Reno Unlimiteds Turn 35

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The 1998 Reno National Championship Unlimited Air Races will be remembered as one of the most exciting and most competitive meets in the 35 year history of Reno unlimited racing. If you couldn't make it, this heat-by-heat play-by-play by AVweb's race correspondents will make you feel as if you had been. And, if you don't feel "the need for speed" after viewing the three dozen magnificent race photos, we suggest you visit your AME pronto!

Saturday's heat raceThe contemporary Unlimited Class of air racing celebrated its 35th birthday in grand style at the National Championship Air Races held at Stead Field near Reno, Nevada, September 14-20, 1998. This year's event featured 26 aircraft and pilots who qualified to compete for the prestigious bronze, silver and gold race trophies. Included on the entry list were some familiar names such as Gary Levitz, Howard Pardue, and the Sanders brothers Dennis and Brian. A few rookies like John Bagley, Astronaut Robert "Hoot" Gibson, and Michael Brown also made the cut. However, perennial unlimited champions Lyle Shelton and Bill "Tiger" Destefani were noticeably missing from this year's line up. Unfortunately, both Strega and Rare Bear were damaged at the conclusion of last year's gold competition and Tiger and Lyle where unable to get their respective racers ready for the 1998 event. In spite of Tiger and Lyle's absences, this year's crop of qualifying pilots showed a great deal of promise that should lead to some very exciting racing.

Don't miss AVweb's Reno '98 photo gallery!

QUALIFICATION RUNS

Bruce Lockwood's 'Dago Red'Official qualification runs commenced on Monday as 14 unlimited racers took to the 9.125-mile race course. The weather was near perfect with crystal blue skies speckled with beautiful white clouds. The fastest lap of the day was recorded by Bruce Lockwood, piloting the highly-modified North American P-51D Mustang, named Dago Red, to a lap speed of 443.932 mph. Veteran race pilot Dennis Sanders and his Pratt and Whitney R4360 powered Hawker Sea Fury was close behind with a recorded speed of 433.282 mph. Gary Levitz ' hybrid Lear-Mustang racer Miss Ashley II posted the third fastest lap at 429.378 mph. Most of the first round of qualification laps was uneventful with the exception of Hurricane Bob Hannah's attempt at the course.

Hannah was again at the controls of the P-51D Mustang, nicknamed Voodoo (formerly known as Voodoo Chile, Racer #55). During the off-season Team Voodoo put their racer through an extensive modification program. A new lighter-slicker composite cowling replaced the standard Merlin cover, and wing filets were added to more smoothly match the wings to the fuselage. There were certainly numerous other things that were done to the aircraft, but Hannah's crew wasn't talking at race time. What looked like a promising qualifying run (452.549 mph) suddenly ended in a mayday distress call after Voodoo's cockpit quickly filled with smoke. (Race fans might remember the aircraft formerly know as Voodoo Chile has experienced some difficulties in successfully finishing races in the past few years, and with the most recent bad luck, one can only wonder if Team Voodoo might actual be a victim of Voodoo.) The source of the smoke came from a couple of exhaust stacks, which burnt the new carbon fiber cowling. Hannah cleared the air in the cockpit by opening the canopy and executed a perfect emergence landing.

Miss AmericaDay two of qualifying opened with Brent Hisey's P-51D Miss America departing the pylon course during the early session with a blown gasket; however, he returned in the rain-delayed afternoon session and successfully flew the course without incident. Bob Hannah declared his second emergency in as many days when he reported that Voodoo's engine was running rough. In the mean time, rookie John Bagley, who successfully completed his pilot qualification on Monday, posted a very respectable speed of 400.404 mph in his Sea Fury, Southern Cross. When asked what he thought about his pilot's test, Bagely replied, "what a rush!" "The interesting thing is, it doesn't feel much different at 41 inches of manifold pressure as it does at 54 inches. There is a lot of difference in speed, but once you're on the course, you really don't feel it. I am here for a parade not a race. I have no illusions of grandeur. You look around here at the bid dog Furies and all the experienced pilots—-I can follow."

