Reno, 2004

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RENO 2004 Editorial Coverage And Extended Image Galleries (by AVweb contributing writer, Tim Kern)

People who haven’t been there ask what the Reno Air Races are like. They’re unique; they’re not ‘like’ anything else – but to compare, say, Oshkosh to Reno, you might think of the relationship between the Detroit Auto Show and the Indianapolis 500. If that doesn’t help, just come to the races, and you’ll understand.

Sport Class

The drama this year was heightened by the first public appearance of the Nemesis NXT, perennial Formula One winner Jon Sharp’s brainchild, a kitplane designed to race in the Sport Class. Unfortunately, Jon didn’t even try to go fast in the first qualifying (yet posting a third-best 324 mph), so we won’t know how fast he can go, because he had a minor gear failure on landing, and skidded to a sickening halt at the end of the session.

"I expected to see the gear legs out on the desert when I climbed out of the plane," the unhurt Sharp told me, "but when they lifted the airplane up, the first thing somebody said was that both gear were in the wells. I said, "YES!’"

The Nemesis NXT, with its twin-turbo Lycoming 540 putting out a reported (and believable) 600 hp, went back to the paddock, where it will be repaired, and flown home, in about two weeks. The original special scimitar Hartzell prop won’t fly again, but Sharp says the prop-maker has him taken care of. Obvious damage was to the port wingtip, oil cooler, and prop. Lycoming and Sharp’s team changed the engine, and the original is on its way back to Williamsport for a look-see. A Lycoming engineer said it will never race again, "but we will run it a lot, probably in the [test] cell."

The fastest Sport Class plane to date came out of forced retirement on Wednesday and broke the 350mph barrier. John Parker’s Thunder Mustang, Blue Thunder, qualified at 349.507, and ran a reported 354 in the heat race Thursday. John, who didn’t fly last year due to a ban (now resolved), was happy to show off his gorgeous V-12 machine, and to beat Darryl Greenamyer, last year’s class winner, in his first heat. Greenamyer had a problem in the heat, though, even as he was (some said) catching the screaming Thunder Mustang. "Prop governor went away," the master told me, shortly after he landed his snarling Lancair.

On Friday, supercharger guru Rick Schrameck loaned Greenamyer’s team the prop from his own airplane, and Darryl used it to blow past Parker, registering one unofficial lap at 363 mph. Parker, for his part, had three gallons of oil outside, and only something over five inside. "We lost oil out of a plug on the PSRU," he revealed. He expected to have everything cleaned up and shipshape by race time. "We’re going to do some more forensics, but we’re not too shabby."

Making things interesting on the normally-aspirated side of Sport Class were the friendliest of deadly rivals, Lee Behel and Mike Jones. Lee flies a Lancair Legacy with a Continental 550; Mike’s Glasair has Lycoming factory support for his 580. Jones got stuck in traffic in qualifying, and posted a disappointing 291mph, to Lee’s 312, but as Lee said, "You won’t find two more closely-matched planes out here." Unlike the hyper race planes in front of Lee (Parker, Greenamyer and Sharp), he points out that his and Jones’s planes are closer to ‘real-world’ airplanes. A look at their scimitar-blade Hartzells, though, shows that both pilots are looking for speed – and they’re finding it.

Behel’s plane reveals many non-stock tricks, too, just like on Darryl’s plane. "Look here," Andy Chiavetta (of Aero Chia) said, pointing near Lee’s exhaust tips. The floor of the cockpit had been modified to accommodate Aero Chia’s carbon cowl flaps. Further inspection of the cowl revealed a bigger than normal spinner with smaller "and more efficient" inlets, products of Andy’s hand. Inside the cowl, there is a special plenum box, too. Andy’s set of speed mods could go on just about anybody’s Lancair, but he hasn’t yet figured out how much to charge for them.

‘Most innovative’ award in the class has to go to the quick White Lightning of Will Mathews, who won Silver in 2002 and sat out 2003 while he was getting a new liver. This machine is the only ‘twin-engine’ entry in the Sport Class. In the back seat area, Mathews has installed a 60hp 2si two-stroke engine, just to run the supercharger. It’s unusual ("and it’s really noisy in there," Will told me), but effective.

It pays to have experience with the rules. On Saturday, Will’s two-stroke didn’t work, and Will, thinking any finish in his heat race was better than a DNF, ran very slowly. So slowly that he lost his spot in the Silver race. (Had he DNF’d, his old time would have qualified him, and he would have raced Sunday.)

