Special Report: Reno '99

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Although marred by Saturday's fatal crash of Miss Ashley II one that killed pilot Gary R. Levitz this year's 1999 National Championship Air Races at Reno once again brought out the racing faithful, those who crave the smells of high-octane fuel, hot oil and sweat mingled with the growl of race-tuned aircraft engines putting out way too much horsepower. In addition to the racing, attendees were treated to a program that included airshow veterans Bob Hoover and Wayne Handley, among others, plus a special program honoring Heroes of Flight. AVweb Contributor Matt Paxton was there. Here are his daily reports.

NOTE: AVweb's coverage includes many more photos.

Preview  |  Day 1  |  Day 2  |  Day 3  |  Final Day


Reno — to air racing fans, the name conjures up thoughts of Mustangs, Sea Furies and Bearcats in full cry bending around the pylons on the racecourse at Reno/Stead Airport. The P-51s, Furies and 'Cats of the Unlimited Class will be back for Reno '99, along with the T-6s, Formula Ones, Biplanes and the Sport Class. With the return of Strega and Rare Bear to challenge last year's winner Dago Red, this year is shaping to be one of the more competitive in recent memory.

Rare Bear, Lyle Shelton's highly modified F8F Bearcat returns to Reno. In practice on Tuesday, the Bear broke a clamp holding an exhaust stack damaging a cylinder and other engine components. The crew was finishing up the cylinder change-out on Wednesday afternoon.

The theme of the 36th annual event is Heroes of Flight, and eight astronauts will act as grand marshals this year. Shuttle astronauts Dr. Rhea Seddon, Curtis Brown, Robert "Hoot" Gibson and Joe Engle will join Richard Gordon, James Lovell, Eugene Cernan and William Anders. Gordon flew on Gemini 9 and Apollo 12. Lovell is well-known for Apollo 13 as well as Gemini 7 and 12. Cernan commanded Apollo 17 and also flew on Gemini 9 and Apollo 10. Anders flew on the historic Apollo 8 mission.

There are some changes to the successful Reno air race formula for this year, though. The T-28 class is gone for lack of entrants, but the innovation of last year, the Sports Class, remains. The Sports Class features speedy homebuilts like the Glasair, Lancair and Questair Venture. The Unlimited racecourse has been shortened slightly by about a mile — to 8.3 miles — but the changes involve pylons farthest away from the grandstand, and probably won't be noticeable to the fans. Those who have attended EAA's AirVenture at Oshkosh and other major international airshows will recognize the voice of Gordon Bowman-Jones, the colorful Australian announcer. Bowman-Jones takes over the mic from Sandy Sanders, who has announced the races for all the 35 years that the races have been at Reno/Stead Airport. Assisting Bowman-Jones will be Frank Kingston Smith and Steve Stavrakakis.

With the cylinder change complete, Rare Bear was towed out onto the ramp for a test run up.

So far in practice and qualifying, there have been the usual mechanical problems and minor incidents, but the pre-race period has been free of any serious accidents. The P-51 Voodoo Chile made an emergency landing Monday after its engine began to consume itself; Jim Miller's Formula One Pushy Cat suffered a nosewheel collapse on rollout and Jim Nezgoda's Yak 3M was substantially damaged when it veered off the runway on takeoff. Tuesday, Jon Sharp and Nemesis set a new record for Formula One qualifying with a speed of just over 263 mph on the three-mile course.

Tomorrow, September 16, racing begins in earnest. Fans will also see the USAF Thunderbirds, Canada's Northern Lights and aerobatics by Bob Hoover, Wayne Handley, Tim Weber and Greg Poe. With the static displays, varieties of food offerings, the Air Race Shopping Mall and the slots and tables of Reno, race fans will find plenty to keep them occupied.

Thursday — Day One

Polishing Skills And Props

On static display was Robert Odegaard's F2G Corsair, which raced in the 1949 National Air Races at Cleveland. The F2G was one of only a handful — less than 20 — produced at the end of World War II with the massive Pratt and Whitney R-4360 engine. This aircraft is the only flying survivor.