Again, one could not ask for better weather on Wednesday, the third and final day of qualifying; however, there was some controversy. Apparently, the rule governing the number of qualification laps was interpreted in a manner which could allow pilots who had previously only used one of their two allotted circuits to re-qualify. The Reno Air Race Association (RARA) took a look at the rule and decided to let many of the pilots have another go at the course on Wednesday. Bob Hannah finally managed an uneventful run around the pylons, but the recorded 440mph fell 12mph short of the speed he clocked on Monday. Veteran race pilot Jimmy Leeward was late getting into Reno due to storms in Texas, but on Wednesday he finally got the chance to qualify his P-51D Cloud Dancer. Leeward registered a very respectable speed, for a stock Mustang , of 382.379mph. Bill Rheinschild took advantage of the RARA's ruling and pushed Risky Business' lap speed to 430.446mph. Gary Levitz' also requlified his beautiful Courtaulds Aerospace sponsored Miss Ashley II at 437.376mph, which was fast enough to put him third in the gold race starting line up.

Miss Ashley IIDuring the off-season Bill Rogers and his highly talented crew brought Miss Ashley II back to Everett, Washington in the late spring in order to get her ready for the National Air Races. Some of the modifications they incorporated included replacing the aircraft's leading edge with a carbon fiber leading edge that was modeled from the wings of a P.16 Swiss fighter. Rogers also replaced last year's troublesome gear doors with a more rigid composite version . Lastly, his crew also added a little extra kick to the Miss Ashley II's Griffon by installing a nitrous oxide injection system. Each day of the qualifying round, pilot Gary Levitz took to the skies and made calibration flights to fine tune his racer, and by Wednesday night all was ready for the first of the heat races.

THURSDAY

UNLIMITED HEAT 1C Medallion, 5 Laps

Howard Pardue's BearcatThe first official heat race came off without a hitch as Howard Pardue flew his rare Grumman XF8F-1 Bearcat to a first place finish with an average speed of 365.273mph. Probably the most exciting thing about Heat 1C was seeing three beautiful stock Bearcats round the course at the same time. This is the first time in recent memory that three Bearcats have been paired in the same race.

Race # Pilot Aircraft Type Name Race Time Race Speed mph
14 Howard Pardue XF8F-1 Bearcat 7:29.96 365.273
50 Ike Enns P-51D Miracle Maker 7:31.63 363.939
106 Bill Anders F8F Wampus Cat 7:45.98 351.976
2 Thomas Camp Yak 11 Maniyak 7:53.07 347.445
204 David Price F8F-1 Bearcat 8:04.15 327.135
29 John Herlihy Yak 11 Czech Ride 8:22.47 327.115
81 Rob Patterson P-51D Lady Jo 9:00.93 303.858

UNLIMITED HEAT 1B Bronze, 5 Laps

Rookie Mike Brown was fined $200.00 for low flyingUnlimited Heat 1B featured four Sea Furies and two Mustangs. Rookie Michael Brown took the lead in his Sea Fury, September Pops, as Bill Rheinschild's Fury Bad Attitude and Steward Dawson's Sprit of Texas jockeyed for second. Brown continued to lead in the race and took the checkered flag with less than a half second ahead of Rheinschild. A very exciting race indeed; however, Brown would later be fined $200.00 for low flying and moved to last place in the finishing order. The low flying penalty moved Bad Attitude into the winner's circle, closely followed by Stewart Dawson's Sea Fury.

Race # Pilot Aircraft Type Name Race Time Race Speed mph
74 Bill Rheinschild Sea Fury Bad Attitude 7:05.48 386.307
105 Steward Dawson Sea Fury Sprit of Texas 7:07.37 384.598
99 "Hoot" Gibson Sea Fury Riff Raff 7:18.08 375.196
22 Bill Eberhardt P-51D Merlins Magic 8:21.52 327.735
9 Jimmy Leeward P-51D Cloud Dancer 8:22.44 327.135
911 Michael Brown Sea Fury September Pops 7:05.22 365.543*

* Moved to last place and fined $200.00 for low flying.

