Reno 2002 – Air Racing at Its Best

The week in Reno was filled with all that makes an air race great: competition, cooperation, excitement and sorrow. There were some expected winners, and some very unexpected losers. But the story is much more than "who won the gold" and "who didn't even start," and AVweb's Matt Paxton tells us that story.


It was as though the air racing gods decided to make up for last year’s cancellation of the Reno Air Races by jamming as much into the 2002 race week as possible. Race fans saw records set in qualifying, favorites and front-runners knocked out in every imaginable way, new faces among the top Unlimiteds, and some great head-to-head racing. And this doesn’t cover the Hughes H-1 record flight, the Apollo astronauts and a great lineup of air-show performers. Even the weather cooperated, with beautiful skies and warm temperatures all week.

Reno Air Race Association (RARA) officials were optimistic about attendance. RARA Chairman Joey Scolari was quoted in the Reno Gazette-Journal as estimating the Thursday crowd to be double that normal for the first day of racing. Officials hope for a total attendance figure of over 200,000.

Monday — Qualifying

The character of the week was determined well before the first race on Thursday. Qualifying started on Monday. Record qualifying speeds were recorded in both the Biplane and Sport classes: David Rose, Biplane Gold winner in 1999 and 2000, qualified in Biplane at 226.919 mph, and Darryl Greenamyer, seven-time Unlimited Gold champion, flew his Lancair to 347.774 mph to qualify at the top of the Sport class.

Skip Holm in Dago Red blistered the Unlimited course with a speed of 497.787 mph. Bill "Tiger" Destefani flew Strega to the second-fastest speed of 486 mph. September Fury, with Mike Brown flying, qualified third at 468 mph, and Stu Eberhardt took fourth in Merlin’s Magic, flying at 434 mph. Rounding out the top ten qualifiers were Matt Jackson in Voodoo, Stewart Dawson in Spirit of Texas, Art Vance and Furias, Hoot Gibson in Riff Raff, Bill Rheinschild and Risky Business, and tenth in qualifying, Brian Sanders in the Sea Fury Argonaut. Interestingly, of the top ten qualifiers, five were Mustangs and five were Sea Furies.

This list of ten doesn’t have a lot of familiar names in it. As often happens, the fortunes of racing determine much of the final outcome. This was true in spades during the three days of qualifying. Many of the best-known racers were knocked out or set back, including Rare Bear, Critical Mass, Czech Mate, Strega, and Miss America.

On Monday, Tom Dwelle was taxiing Critical Mass, the highly modified Sea Fury, back after a flight, when the landing gear collapsed. The prop was trashed and the engine would need a full teardown for inspection. Scratch Critical Mass.

Also on Monday, Sherman Smoot in Czech Mate suffered a runaway prop. The engine over-sped to more than 5,000 rpm, and it was finished until it could be torn down for a look-see. Strike Czech Mate.

Tuesday — Sharing

(click photos for larger views)
Damage to Strega
Onlookers Examine Damage to Strega

Tuesday, Tiger Destefani flew Strega to the second-fastest qualifying time, but as he was completing his run, his engine backfired and blew parts of the bottom cowl and the induction system off the airplane. Tiger got the Mustang on the ground, but it didn’t look good for the Strega team. Enter the famed Reno tradition of teams helping competing teams. Dan Martin, who is not running Ridge Runner at Reno this year, offered to lend Destefani the parts needed for the induction system. There was a fit problem, and Martin ended up lending all or most of a Merlin race engine. The Strega team took parts of their engine and used parts of Martin’s engine, and actually got Strega back together by Friday. More on Strega later.

Wednesday — Repairing

On Wednesday, the most serious incident in qualifying occurred when Miss America’s engine blew on its qualifying run. Fans saw smoke and fire stream from the stricken Mustang as it came down the "Valley of Speed" between pylons six and seven. Brent Hisey pulled it up, got the gear down and set up to land on Runway 32. Unfortunately, he touched down with one main wheel on the pavement and one in the dirt. A ditch caught the wheel off the runway, and Miss A spun around on her belly, careened backward and up over some bumps and came to rest a wreck. Hisey was able to walk away. Miss America’s crew says she will fly again, but it will take a long time and a lot of dollars to bring her back.