Speed, grace and agility, as well as raw power, were all present at the National Championship Air Races 1999 opening day of competition on Thursday. Race fans saw speed in the form of heat races among all the classes, the grace of Bob Hoover's ballet in the sky in his Shrike Commander, agility displayed by Wayne Handley and Greg Poe in their aerobatic routines, and raw power courtesy of the USAF Thunderbirds flight demonstration team.

Coming into the day, the qualifying times and rankings indicated that 1999 should see fast speeds and increased competition in most classes. In the Unlimiteds, Strega, Dago Red and Rare Bear qualified 1-2-3, with Strega and Dago within four tenths of a mile per hour of each other. Strega turned in a speed of 479.620 mph. In the T-6 class, Jack Frost in Frost Bite set a qualifying record on the 4.99-mile course of 240.032 mph. Jon Sharp and Nemesis also set a qualifying record for Formula One at 263.188. The Sport class racers were also heating up their course. Dave Morss set a qualifying record for the 6.39-mile course at 335.287 in his Lancair IV.

In the Unlimited heats, Ike Enns and his Mustang, Miracle Maker, won the 1C Medallion heat. Vlado Lenoch flew his P-51, Moonbeam McSwine, to second place. Bill Anders in Val-Halla experienced a problem at high manifold pressures and dropped out of the race. A member of his crew said they suspected a plug problem.

Crew members check over Riff Raff, the Sea Fury flown by Hoot Gibson after its victory in Heat 1B Bronze.

The 1B Bronze heat was marked by a penalty which moved the apparent winner to last place. Voodoo with Bob Hannah aboard turned in the fastest time of the day at just over 400 mph, but were moved to last place for making a deadline cut. Hoot Gibson and the Sea Fury, Riff Raff, were declared the winner. Bill Anders in his Bearcat Wampus Cat came in second.

Gary Levitz in Miss Ashley II took the 1A Silver by four seconds over Dennis Sanders and his Sea Fury Argonaut. Miss Ashley appeared to have put previous problems with the cooling system and a leaking prop seal behind her. Miss America started strong; she was in second place at the end of the first lap, but faded later in the race. Howard Pardue pulled his Sea Fury up and out with what he later described as a gear problem.

The T-6s ran a couple of heats on Thursday. In the 1B heat, Nick Macy in Six Cat won, and Jerry McDonald and Big Red were second by nine seconds. In the 1C heat, Tom Campau and Mystical Power took the flag over Alfred Goss and Warlock.

David Rose and his Rose Peregrine won the 1B Biplane heat with a speed of 207.012 mph over Chris Ferguson in a Pitts. Jeremy Chelin nosed out Cliff Magee in the 1C heat, both in Pitts.

In the Formula Ones, Ray Cote in Alley Cat won the 1A heat. David Hoover and Frenzy were second. Jon Sharp in Nemesis was penalized 16 seconds for cutting a pylon and came in third. Dave Morss and Cool Runnings outpaced Robert Jones in Aggressor for the 1B heat.

Dave Morss was also a factor in the Sport class. He won heat 1B in his Lancair IV-P, holding off Mike Jones's Glasair III Cheeky Charlie.

Friday — Day Two

Action At The Races

Friday saw clear skies and good racing conditions at Reno/Stead. The crowds were definitely on the increase over those of Thursday, and the pit area was actually crowded at times. These folks got their money's worth, because they saw some great action on the racecourses.

Formula One Legend Nemesis' Streak Ends After 44 Wins

Jon Sharp and Team Nemesis finally lost one. Actually, Nemesis came in third in a Formula One heat at the Reno Air Races on Thursday. According to a release from Team Nemesis, Sharp was trying to catch Ray Cote in Alley Cat, and cut a pylon on the final lap. The team jokingly was planning on banishing Nemesis engine guru Jack Wells to his shop and pilot Jon Sharp to his trailer, but remembered that Sharp had the keys to the truck.

This is the first loss for Nemesis since winning the National Championship in 1991. Nemesis battled back Friday to win its heat by ten seconds over David Hoover and Frenzy.

In the Bronze Unlimited heat, Bob Hannah aboard Voodoo finally put together all the pieces and took the checkered flag. He got some good competition from Jimmy Leeward in his P-51 Cloud Dancer, but this race was Voodoo's. Following Leeward was Stu Eberhardt in Merlin's Magic, Ike Enns in Miracle Maker and Skip Holm and his Bearcat. Bill Anders in the Wampus Cat and Bill Rheinschild in his Sea Fury Bad Attitude had to pull out of the race with mechanical problems.