UNLIMITED HEAT 1C Silver, 5 Laps

Brian Sanders' Sea Fury 'Argonaut'The three top qualifiers Bob Hannah, Bruce Lockwood, and Gary Levitz were exempt from competing in Heat 1C Sliver race. The six remaining competitors all had very close qualifying speeds that, in theory, should have produced a very competitive race. But things don't always happen the way one might think. Dan Martin was flying a fine race when suddenly he called out over the race frequency that he thought he had lost the trim tab on his rudder. Martin subsequently left the course with a mayday while Steve Hinton in the pace plane took a look at the damage. In the mean time, Sherman Smoot in his brightly polished Yak 11 flew a very fast 399.528mph and captured the checker flag just ahead of Brian Sanders' Sea Fury, Argonaut. The rest of the pack, Nelson Ezell, John Bagely , and Brent Hisey all managed to cut outer pylon 5, which resulted in a 10-second (two seconds for each lap) penalty to their respective race times. Fortunately, Dan Martin's Mustang was not severely damaged, although it would require a new rudder assembly.

Race # Pilot Aircraft Type Name Race Time Race Speed mph
86 Sherman Smoot Yak 11 Czech Mate 6:51.40 399.528
114 Brian Sanders Sea Fury Argonaut 7:00.43 390.947
66 Nelson Ezell Sea Fury Fury 7:29.81 365.411*
47 John Bagley Sea Fury Southern Cross 7:38.26 358.673**
11 Brent Hisey P-51D Miss America 8:03.52 339.936***
20 Dan Martin P-51D Ridge Runner   Did Not Finish

* Cut Outer 5 Pylon on lap 3, +10 seconds penalty.
** Cut Outer 5 Pylon on lap 2, +10 seconds penalty.
*** Cut Outer 5 Pylon on lap 4, +10 seconds penalty.

FRIDAY

UNLIMITED HEAT 2C Bronze, 5 Laps

The first heat race of the day proved to be a cake walk for Rookie Mike Brown who had been bumped down to the Bronze after being penalized for low flying on Thursday. Brown's powerful Sea Fury was first out of the blocks and he never relinquished the lead.

Race # Pilot Aircraft Type Name Race Time Race Speed mph
911 Mike Brown Sea Fury September Pops 6:47.73 403.124
22 Stu Eberhardt P-51D Merlins Magic 7:16.85 376.252
50 Ike Enns P-51D Miracle Maker 7:42.88 355.094
14 Howard Pardue XF8F-1 Bearcat 7:50.63 349.246
106 Bill Anders F8F Wampus Cat 7:50.99 348.979
99 Hoot Gibson Sea Fury Riff Raff 8:04.45 339.283
9 Jimmy Leeward P-51D Cloud Dancer 8:23.00 326.771*

* Cut Pylon 1 on lap 5, +10 seconds penalty.

UNLIMITED HEAT 2C Silver, 5 Laps

The Unlimited 2C heat proved to be a little more competitive with the top three finishers closing out the race within 3 seconds of each other. The lead was traded back and forth between Howard Pardue and Brian Sanders until the last lap. At that point, Sanders gained a slight edge and managed to slip past the home pylon just ahead of Pardue's Sea Fury. Brent Hisey, in Miss America placed a very fast third at 399.780mph. Dan Martin was also able to replace Ridge Runner's rudder assembly in time to compete in the race; however, he cut pylon 5 which cost him a 10 second penalty. Stewart Dawson also had a pylon cut, and rookie John Bagely was also moved to last place for a deadline violation.

Race # Pilot Aircraft Type Name Race Time Race Speed mph
114 Brian Sanders Sea Fury Argonaut 6:48.26 402.601
66 Howard Pardue Sea Fury Fury 6:50.91 400.004
11 Brent Hisey P-51D Miss America 6:51.14 399.780
74 Bill Rheinschild Sea Fury Bad Attitude 7:05.39 386.388
105 Steward Dawson Sea Fury Sprit of Texas 7:23.66 370.477*
20 Dan Martin P-51D Ridge Runner 8:06.83 337.624**
47 John Bagely Sea Fury Southern Cross 7:20.91 372.787***

* Cut Pylon 1 on lap 2,
+10 seconds penalty.