Air Race fans have excitedly watched Lyle Shelton and his team try to bring Rare Bear back to racing form over the past months. Early this week, they had the engine running. Checks of the screens showed no traces of metal, and it looked like the modified Bearcat might be able to qualify before the Wednesday deadline. But then it suffered double alternator failures and missed the cutoff for qualifying. One of the team members commented, "If we only had two more days …" Even if the alternator problem had been sorted out, the engine had only been run about an hour on the ground, the airplane itself has not been flown in several years, and the team just ran out of time.

Thursday — Racing

Four L-39 Jets Abeam
Jet-Race Start

Racing began in earnest under clear, blue skies on Thursday. Fans saw some great racing with few problems for the racers. Thursday’s races started the process of determining who gets into that all-important Gold bracket in the various categories. Just moving up from Bronze to Silver or Silver to Gold means a big increase in the size of the purse at the conclusion of racing.

Fans saw the first jet race on Thursday. Mary Dilda, flying Heartless, nosed out Curt Brown and Lee Behel in a tight race. Fans have taken to jet racing at Reno in a big way. The use of the L-39, which looks great in the air and flies at a speed that allows for exciting racing but still keeps the airplanes on the course, and some familiar names in air racing, all have made jet racing a success.

The top Unlimited qualifiers had a bye on Thursday, and took the day to clean plugs and check under the hood of the airplanes.

Friday — Mourning

Friday, early-rising fans were treated to the sight of Jim Wright’s beautiful Hughes H-1 Racer replica flying to a new C-1.D class world-speed record of 304 mph. The polished-metal fuselage and vertical tail, plus royal blue wings, were spectacular in the morning desert light.

Friday, the racing got down to business. Ike Enns in Miracle Maker won the Unlimited Bronze heat, which saw Dan Martin flying a different P-51 from his usual mount, Ridge Runner. Martin was piloting Flying Dutchman, a fairly stock airplane. Bill Rheinschild’s Risky Business beat Art Vance in the R-4360-powered Sea Fury Furias in the Silver heat. There was talk in the pits that Risky and Furias swapped a little paint at one point, and Risky did take a commanding lead on the back side of the course at one point, after the two had flown nose-to-tail for most of the race.

Questair Passes Center
Sport-Class Glasair

In the Gold heat, Dago Red continued to show why it was the odds-on favorite to repeat as Unlimited Gold champ. Skip Holm flew Dago to an easy win over Mike Brown in September Fury and Matt Jackson aboard Voodoo.

But the upbeat mood at Stead was shattered Friday afternoon when Tommy Rose, flying a Questair Venture, was killed during a Sport-class heat. Rose’s airplane apparently encountered turbulence on the front stretch. The aircraft was seen to porpoise several times and then the Venture lost a portion of the tail. It crashed near the home pylon. In the tradition of racing, the remainder of the races was run, but a moment of silence in Rose’s memory was observed on Saturday before the first Sport-class race.

Ironically, another Venture was written off during the same race as Rose’s crash, after it suffered a landing accident.

Saturday — Challenging

Saturday was another beautiful day, but with increasing winds. Saturday saw the first run of Strega in a race. After scratching from the Gold heat on Friday, because she wasn’t ready with the engine installation, Strega was entered as the last contestant in the Silver heat. Many thought Destefani would just baby the airplane around the course, what with uncertainties about the new engine, but Tiger put the hammer down and swept to victory, beating Furias by almost 12 seconds. That win put Strega in the Unlimited Gold Final, an outcome hardly anyone would have bet on. Strega’s team deserves recognition for the hours of work to get the airplane ready to race competitively.

Saturday’s Gold heat was a repeat of Friday’s, with Dago smoking the field, even lapping Riff Raff. But September Fury stuck with Dago and was only 10 seconds behind at the checkered flag. Voodoo continued to show she has the speed and the will to compete, even though owner Bob Button reportedly said all he wanted was to take home an intact airplane this year. Voodoo’s luck over the past few years has been consistently bad, from engines, to gearboxes, to a frightening control-system failure. The race for fourth place actually was the most interesting. Merlin’s Magic, with Stu Eberhardt flying, jumped out to fourth at the start, but was challenged the entire race by Risky Business. Stewart Dawson in Spirit of Texas also was in the race for fourth, but fell off the pace in the final lap. Riff Raff, with Hoot Gibson aboard, was sixth.