The Silver Limited heat saw Bill Rheinschild back with his P-51 Risky Business. He crossed the finish line first, but was moved to last place because of a deadline cut. It was a Hawker race with Stewart Dawson's Sea Fury Spirit of Texas the winner, closely followed by John Brown, Dennis Sanders and Howard Pardue, all in Furies. Brent Hisey and Miss America was just behind this gaggle and Hoot Gibson followed in Riff Raff.

Rare Bear suffered an engine problem in the Unlimited Gold heat 2A and dropped out of the race. The crew identified at least one damaged piston and were looking at another.

The crowd had been anticipating the mid-afternoon Unlimited Gold heat, with Rare Bear, Strega and Dago Red head-to-head. After a good start, Matt Jackson pulled Rare Bear up and out, with what was reported to be a bird strike. Whatever it was, he definitely had engine problems. Examination of several cylinders after the race revealed piston damage in at least one cylinder, consistent with detonation. The crew was planning a long night. Bill "Tiger" Destefani in Strega and Bruce Lockwood in Dago Red gave the fans what they were looking for and battled it out for six laps. Dago held off Strega to win with a speed of 479.620 mph. Dreadnaught, the R-4360-powered Sea Fury, was third at the finish, followed by Tom Dwelle in Critical Mass and Daniel Martin in Ridge Runner. Gary Levitz has more problems with Miss Ashley II, this time electrical in nature, and pulled out of the race.

In the Formula One class, Nemesis came back to win its heat by 10 seconds over David Hoover in Frenzy. Ray Cote, who beat Nemesis yesterday, wasn't able to finish the race. Scotty Crandlemire in the Scarlet Screamer took the second heat, with John Housley and Aero Magic second.

Jack Frost in Frost Bite leads Mary Dilda in Two of Hearts in the T-6 class 1A heat Friday morning.

Jack Frost continued to do well in the T-6 class, leading Mary Dilda in Two of Hearts across the finish in the first heat. Nick Macy and Six Cat held off Alfred Goss aboard Warlock in the second heat.

In the Biplane class, David Rose won heat 1B in Rags over Chris Ferguson in his Pitts Let The Good Times Roll. Jim Smith in Glass Slipper took the checkered flag in heat 1A, nosing out Tom Aberle and Class Action.

The Sport class was active. In the morning heat, Dan Wright and his SX 300 won, but Dave Ronnenberg in the Berkut was a surprising second.

Tomorrow is the last day for heat races, and promises to offer great racing, if the predicted afternoon thunderstorms hold off.

Saturday — Day Three

Gary Levitz Killed Following Mid-Air Breakup Of Unlimited Racer

Gary R. Levitz, pilot of Unlimited class racer Miss Ashley II, was killed Saturday when the aircraft suffered apparent structural failure and crashed during a heat race at the National Air Races at Reno, Nev.

Levitz had just completed two laps in the Unlimited Gold heat race when part or parts of the airframe broke away. Race officials said that Miss Ashley II lost part of the tail assembly. The aircraft crashed into a neighborhood east of Reno-Stead Airport. One person was reported to have been slightly injured on the ground and at least one home received damage. Power was knocked out to a portion of the Lemmon Valley neighborhood for a time. The accident occurred about 3:30 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

The remaining aircraft on the course completed the race. Further events for the afternoon were cancelled, including a performance by the USAF Thunderbirds. Reno Air Racing Association officials said that events for Sunday would go on as scheduled.

Miss Ashley II was a custom-designed and built racer. It used Learjet wings, and a custom-built fuselage modeled on the P-51 Mustang. Perhaps its signature design feature was the use of the Rolls Royce Griffon engine with counter-rotating three-bladed props.

The airplane had flown in several heats at the 1999 Reno races prior to Saturday, and had had several problems, none related to the structure or control system, as far as is known. It had problems with a propeller governor and had aborted a race yesterday because of electrical problems.