** Cut Outer 5 Pylon on lap 3,
+10 seconds penalty.

*** Moved to last place for Deadline Violation.

UNLIMITED HEAT 2A Gold, 5 Laps

Dennis Sanders' Sea Fury 'Dreadnought'.This is the heat race that most of the unlimited fans had been waiting for as the three top qualifiers lined up on the pace plane. Gary Levitz experienced a problem with his gear doors so he maneuvered Miss Ashley to the end of the starting line up. Bob Hannah and Voodoo took a short-lived lead in the race until Bruce Loockwood and Dago Red passed him on the back side of the course. Shortly thereafter, both racers pulled back on the power to save their engines for Sunday. However, Dennis Sanders and Dreadnought kept up the pressure so Lookwood again applied the power. Gary Levitz' gear door problem became more acute as the damaged door left the plane and fell to the desert below. The exposed wheel well caused considerable drag, and Levitz wisely didn't stress his Griffion in a race he could not win.

Race # Pilot Aircraft Type Name Race Time Race Speed mph
4 Bruce Lockwood P-51D Dago Red 6:21.42 430.931
5 Bob Hannah P-51D Voodoo 6:25.02 426.902
8 Dennis Sanders Sea Fury Dreadnought 6:25.78 426.061
86 Sherman Smoot Yak 11 Czech Mate 6:59.57 391.748
38 Gary Levitz P-51D Miss Ashley II 7:17.00 376.123*
45 Matt Jackson P-51D Risky Business 7:29.45 365.704

* Cut Outer 6 Pylon on lap 5, +10 seconds penalty.

SATURDAY

Hoot Gibson's Sea FuryUNLIMITED HEAT 3C Bronze, 5 Laps

Astronaut and rookie unlimited race pilot Robert "Hoot" Gibson looked like he had gotten the hang of air racing while posting his first victory in Saturday's 3C Bronze heat race. His very competitive average speed of 376.580mph was fast enough to hold off the rest of the pack and bump Gibson and his beautiful Red and White Hawker Sea Fury into Sunday's Silver Trophy Race.

Race # Pilot Aircraft Type Name Race Time Race Speed mph
99 Hoot Gibson Sea Fury Riff Raff 7:16.47 376.580
50 Ike Enns P-51D Miracle Maker 7:23.08 370.962
9 Jimmy Leeward P-51D Cloud Dancer 7:27.31 367.454
14 Howard Pardue XF8F-1 Bearcat 7:40.70 356.774*
204 David Price F8F-1 Bearcat 7:45.91 352.784
2 Thomas Camp Yak 11 Maniyak 8:00.45 342.108
106 Bill Anders F8F Wampus Cat 8:04.99 338.954**
29 Sam Richardson Yak 11 Czech Ride 8:24.42 325.851

* Cut Pylon 3 on Pace lap, +10 seconds penalty.
** Cut Pylon 3 on Pace lap and Pylon 1on lap 3, +20 seconds penalty.

UNLIMITED HEAT 3B Silver, 5 Laps

Heat 3B Silver shaped up as a show down between five Sea Furies and three Mustangs. In the end, the Sea Furies piloted by Howard Pardue, Matt Jackson, Stewart Dawson and Rookie Mike Brown, prevailed by finishing 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. This heat was only the second in the series on unlimited heats in which there were no penalties assessed. Dan Martin's repaired Ridge Runner also took to the course but did not finish the race.

