Unlimiteds Thunder at Reno '97

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

AVweb's air racing correspondents offer a detailed account of what went on at the 34th Annual Championship Air Races two weeks ago. This year's coverage includes sixteen magnificent color photos, including a series of shots of the mid-air collision between Howard Pardue's Sea Fury and Sam Richardson's YAK during the Tuesday qualifying rounds. (Both pilots were okay.) Other photos include Critical Mass, Dreadnought, Furias, Miss America, Rare Bear, Risky Business, Strega, Thunder Mustang, and Voodoo Chile. If you don't feel “the need for speed” after viewing this, better check your pulse!

Pardue's Bearcat
Howard Pardue's Bearcat

YAK before accident
Richardson's YAK
before the accident...

Yak after accident
...and after.
(Hint: something's missing!)

Pardue's Sea Fury
Howard Pardue's Sea Fury
taxiing in after the accident.

YAK tail art!
Interesting tail art on the YAK!

The 34th Annual Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada opened on September 8, 1997 with a record number of entries in the unlimited racing class. All in all, there were 44 aircraft, ranging from the pre-race favorite of Bill "Tiger" Destefani's highly modified P-51 known as Strega, to Miss Ashley II a sleek new hybrid racer built by Gary Levitz and Bill Rogers. This year's event also marked the return of Lyle Shelton, replacing John Penny as the pilot of his Bearcat, Rare Bear. The Sanders brothers' mighty Pratt & Whitney R4360-powered Hawker Sea Fury, known as Dreadnought, also returned after missing the 1996 racing event. Noticeably absent, however, was David Price's Dego Red which finished first in last year's Gold competition, only to lose the race due to a pylon cut; and the beloved Lefty Gardner and his beautiful Lockheed P-38 White Lightning.

The qualification runs, which took place Monday through Wednesday, were marred by several emergencies. On Monday Tiger Destefani declared a "mayday" after Strega suddenly lost power when a leaking exhaust header burned through his magneto's power cables. The problem was later fixed, and the following day Tiger went on to post the top qualifying speed of 464.245 MPH.

Matt Jackson also declared an emergency when one of the gear doors on his Sea Fury malfunctioned. The problem was sorted out in the air, and Jackson returned safely to the field. Later, Alan Preston, flying the freshly restored P-51, formerly known as Stiletto, suddenly lost power. Preston managed a very difficult but successful 30 MPH crosswind landing .

The most frightful emergency of the qualifying round occurred on Tuesday when Howard Pardue's Sea Fury collided with Sam Richardson's R2000-powered YAK. Neither Richardson nor Pardue could recall exactly what happen but apparently Pardue's Sea Fury came close enough to the YAK to chew up half of the its rudder. Fortunately, superior piloting skills and a great deal of luck brought both planes safely back to the field. Damage to the Sea Fury was limited to a large gash in one of its propeller blades; however, the complete tail assembly of Richardson's YAK had to be replaced, and he later failed to qualify for the competition. The following morning, a mysterious red star appeared just below the canopy of Pardue's Sea Fury. In an apparent retaliation to the red starred victory claim, the international symbol for no parking (the letter "P," overlaid by a circle with a slash through it) appeared on the tail surface of Richardson's YAK. No word yet as to what was behind this symbolism, but the middle finger that also appeared below the no parking symbol could be a significant a clue. Qualifications concluded on Wednesday afternoon with Rare Bear coming in second at 461.508 MPH, followed by Brian Sanders in Dreadnought at 438.426 MPH. Although these speeds are fast, they are about six percent slower that the 490 MPH that David Price and John Penny registered the previous year.

Thursday's Heat Races

The top three qualifiers, Strega, Rare Bear, and Dreadnought, were exempt from competing on the first day of the races, while the other teams used Thursday to tune up for the more serious events later in the week.

Lloyd Hamilton's Furias
Lloyd Hamilton's old but still
competitive Sea Fury, Furias.

Miss Ashley II
Miss Ashley II, the new hybrid
racer built be Gary Levitz
and Bill Rogers...

Miss Ashley II
...a unique aircraft, powered by a
Rolls Royce Griffon 58 engine.

Risky Business
Bill Rheinschild in his competitive
P-51 Mustang, Risky Business.

Voodoo Chile
Voodoo Chile, a Strega-clone, highly
modified during the off- season.