Saturday's fatal accident at the National Air Races ended the day's competition on a somber note, mirroring the leaden skies and drizzle that prevailed most of the day. There was a lot of racing at Reno, though, with some closely contested races. The T-6 class saw its leading racing team disqualified following what were reported to be protests and counter-protests.

In the Unlimited Bronze heat, Bill Rheinschild and his Sea Fury Bad Attitude took the checkered flag ahead of Stu Eberhardt in Merlin's Magic. Ike Enns came in third in his Mustang Miracle Maker.

The Unlimited Silver saw Rheinschild again the winner, this time aboard his P-51 Risky Business. Mike Brown in Sea Fury September Pops was second leading a gaggle which battled it out for second place. Closely following Brown were Howard Pardue in a Fury and Brent Hisey in Miss America.

Miss Ashley II was forced out of the Unlimited Gold heat Friday. The crew were blaming the abort on electrical problems. The Unlimited racer crashed the next day, killing pilot Gary Levitz.

Miss Ashley II's loss during the Unlimited Gold overshadowed the outcome of the race; however, Strega did nose out Dago Red for the win. Rare Bear wasn't a factor, coming in last. It had just come out of the shop following replacement of two cylinders.

The T-6 class ran one heat in the morning and the T-6 Bronze final in the afternoon. Thomas Campau in Mysical Power edged out Jerry McDonald in Big Red for first. Carl Penner in Big Wind took the Bronze final and Carter Clark was second in Daring Diane.

The fastest qualifier in the class, Jack Frost and T-6 Frost Bite were disqualified from competition by RARA. Apparently, there were protests from one or more T-6 teams claiming Frost Bite was in violation of class technical specs. The Frost Bite team counter-protested claiming that the period in which protests could be made had lapsed. Saturday afternoon, the team packed their pit equipment into their trailer and left. Frost Bite took off but had engine trouble and had to land back at Stead.

A crew member put the final polish on Bill Anders's Bearcat Wampus Cat. The Wampus Cat took fourth in Saturday's Bronze heat.

In the Sport class, the morning heat saw Charles Bangert in his SX 300 take first, followed by Dave Ronnenberg in the Berkut. The afternoon heat took place just before the Unlimited Gold heat in which Miss Ashley II crashed, and results were unavailable.

Formula One class ran two heats on Saturday. Not surprisingly, Jon Sharp and Nemesis won their heat, with David Hoover and Frenzy second. Ray Cote in Alley Cat won the other heat; Robert B. Jones and Aggressor were second. The surprise was that Cote's time was better than Sharp's almost two seconds.

The Biplane class ran their Bronze and Silver finals today. Jeffrey Lo in Flying Lo took the Bronze trophy. Mike Taylor in the Redline Special was second, and Cliff Magee was third. Jeremy Chellin aboard Sticks Adventure was the winner of the Silver finals and Chris Ferguson in Let The Good Times Roll was second. Guy Paquin was third.

Sunday — Fourth And Final Day

Dago Red Wins Unlimited Gold Second Year In A Row

The turnstyles were busy Sunday as the largest crowd of the week turned out to see the finals in all classes, including the Unlimited Gold race.

As if in redemption for yesterday's tragedy, Sunday's skies were clear and bright at Reno/Stead. The crowds were the heaviest of all four days of racing and they were there for racing ... mostly Unlimited class racing and the Unlimited Gold Final.

There was a lot of other racing before the grand finale, though. The Biplane class Gold Final flagged off at 9:00 a.m. from a racehorse start. David Rose in his Rose Peregrine Rags won the race ahead of Jim Smith, Jr. in a Mong Sport. Tom Aberle took third in Class Action, a Pitts.

The Formula One Silver Final was next off, again from a standing start on the runway. Robert B. .Jones aboard his Cassutt IIIM Aggressor took the checkered flag. John Houseley, also in a Cassutt was second by only seven seconds, and Carl Swenson, Jr. in Annie, also a Cassutt, placed third.

T-6 class racing competition pits virtually stock airplanes against each other, providing true one-design racing at Reno. The T-6 class Gold race was won by Nick Macy in Six Cat.

In the T-6 Silver Finals, six laps around the pylons, Jim Bennett in Tinker Toy was the trophy-winner, followed by less than a second by Gene McNeely in Undecided. Bud Granley in Lickety Split was a distant third.

