s bio.
While I missed being at the checkered flag, I did make it to the awards banquet, a swank affair that was by far the most exciting air race banquet I’ve even been to. Why?
Because unlike all other kinds of air racing, only the judges know who won the race until the banquet. Like the racers themselves, I was swept up in the tension!
The Jack of Hearts
Because the National Championship Air Races were grounded in 2001, the AirVenture Cup can legitimately lay claim to being the longest-running air race in the country, running successfully every year since 1998.
This year, nearly 100 planes of every type imaginable, from a 396 mph turbine Lancair Legacy to a low and slow open-cockpit Ryan PT-22, made the more than 450-mile race from Mount Vernon, Illinois, (the launch location varies from year to year) to Wausau, Wisconsin, for the opening of AirVenture.
While the AirVenture Cup is no spectator sport (after all, it’s a long straight course over hundreds of miles) it’s an amazing experience for pilots.
And unlike the Ace, King, and Queen races, which each in different ways bar most pilots from participating, any pilot who’s willing to pull together the paperwork — which is largely poof of insurance — can fly in the race, although the entry fee is steep for many pilots.
So how on earth can so many different airplanes compete against each other fairly? Well, unlike the ARC, the cup isn’t a handicapped race; instead, organizers break planes into a dizzying array of categories, largely based on engine size. Heck, there was even a category for motor gliders this year, and one raced!
To be honest, I actually hate the race itself. To me it’s just a cross-country trip without the freedom of being able to explore the world below me when I’m bored, and this year I had crazy headwinds and I didn’t even have any competition in my class to keep my adrenaline up!
But still, the AirVenture Cup ranks as one of my favorite races of the year. Why? Because the energy on the ramp with that many planes, and that many aviators, is electrifying. It has to be experienced to be understood. You feel like you are part of something great.
And hey, once you get to AirVenture itself, you’ve got yourself a reserved parking place in the Race Corral in the heart of action, not far from the famous brown gate.
So if you’re going to AirVenture in an airplane at all, why wouldn’t you race it there?
My only complaint about the race is that the awards are glass trophies, not cups. I mean, common, it’s called the AirVenture Cup, after all!
The Ten of Hearts
Close to my heart is the Sport Air Racing League (SARL), which turned 10 this year.
League Chairman Mike Thompson recently wrote the members, “Ten years is a milestone, of that there is no doubt — but it’s also just a stepping stone on the way to building the sport of cross country air racing. I hope to see many of you at the races next year, and at races in all the years to follow!”
He can count on seeing me next year, and in all the years that follow.
I was able to participate in eight of the season’s 15 races before mechanical difficulties sidelined me, and I loved each and every one of them.
I think what makes SARL special among the royal flush of American air racing is that any pilot, with any plane, can easily and affordably be part of the action, and it’s an amazing group of people to hang out with.
Like the AirVenture Cup, race planes in SARL are broken into classes based on engine size, rather than handicapping.
A good two-thirds, or perhaps more, of the race fleet are experimental planes, with RVs dominating the field. Still, there are plenty of factory-built planes running; and while the experimental and the production airplanes run side-by-side, they do not compete directly against each other.
The planes launch in 30-second intervals in speed order, individually timed. So while we are all on the course together, it’s not a knife fight like Reno, and the winners are the planes with the fastest times between the green and checkered flags.
While SARL races are technically cross-country races, unlike the Queen and the Jack, they are not straight-line races. Rather, most SARL races are roughly circular with lots of fun turns, and the terminus is often at the same airport where the green flag dropped, or very near by.
Course lengths vary, and many races have a shorter course for slower aircraft with the goal being a one-hour race for most of the fleet.
At each race we build championship points, like at Red Bull. How’d it end for me this, year, you ask? I accumulated enough points before being sidelined to hold on to my National Champion Silver title.
So depending on how you look at it, I’m now either a two-time first loser, or a two-time National Champion Air Racer!
All five race seasons have now wrapped for the year, but next season will be here before you know it.
Aces high! With five kinds of races to choose from, air racing is alive and well in America.
What do you say? Shall I deal you in?