Race # Pilot Aircraft Type Name Race Time Race Speed mph
66 Howard Pardue Sea Fury Fury 6:54.27 396.760
74 Matt Jackson Sea Fury Bad Attitude 7:09.90 382.335
105 Steward Dawson Sea Fury Sprit of Texas 7:11.00 381.359
911 Mike Brown Sea Fury September Pops 7:11.72 380.723
22 Stu Eberhardt P-51D Merlins Magic 7:27.40 367.380
11 Brent Hisey P-51D Miss America 7:39.57 357.651
47 John Bagely Sea Fury Southern Cross 7:43.03 354.978
20 Daniel Martin P-51D Ridge Runner   Did Not Finish

UNLIMITED HEAT 3C Gold, 5 Laps

The last unlimited heat of the day had moments of both extreme excitement and terror. Overnight, Gary Levitz' crew made the necessary repairs to Miss Ashley II so all three of the top qualifiers where lined up and ready to go when Steve Hinton called the start of the race. Dago Red took the early lead over Voodoo and Miss Ashley II. Then Voodoo very abruptly pulled up; however, Hannah didn't radio a distress call. Shortly thereafter, Sherman Smoot's Czech Mate belched flames and smoke. Smoot pulled off the course with an immediate called a mayday. Smoot's Yak doesn't glide very well so he brought the plane down at about 170mph and ground looped it at the end of the runway. The gear collapsed and the Yak slid sideways for a good distance before stopping just short of a small bluff on the east side of the airport. Smoot quickly jumped out of the plane and walked away a very lucky man. Voodoo after losing trim tabIn the mean time, Steve Hinton flew over to take a look Voodoo. "You OK Bob?" called Hinton. "Yea, this thing just popped big time," replied Hannah. What Hannah didn't mention is that the g-load from the quick pull-up had caused him to black out. He finally managed to reach the throttle and reduced Voodoo's power. At that point Hannah radioed that he "(wasn't) out of it yet," but he wasn't thinking clearly. Later, he declared a mayday and made a perfect landing. The race continued as Dago Red narrowly edged Dreadnought for the win. Miss Ashley II also had its best race performance to date with an average speed of 428.717mph. On the ground one could see what cause Voodoo's problems during the race. The left elevator torque tube failed when the elevator trim fluttered and departed the plane. Fortunately, Bob Hannah's skill and coolness in the cockpit saved day.

Race # Pilot Aircraft Type Name Race Time Race Speed mph
4 Bruce Lockwood P-51D Dago Red 6:12.402 441.369
8 Dennis Sanders Sea Fury Dreadnought 6:25.78 439.551
38 Gary Levitz P-51R Miss Ashley II 6:23.39 428.717
45 Bill Rheinschild P-51D Risky Business 6:43.83 407.017
114 Brian Sanders Sea Fury Argonaut 7:22.98 371.045
86 Sherman Smoot Yak 11 Czech Mate   Did Not Finish
5 Bob Hannah P-51D Voodoo   Did Not Finish

SUNDAY

UNLIMITED Bronze, 7 Laps

The first unlimited race on Sunday was completely dominated by the three stock Bearcats that qualified for the race. Howard Pardue captured the win in the bronze by edging out former Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders in Wampus Cat. Alan Preston finished third, making the first ever 1-2-3 Bearcat finish. One of the more strange things that happened during this race was the departure of David Price in the first lap. Price radioed "see you later Alan," and headed home to Santa Monica.

Race # Pilot Aircraft Type Name Race Time Race Speed mph
14 Howard Pardue XF8F-1 Bearcat 7:28.39 366.569
106 Bill Anders F8F Wampus Cat 7:31.07 364.391
204 Alan Preston F8F-1 Bearcat 7:49.13 350.363
2 Thomas Camp Yak 11 Maniyak 7:49.61 350.005
29 John Herlihy Yak-11 Czech Ride 8:19.26 329.219*
81 Rob Patterson P-51D Lady Jo 7:29.01 292.850**
44 Brant Seghetti P-51D Sparky 8:00.86 273.453**
49 David Price P-51D Cottonmouth   Did Not Finish

* Cut Outer Pylon 8 on lap 1,
+10 seconds penalty.