The first heat of the day, Heat 1C Medallion, included five P-51s, a Sea Fury, a Bearcat and a YAK 11. Stu Eberhardt's P-51 Merlins Magic took the checkered flag at 361.330 MPH but was closely followed by Curtis Brown's beautiful gray camouflaged Sea Fury. Vlado Lenoch's D-model mustang, Moonbeam McSwine, trailed a distant third with 337.432 MPH. Thomas Camp's white and red YAK 11, Maniyak, left the race during the second lap with a "mayday" but landed safely.

The Heat 1B Bronze race was won by Lloyd Hamilton (387.601 MPH) in his faded, but still competitive, Sea Fury, called Furias. He was followed by Matt Jackson's Sea Fury at 383.431 MPH and by Dan Martin's P-51, which clocked in at 371.924 MPH.

The last heat of the day, Heat 1A Silver, is the race that many of the race fans had been waiting for because this event marked the debut of Gary Levitz and Bill Rogers new hybrid racing plane. Miss Ashley II, as she is called, garnished a great deal of attention from the race enthusiasts as they marveled at the airplane's clean design. A design that mates a scratch-built Mustang fuselage with a Lear Jet 23 wing and horizontal tail surfaces, coupled with powerful Rolls Royce Griffon engine. Unfortunately, Levitz experienced some difficulty in retracting the landing gear shortly after takeoff, but he managed to join his fellow competitors in time to start the race. However, the uncertainty about his gear situation kept him from running the plane at high power.

Bill Rheinschild, whose crew had just finished installing the race engine in his airplane, flew his P-51, Risky Business, to a first place finish with a speed of 394.929 MPH which bumped him up to Friday's Gold Heat. Sherman Smoot's Voodoo Chile came in a close second at 394.402 MPH. Voodoo Chile, with its iridescent paint job, has always been a radical-looking airplane, and this year was no exception — that is, minus the paint job. This year, Number 55 arrived in a bare metal scheme looking like a Strega clone, minus the paint. Voodoo Chile sported the same canopy and tail fillet as Strega and is powered by a Dwight Thorn engine. Talk around the pit indicated that this might be the sleeper of the entire racing event.

Third place in the Silver Heat was taken by Nelson Ezell in his Sea Fury.

Friday's Heat Races

Miss America
Brent Hisey's P-51,
Miss America.

Dreadnought
The Sanders brothers' mighty
Sea Fury, Dreadnought.

The results of Thursday's competition vaulted Bill Rheinschild and Stu Eberhardt into the respective Gold and Silver heats, while moving Gary Levitz' Miss Ashley II to the Bronze.

The Bronze Heat 2C proved to be an exciting race for the crew of the Levitz/Rogers racer, after putting in some long hours to resolve the previous day's gear retraction difficulties. Gary Levitz maneuvered into the last starting position as the eight-plane element lined up for the race. Then Steve Hinton in the pace plane gave the go ahead to start the race. Levitz pushed the power up and managed to take the first pylon and easily out-distanced the competition to capture a first place finish with a speed of 402.597 MPH. Stewart Dawson's Sea Fury, Spirit of Texas, and Brent Hisey's P-51, Miss America, crossed the home pylon second (350.048 MPH) and third (342.468 MPH), respectively.

Veteran race pilot Skip Holm, flying Critical Mass for owner/pilot Tom Dwelle who had earlier been banned from air racing for life, surprised almost everyone by winning the Silver Heat 2B with an average speed of 397.905 MPH. Holm had earlier qualified the modified orange Sea Fury at 403.006 MPH, which was a record for Critical Mass, but hardly anyone expected it to be this competitive. Matt Jackson followed closely with 391.085 MPH, while Dan Martin finished third at 378.637 MPH.

Over the last seven or eight years, the Gold Heat races have been dominated by either Strega or Rare Bear and this year was no exception. However, there were a couple of wild cards, in the form of Dreadnought and Voodoo Chile, that could make things a bit more interesting. There was also Bill Rheinschild who had a new racing motor in is plane. But in the end, it was the same old story. Tiger took the Bear for the finish, followed by Brian Sanders in Dreadnought. Voodoo Chile suffered a damaged piston and was forced to leave the race in the second lap.

Saturday's Heat Races

One day away from racing for the money… Saturday's races again are, basically, tune-ups for the grand finale on Sunday, but it also offers the pilots the opportunity to bump up to a higher category. Gary Levitz' win on Friday bumped him up from the Bronze to the Gold. Not bad for Miss Ashley's first time out. Skip Holm's surprising finish in Friday's Sliver Heat also bumped Critical Mass up to the Gold Heat.