Sunday — Finishing

3 Biplanes Ready for Takeoff
Biplane Le Mans-Type Race Start

Sunday dawned partially overcast and a bit cooler. Because the winds often pick up in the afternoon, the biplane and Formula One races are scheduled early in the day. Sunday, the winds were forecast to be strong by midday, over 15 knots, with higher gusts.

In the Formula One Gold race, which begins from a standing start on the runway, Gary Hubler in his Casutt, Mariah, jumped out to an early lead around the first pylon, and never let up. Hep Porter, flying Ray Cote’s Alley Cat, was never challenged for second but was not able to move up on Hubler. The race was for third place, in the second lap. Charlie Greer in Miss B Haven dueled Scotty Crandlemire, but eventually pulled ahead and took third.

The biplanes also use a Le Mans-type start. Record qualifier David Rose cruised to an easy win, setting a new biplane-class record at over 225 mph. Norman Way’s Pitts S-1S was second and Stephen Brown third in Tonopah Low.

Randy Bailey won the Unlimited Bronze going away in September Pops. Here again, the race was for finishing spots. Jimmy Leeward flying Cloud Dancer and Dan Martin in Flying Dutchman flew wing-to-wing until the last lap, when Leeward pulled away for second.

The first Jet Gold race was won by Curt Brown, who ran well all week. He was second in the Thursday jet heat and won the heats on Friday and Saturday. Mary Dilda was in the top three in every heat, winning the Thursday race. She was second to Brown in the final. Skip Holm was third. It will be interesting to see what fan reaction to jet racing will be. For some, it may appear too effortless — and too quiet!

Unlimiteds: A Sea Fury Chased By A P-51

Tom Campau, who has challenged for the T-6 Gold for the past few years, knocked Nick Macy in Six Cat for the T-6 Gold. Macy won in 1999 and 2000. Alfred Gross was third in Warlock.

The Sport-class Gold was never much of a race. Darryl Greenamyer, who dominated the class all week, won going away, lapping some of the slower contestants. John Parker took second, and Dave Morss, who won the Sport Gold every year it has been run since 1998, was dethroned to third.

In the Unlimited Silver Final, Art Vance in Furias led from the start. Argonaut, with Dennis Sanders, was second, and Precious Metal, the Griffon-powered Mustang, took third. But wait! In a race notable for seven pylon cuts, the official order of finish ended up being Joe Thibodeau in his Sea Fury, followed by Dennis Sanders in Argonaut, with Vance and Furias bumped down to third.

Unlimited Gold — Punctuating

Skip Holm and Dago Red (47 Kb)
Skip Holm Signs Autographs in Front of Dago Red

When it was time for the Unlimited Gold Final, the wind was howling out of the south. Dust clouds obscured the racecourse. Hats, paper, cups, seat cushions, and all sorts of debris blew out of the stands and the pits across the ramp.

The field, in order, consisted of Dago Red, September Fury, Voodoo, Merlin’s Magic, Risky Business, Spirit of Texas, Riff Raff, and Strega. At the time the racers taxied out for takeoff, the wind was reported at 26 knots, gusting to 31, out of the southwest.

Going down the chute and onto the course, Dago jumped out to the lead, followed by September Fury and Voodoo. The blowing dust made the racers hard to see on the back of the course, but when they came past the home pylon to start the first lap, Strega had moved up quickly to third place. It was too good to last for the long-suffering Strega team. Just past pylon 3, Tiger Destefani pulled up and declared a mayday. He landed safely.

By the second lap of the eight, the order was established, and would hold through the race. Dago was out front and opening its lead, Mike Brown in September Fury held onto second, and Voodoo was third. Risky Business was fourth, followed closely by Merlin’s Magic. Spirit of Texas and Riff Raff followed. Skip Holm kept the throttle open wide on Dago, and lapped the slowest contestants.

Dago Red won its fourth consecutive Unlimited Gold Final, and its fifth overall. But, in what might be a portent of things to come, as the racers were taxiing out for takeoff, Rare Bear was towed out and, in a cloud of blue smoke, cranked its R-3350 over for a test run. Maybe next year, fans will be treated to head-to-head racing between Rare Bear, Dago Red, and Strega.