Unlimited Air Racing at Reno '96

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A pictorial play-by-play of unlimited-class action at the year's top air racing event by AVweb's on-the-scene race experts.

Places to FlyThe 33rd annual Reno National Championship Air Races opened on September 9, 1996 and with it brought both excitement and disappointment. In recent years the "fastest motor sport in the world" has been slightly waning in terms of participation and competition. However, the 1996 campaign showed great encouragement for there were a number of new unlimited racers on the ramp this year. At the same time, however, the promise of new hybrid racing entries from Darryl Greenamyer, Matt Jackson, and Gary Levitz & Bill Rogers did not materialize.

Hawker Sea Fury
Tom Dwelle's highly-modified Hawker Sea Fury.
Not a particularly competitive Gold racer, but certainly
one of the most colorful aircraft at Reno this year.

Qualification Rounds (September 9-11, 1996)

John Penney, flying Lyle Shelton's Grumman Barecat "Rare Bear," set the pace in the qualifying rounds by establishing a new course record of 491.266 mph. David Price also let it be known that his modified P-51 "Dago Red" was back in top racing form by qualifying at 490.826 mph.

Defending champion Bill "Tiger" Destefani arrived at Reno with a brand new propeller for his Mustang racer "Strega"; however, the so called "Tiger's Claw" proved to be some-what of a disappointment because he only qualified at 465.516 mph. "Lefty" Gardner, a Reno favorite, failed to qualify due to a left engine in his ultra-rare Lockheed P-38 "White Lightnin'."


"Strega" gets its regular prop back, after the
new "Tiger's Claw" proved disappointing.

Newcomer Steve Bolander's Mustang "Mary Bear" blew its engine and covered the canopy with oil during the final hours of qualifying. Fortunately, Bolander showed his piloting prowess by making a near perfect emergency landing. All in all, 26 aircraft managed to qualify for the unlimited race pairing.

Heat Races (Thursday, September 12, 1996)

The heat pairings are broken down by qualifying speeds into three the categories of "1C" (Bronze), "1B" (Sliver) and "1A" (Gold). The top three qualifiers are exempt from competing on Thursday which is the first official day of the races.

The "1C" heat race was dominated by an invasion of Russian Yak 11 type aircraft. Thomas Camp and his "Maniyak" racer was first down the shoot to the scatter pylon and lead from start to finish with an average speed of 335.725 mph. Camp was followed closely by Sam Richardson and his R2000 powered Yak "Czech Ride" and Rob Patterson's P-51 "Lady Jo" with respective speeds of 310.773 mph and 298.415 mph.

The "1B" heat race saw speeds jump up to over 345 mph with Stu Everhardt (P-51 "Merlins Magic"), Jimmy Leeward (P-51 "Cloud Dancer"), and David Price (F8F Bearcat) rounding out the top three finishers.

With the top three qualifiers out of the race, Bob "Hurricane" Hannah pushed his Mustang "Voodoo Chile" to narrowly win the "1A" heat with a speed of 406.254 mph. However, the competition was tough for the margin of victory over the second and third place finishers, Bill Rheinschild and Nelson Ezell, was less the three miles an hour.

Voodoo Chile
"Voodoo Chile" had the fastest time in Thursday's 1A heat.

Heat Races (Friday, September 13, 1996)

The main story on Friday was the weather. A front that was approaching from the west took an unexpected turn to the south and saturated the Reno vicinity with rain and high winds. As a result, the unlimited heat races on Friday were canceled.

Heat Races (Saturday, September 14, 1996)

The speeds in the Heat 2B Silver were again on the rise as C.J. Stevens' in his Hawker Sea Fury and Stu Eberhart's P-51 finished one/two with speeds of 374.684 mph and 374.512 mph respectively.

David Price and "Dago Red" was the first to reach the scatter pylon in the Gold Heat 2A and again let it be know that he did not come to Reno to finish behind "Strega" or "Rare Bear" as he managed to win the race with an average speed of 479.929 mph. Coming in second was the reigning champion "Tiger" Destefani at 477.632 mph, followed by John Penney and "Rare Bear" who was clearly having some minor engine trouble midway through the heat.

Rare Bear
Engine view of "Rare Bear" powered by a CW-3350 engine and P-3 prop.

The Finale (Sunday, September 15, 1996)

The heat competitions on Saturday are usually good indicators of what race fans can expect in the final money races and this year was no exception. All three of the unlimited events proved to be very close and exciting competitions.

The Bronze Race got underway at approximately 1:30 P.M. with Jimmy Leeward and his P-51 "Cloud Dancer" taking the low course by virtue of being the first to reach the scatter pylon. In the course of the next five laps Leeward flew an almost perfect race. With only about one half a lap to go Brent Hisey and "Miss America" bent the throttle forward and managed to barely beat Leeward across the finish line in one of the closest races in recent memory. Their respective speeds were 365.258 mph and 365.067 mph.

Bronze Race Finish
Bronze Race Finish: "Miss America" beats "Cloud Dancer"

Not to be out done by the Bronze pilots, Stu Eberhart in "Merlins Magic" and Howard Pardue in his Bearcat fought for the lead over seven laps in the Silver event before finishing at 375.061 mph and 374.778 mph.

Next came the event the races fans had been waiting for. Speculation abound in the racing pit area. Who would win? Would it be "Strega," "Rare Bear" or possibly "Dago Red"?

The biggest question of the day, however, was how bad was the Bear's engine hurt during Saturday's heat race? At the start David Price took up where he had left off by speeding his plane to an early lead. However, high drama developed during the second lap as John Penney declared a "Mayday" and pulled Lyle Shelton's mighty "Rare Bear" off the course and made an emergency landing as large amounts of smoking oil emanated from the left side of his engine. Before the races entered the eighth lap Bob Hannah, Bill Rheinschild, Lloyd Hamilton, Brian Sanders and Howard Pardue had also dropped out of the race.

Rare Bear
Fastest qualifier "Rare Bear" went mayday
in lap two with a blown engine, trailing smoke.

In the seventh lap, "Tiger" Destefani began to close the gap between his racer and "Dago Red." However, in the final lap he noticeably dropped back and it appeared that David Price had won the day as he took the coveted checkered flag. Then the announcer stated that there had been pylon cuts. In the end, it was determined that David Price, in spite of flying a magnificent race, had cut pylon outer six during the fifth lap which resulted in a 16 second penalty (two seconds per lap). The penalty allowed Bill "Tiger" Destefani and the entire "Strega" racing team to successfully defend their unlimited gold crown with a final speed of 467.948 mph.

Dago Red
"Dago Red" crossed the finish line first,
but came in second due to a pylon cut.

After the race "Tiger" was asked why he throttled back during the final lap? He responded with, "you have to remember I had a front row seat and I saw him cut the pylon. I just wanted to be close enough to win the race."

"Strega" getting ready for the Gold race.