Brent Hisey put Miss America in a good position to win the Sunday's Silver race by taking first place in Saturday's Bronze Heat 3C. William Anders' beautiful P-51D, Val-Halla, came in second, followed By James Michaels' Queen B.

The Sliver Heat 3B was won by Dan Martin in his Mustang Ridge Runner. The surprising thing about this race was the speed. Martin's basically stock P-51 clocked the fifth fastest time, 407.094 MPH, of the entire week. Matt Jackson also ran well at 397.323 MPH, while Lloyd Hamilton managed to push Furias past the 395 MPH mark.

Tiger Destefani led the pack down the chute and won the Gold Heat 3A by a margin of seven seconds over Lyle Shelton's Rare Bear. Close behind the two leaders were Brian Sanders and Gary Levitz.

Sunday — Go For The Money

Gold winner Strega
Once again, Bill "Tiger" Destefani
took the Unlimited Gold in his
highly-modified P-51, Strega.

Rare Bear
Lyle Shelton's Bearcat Rare Bear
had engine problems and
finished third (after Strega
and Dreadnought).

Critical Mass with hole in cowl
Skip Holm's Critical Mass pulled out
of the gold race with a large hole
in the engine cowl.

The Thunder Mustang
The Thunder Mustang came to
Reno to race but failed to fly
fast enough (338 MPH) to qualify.
Nevertheless this very sharp
3/4-scale P-51 Replica
attracted a great deal
of attention.

The story on Sunday was dominated more by the weather than the races. For the second time in as many years the weather for the final day of the competition was less than desirable, with a chilly crosswind and gusts up to 40 MPH. Many of the pilots in the early events reported that the course was very rough.

Stewart Dawson Hawker Sea Fury, Spirit of Texas, captured the Bronze race at 369.826 MPH. He was followed by his good friend Howard Pardue (367.412 MPH) in his rare F8F-1 Bearcat. Voodoo Chile's crew pulled an all nighter and replaced their damaged racing motor with a stock Merlin. This engine ran well enough (364.412 MPH) to capture third place. No doubt that Voodoo Chile racing team will be the group in watch in coming years.

The weather may have played a role in the outcome of the Silver race as three pilots were penalized for race course infractions, while a forth had to leave the course due to a damaged cowling.

Bill Rheinschild crossed the checkered flag first; however, the officials added 28 seconds to his finishing time for cutting pylons 2 and 3 at the start of the race. That decision vaulted Dennis Sanders in his Sea Fury Argonaut into the winner's circle. Brent Hisey and James Michaels got tagged for low flying but still managed to finish third and fifth, respectively. During the fifth lap of the race Skip Holm, piloting Critical Mass, experienced what appeared to be an explosion when a piece of metal passed by the canopy and embedded itself in the tail. Holm pulled out of the race and landed safely. On the ground an inspection revealed a large hole in Critical Mass' cowling which was attributed to metal fatigue. Stu Eberhardt also called a "mayday" when he lost power in his P-51 Merlins Magic.

Traditionally, the winner of the Silver race is given the option of moving up to the Gold competition. Dennis Sanders decided to pass on this opportunity, which left the door open for Bill Rheinschild to add his P-51 to the eight airplanes that had already qualified for the Gold Race.

The Gold race began much as they have in the past with Strega taking the early lead in front of Rare Bear. Slowly but surely, Strega increased the lead as the Bear fell back. Lyle Shelton reported a rough engine over the radio after being overtaken by Dreadnought. Gary Levitz again flew a very consistent race and finished fourth, behind the trio of Strega, Dreadnought, and Rare Bear. Then the real drama began. Rear Bear's engine was getting worse and then suddenly loss all power. A "mayday" was called and Lyle Shelton opted to land on runway 18 due to the heavy crosswinds. In the meantime, Strega was also in trouble. Strega's canopy was covered with oil that came from a leaking prop seal. Tiger, too, opted to land on runway 18 but came down a bit hard and the prop struck the ground several times before the damaged Mustang finally rolled to a stop near Rare Bear. The rest of Gold competitors a landed safely.

There's no question that 1997 Unlimited class of racing events was a positive success for the sport in spite of the lower speeds and hopefully next year will be even better.