The Sport class Silver Finals saw Mike Jones in a Glasair III, Cheeky Charlie, win. Dave Ronnenberg in the graceful Berkut was second and Arnis Luters was third in a Glasair III.

Between the Sports class Silver race and the Formula One Gold, the Northern Lights aerobatic team put on their usual stellar performance. After landing, one of the team's Extra 300s got too close to the aircraft ahead on the taxi out. The prop shredded the tail and clawed up the fuselage. Fortunately, the pilot of the leading Extra only got a few cuts. The Extra wasn't so lucky.

The Formula One Gold was off at 11:25, and there appeared to be the possibility that Nemesis might have some serious competition in Ray Cote and Alley Cat. Alley Cat's time in its heat on Saturday had been faster than Nemesis's time in its heat. At the end of the first of 10 laps, Nemesis trailed in the pack, but it relentlessly began to eat up the distance between it and the leaders, and was firmly established in first by the middle of the race. Nemesis won the Gold trophy with a speed of 243.513, seven seconds ahead of Alley Cat. Gary Hubler in Mariah was third.

After the Thunderbirds performance at 12:30, the Unlimited Bronze field took the course. This race started yet another controversy, when Bob Hannah in Voodoo refused to start, saying that the class had agreed that he should run in the Silver Final. The Race Committee thought otherwise and disqualified him. Later, they changed this ruling at the behest of the pilots in the class. Vlado Lenoch in his P-51 Moonbeam McSwine lead from the start and never looked back. Thomas Camp in the Yak II Maniyak was second at the finish and Skip Holm was third in a Bearcat.

The Sport class Gold race saw some action in the field, but was dominated by Dave Morss in his Lancair IV.

The Sport Gold Final didn't offer any surprises as the consistent winner in the class, Dave Morss in a Lancair IV won the Gold trophy, screaming around the course at a speed of 319.671 mph. David W. Anders in a Venture was second and Lee Behel in another Venture was third.

The Unlimited Silver looked to be "Buckwheat" Hannah's last shot. Voodoo lived up to her name, appearing to be cursed all week with mechanical problems. On Sunday, though, it all came together and the Purple, Yellow and Black P-51 scorched the field, leading from start to finish. Miss America and Brent Hisey were second. Dennis Sanders in his Sea Fury Argonaut was third.

The T-6 Gold saw Nick Macy in Six Cat hold his lead through the race ahead of Thomas Campau in Mystical Power. Mary Dilda and Two of Hearts was third.

Two Sea Furies battle it out down low while a Mustang takes the high road in Sunday's Unlimited Gold final at Reno.

After the T-6 Gold Final and before the running of the Unlimited Gold Final, a brace of four P-51s performed a Missing Man formation down the center of the racecourse in memory of Gary Levitz, killed Saturday in the crash of Miss Ashley II.

Now comes the Main Event, the signature race of the Reno Air Races, the Unlimited Gold Final. The much-anticipated return of Rare Bear to the Unlimited Gold was, unfortunately, not to be. Flight testing Sunday morning revealed additional metal in the engine following replacement of two cylinders on Saturday. The team knew the Bear wouldn't finish a race and elected to pull it from the field.

Bruce Lockwood savors Dago Red's victory in the Unlimited Gold race Sunday at the Reno Air Races.

At the start, Bill "Tiger" Destefani in Strega pulled ahead of the pack, closely followed by Bruce Lockwood in Dago Red. The two highly-modified P-51 flew a virtual leader-wingman formation, separated by a fraction of a second throughout seven and 1/2 laps. With a half lap to go, Strega's engine gave up and Destefani had to mayday out of the race. Dago cruised to the finish, and won the Gold with a speed of 472.332 mph. Brian Sanders in Dreadnaught was second and Daniel Martin in the P-51 Ridge Runner was third. Tom Dwelle in Critical Mass didn't finish the race, the big modified Sea Fury's engine gave out on lap six. Voodoo was never in the race, behind several seconds at the start and lapped by several racers.

In a fitting gesture, the F2G Super Corsair, on static display all week, and third place winner in the 1949 Thompson Trophy race at Cleveland, Ohio, was pulled to the flight line to stand beside the 1999 Unlimited Gold winner.