Dispatch from my living room coffee table, Apache Springs, New Mexico: Hot wings. Deep fried mozzarella sticks with marinara dipping sauce. Pinwheel sandwiches. Pigs in a blanket. Potato skins. Potato chips with sour cream and onion dip. Corn chips with salsa, fiery queso dip, and guacamole. A veggie platter. Crustless baloney sandwiches. And fortune cookies.
It’s a lot of food for five people.
In our defense, it was our first super bowl party, so we didn’t really know what we were doing. And yes, it took longer to prepare the food than it did to watch the big game itself.
Of course, it wasn’t the actual Super Bowl, but a game closer to my family’s heart. Yep, thanks to our new DVR recorder, the historically hard-to-find on the dial Red Bull Air Race World Championship can be watched at any time. Like, say, on a Sunday afternoon.
That Roman emperor-sized feeding frenzy accompanied the broadcast of the second race of this season, from Cannes, last April. And while we missed the kick-off race in Abu Dhabi, we’ve caught every race since, and got caught up in the TV sport of Red Bull Air Racing in a big, big way.
Only, you know, with smaller feasts as the season goes on.
Dispatch from the Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth, Texas: Damn it’s cold. I’m wearing my windbreaker, my medium-weight Red Canoe Canadian Air Force flight jacket, and my knock-off MA-1 winter flight jacket — all piled one on top of one another like Russian nesting eggs. And it doesn’t stop there.
Fashion be damned, I have a bright orange handkerchief over my head, secured under my Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Hat in the Ring baseball cap, and tied under my chin in an attempt to protect my ears from the wind that’s swaying the inflatable 82′ orange and white race pylons back and forth.
Next to me, my son Rio is bundled up like an Eskimo, glad he rode out the Round of Fourteen at the Motel 6. Now it’s time for the Round of Eight at the world finale of the Red Bull Air Race season. A handful of hearty souls, whose wardrobes include clothing more appropriate for Ice Station Zebra, are scattered through the stands with us.
TV abandoned, I’m here to experience the race action live and in person. To experience the sights, the smells, the sounds of the race as it happens. To see how it compares to the slick TV sport I’ve gotten hooked on. To answer the question which is better: Reality or TV?
Red Bull: The TV show
I gotta say, the Red Bull folks have turned their version of air racing — a closed track pylon sport mixing traditional air racing with acrobatics — into one fine television sport. The photography is stunning, with cameras below the pylons, on roof tops, in helicopters, on the tails of the race planes, and even in the cockpits so we can see the faces of the pilots.
The commentary is first rate, and real-time graphics and special effects let us see how competing planes are faring against each other in their less than one-minute runs through the course.
My favorite special effect is the “ghost plane,” where a shadowy ghost of the previous competitor is laid into real time video, making it appear that the two planes are on the course at the same time. They never are — that would be dangerous in the extreme with this kind of flying — but they truly are competing with each other against the clock, so it’s a legitimate use of technology, plus it ups the excitement quotient as you see one plane edging out another, or just trailing behind. “Go, go, go!” you find yourself screaming at your TV screen.
The editing of the show is genius, with reporters in the race pits, in the Sky Lounge with families, and with slow-motion replays of pylon hits from every angle. In short, it’s one helluva TV show.
The only bad thing — which might be a good thing, given the global nature of the series and the problem of time zones — is that it isn’t a live event. It shows up in the next day or two after the race on a schedule I’ve yet to decipher.
Naturally, you wouldn’t expect to get any of these slick production advantages in person. But you’d be wrong. Let me introduce you to Big Hoss.
They say everything is bigger in Texas, and to prove the point, the builders of the Texas Motor Speedway installed the largest high-def TV in the world. It measures a mind-numbing 218′ wide by 94′ tall. That makes it the height of a 12-story building, with a display area of over 20,000′. It’s a TV set bigger than most stores that sell TV sets.
During the race it was streaming, well, the race. Right in front of you was the ghost plane, the real-time graphics, the pilot cam and all the rest, while the race planes actually zoomed back and forth in front of it.
But for the most part, I found it worthless. Big Hoss was at show center and the race planes were all over the course. I didn’t drive 10 hours to Texas to watch TV.
That said, I did find my eyes snapping back to Big Hoss to check the race times as soon as each plane flashed through the checkered Hamilton Finish Gate.
More to see
Of course, I knew in advance that being at an air race in person is a visceral experience that can’t be matched on TV. Sure, we find ourselves shouting out loud in the living room, groaning when a hero hits a pylon, and being sucked into the action; but our stereo soundbar can’t do justice to the magical song of a race plane’s straining engine in real life, and nothing can replace the collective energy of hundreds of people around you.
On a warmer day, there would have been thousands of fans to our right and to our left.
In person, you also find that there’s a lot more going on in the air than is broadcast over the air. There are practice sessions, qualifying runs that determine the all-important lineup of the competition, plus the entire Challenger Cup series — the “little league” training ground from which new master pilots are drawn when a retiring master hangs up his wings.
And it wasn’t just the buzzing of the Zivko Edge 540 Vs and the lone MXS-R. There was a dazzling aerobatic performance by David Martin in a dainty Jungmeister biplane. A meticulously restored P-51 Mustang, complete with six .50-cal Browning machine guns, buzzed the field. A formation of T-38 Talon jets executed a flyover. We were entertained by a paramotor towing a ridiculously long tail.
And then there are events that the small screen doesn’t even hint at.
At show center, people crazier than us air race pilots were flying 75′ above the ground on motorcycles. Yes, you read that right. But I guess I really didn’t write it right. They aren’t so much on the airborne motorcycles as much as in the vicinity of them, barely touching the bikes as they fly through the air, the riders kicking their legs and bodies free, up and away from their growling machines as they flipped upside-frickin-down, only to somehow magically remount their steeds in midair, and end up right-side-up again to land with the softest of thumps on a steep ramp.
And of course, there are souvenir stands packed with the latest licensed Red Bull merchandise. You can order it all online from your living room, but it’s not the same as seeing it all laid out in front of you.
More alike than you’d think
But all of that said, the two experiences — reality and TV — are more alike than you’d think. A plethora of vendors serve up a Roman feast in the bowels of the Speedway, and the race action in real time has the same rapid-fire pace as the slick broadcast.
I assumed they edited out long gaps between heats, but the planes are in nearby holding patterns and it’s not long after one flight finishes before you hear race director Jim DiMatteo call the next plane into the race box, saying, “You are cleared into the track, smoke on!”
Which is better? They are both great fun. It’s an awesome TV sport, and I’m bummed that the season is over. But there’s so much more happening on the grounds, and above them, that you owe it to yourself to make a pilgrimage at least once a year to see the Matadors of the Red Bull in person.