** Time computed on 4 laps completed.

UNLIMITED SILVER, 7 Laps

Miss America after raceAll of the sliver race competitors had very close qualifying times, which left the race wide open. Rookie Mike Brown and his Sea Fury was the front runner, but the pilots that have been holding back all week will surely reveal themselves in this race. With that in mind, some may call Brent Hisey a sandbagger, but after the silver race everyone called him a winner. All week Hisey's crew's only comment was they didn't have a full-blown racing motor, but one certainly couldn't tell that in the silver race. Miss America jumped out from its fifth place starting position to easily out-distanced the competition to the checkered flag. Miss America has always been a competitive airplane and Sunday's result simply reinforces that one should never count Miss America out of a race. Team Miss America came to Reno to capture the silver and they accomplished their mission. Well done Team, fans are looking forward to seeing you in 1999.

Race # Pilot Aircraft Type Name Race Time Race Speed mph
11 Brent Hisey P-51D Miss America 7:58.19 414.202
911 Mike Brown Sea Fury September Pops 8:11.76 401.088
22 Stu Eberhardt P-51D Merlins Magic 8:38.18 380.638
47 John Bagely Sea Fury Southern Cross 8:42.89 377.209
99 Hoot Gibson Sea Fury Riff Raff 8:44.41 376.116
9 Jimmy Leeward P-51D Cloud Dancer 9:02.34 363.681
50 Ike Enns P-51D Miracle Maker 9:04.44 362.278
20 Daniel Martin P-51D Ridge Runner   Did Not Finish

UNLIMITED GOLD, 7 Laps

With a week worth of competition behind them, it was finally time to see three of the four top qualifiers push the trottle home. The race had a very frightening beginning when the engine in Howard Pardue's Sea Fury seemed to sputter on takeoff. One could hear the record crowd of spectators take a deep breath as their heartbeat moved to their throats. Pardue was able to get the engine running again while gaining a little altitude before turning left and executing excellent emergency landing. Pardue certainly had his hands full for a few moments, but he sure made it look easy.

Bruce Lockwood's 'Dago Red'Lockwood was first on the course after Hinton called "gentlemen you have a race," but he was soon overtaken by Dennis Sanders in Dreadnought. Could this be the year of the round engine? Sanders had the inside position, flying very tight a low on the course. During lap three, Lockwood was caught in the propwash of the big Sea Fury as they approached pylon two. For a moment, it looked like Dago Red might flip over, but Lockwood is a fine pilot, and he managed the situation and eventually passed Dreadnought and sprinted to the finish line. Miss Ashley II also had a very nice race; however, Gary Levitz cut pylon 4, and the ensuing penalty vaulted Bill Rheinschild to third place.

Race # Pilot Aircraft Type Name Race Time Race Speed mph
4 Bruce Lockwood P-51D Dago Red 8:30.68 450.599
8 Dennis Sanders Sea Fury Dreadnought 8:36.75 445.306
45 Bill Rheinschild P-51D Risky Business 9:07.14 420.572
38 Gary Levitz P-51R Miss Ashley II 9:19.25 411.465*
114 Brian Sanders Sea Fury Argonaut 9:45.45 392.375
105 Stewart Dawson Sea Fury Sprit of Texas 8:34.56 383.316**
74 Matt Jackson Sea Fury Bad Attitude 8:40.03 379.284**
88 Howard Pardue Sea Fury Fury   Did Not Finish

* Cut Outer Pylon 4 on lap 1,
+14 seconds penalty

** Time computed on 8 laps completed.

EPILOG

The 1998 Reno National Championship Unlimited Air Races will be remembered as an event that posted lower turn out of aircraft and slower speeds than in previous years. However, the 1998 competition will be recorded as being one of the most exciting and most competitive meets in the 35 year history of Reno unlimited racing. A number of racing teams, like team Miss Ashley II, made significant improvements in their aircraft and most will be back next year with even more power. And it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Tiger's Witch, Lyle's Bear, and Dwelly's radioactive Sea Fury will return in 1999. Also, the new crop of rookie entries had a very good showing in 1998, and no doubt, they now have caught the racing bug. Lastly, all of the unlimited pilots are to be saluted for their skill and professionalism in calmly handling life-threatening emergencies. After all, the pilots who fly the pylons at Reno are some of the best in the world. Outstanding job gentlemen, see you next year!

Don't miss AVweb's Reno '98 photo gallery!