Going really fast, quietly, was Craig Sherman’s Glasair III, who qualified at nearly 304mph. The Zivko Edge 540 was represented twice at Reno: once bu aerobatic champion (and Red Bull series racer) Kirby Chambliss, and in the Sport Class by Roger Claypool, who ran his Brain Damage at 280.231, not bad for a "stunt plane." Two Swearingen SX300s went plenty fast, too – and a Reno is likely the only time you’ll see two of these still-advanced birds together.

In the Gold race Sunday, it was Greenamyer and Parker swapping air, with Darryl out in front at the end. He won with an average speed of 333.876mph, 2.2 seconds in front of Blue Thunder. "I was giving it… lots," Greenamyer said, after he was asked if he had anything in reserve. Bruce Bohannon was near the winner’s pit after the race, and he heard the Continental was pulling over 60 inches’ manifold pressure. Bruce opined that the Lancair was making better than 600 hp. That seems reasonable, too, as John Parker’s Falconer V-12 in the Thunder Mustang makes a reported 640.


The T-6 class, the tightest racing at Reno, offered the usual close racing and qualifying, while providing loud radial flavor and acres of shiny sheetmetal. Warbird lovers, radial lovers, and those who just enjoy great big machines can’t get enough of these old birds, which, at age 60 and over, promise to entertain for another 60 years.

Alfred Goss of Bakersfield (CA) went fast all week in Warlock, qualifying at the top with 238+ mph. Mary Dilda’s Two of Hearts qualified just a second (and 3 mph) behind. All week, this tight bunch of racers sweated the details, with the Gold heat’s grid featuring… Alfred Goss and Mary Dilda up front, half a second apart, half a mile an hour either side of 239. The excitement in this class comes from the camaraderie of the pilots and crews, the heritage of the machines, and the close, close competition, rather from technical breakthroughs.

In the Gold race, Mary Dilda, all week a tick off the mark but promising to make a race of it, made good on that promise. The crowds were, um, agog at how she nipped at Warlock’s tail. She finished exactly 2 seconds behind, as Goss averaged 238.079mph.


The two top guns in Unlimited, Skip Holm in Dago Red and John Penney in Rare Bear, again took the top two qualifying spots, with Skip less than one mph faster, at nearly 491 mph. Penney took Lyle Shelton’s Bear back to the hangar for… something. It wasn’t in evidence in the paddock. Holm, too, had his share of problems. "On August 20, Skip said," with maybe 8 _ , 9 hours on the engine, we had a look at the fuel filters. One was clean, one was filled with metal – bronze, from the main bearings. It needed a new crank, and all the rest – crankcase, blower – had to be cleaned." After that, going into Provo (UT), Skip had an engine failure while there happened to be an airplane that had ground-looped stuck on the runway, with more airplanes waiting to take off. Skip had to look for an alternate, fast.

"It doesn’t coast very good," he revealed. "I had to use all my concentration to get over this dike." It was close: "I dove at the dike and then put the flaps in and pulled the scoop up. I just got over that dike and got the tailwheel down, then the mains. I got into the gravel, and it peppered the outside of the airplane." (Dago Red sported numerous patches, nearly invisible from a few feet away, that testified to a rough summer.)

Then, flying an F-100 to Reno for exhibition, Skip had another event. He blew a tire on landing, and "I put a wheel off" the runway, Skip said. It had been a rough month for the reigning champ. "I’m all dirt-ed out," he said, and looked forward to greeting the throngs of Young Eagles that he invites to every appearance.

Penney’s problem turned out, after many hours of head-scratching, to have been a supercharger that committed suicide. Once that was diagnosed, the Bear’s 3350 inch engine was cleaned out, the supercharger was replaced, and the crowd favorite was ready to race, for a whole day. On Friday, the team replaced the #9 cylinder, which had demonstrated a leaky exhaust valve. One team member noted that, "Still, we’re in much better shape than last year," when the Bear qualified first and finished second in the Gold.

Stewart Dawson, flying his Sea Fury, Spirit of Texas, had a loose valve guide on Friday. "I was smoking a little out of the right side of the engine," he said. He elected not to start in his heat, and so was bumped from the Silver to the back of the Bronze heat. In order to get back into Silver, he had to win his Bronze heat, from the back; and he did it. His speed in that race made him third-fastest in Silver (where the rules still make him start from the back). If he were to win the Silver, he would have the option to abandon his Silver placing (and title, and prize money) to get into the Gold race (where he would start – you guessed it – from the back). [When he won the Bronze, he was automatically bumped; if he were to win Silver, he would have the option.]

Also having exhaust valve trouble was Dreadnought, twice-champion in the 80s, back and ready, albeit some 20mph slower than in her prime. Chuck Cabe, legendary wiring guy, is the crew chief. "We had a little piece of, probably the spark plug, break off and get stuck between the exhaust valve and valve seat." After a cylinder change early in the week, Dreadnought ran like a clock. A very big, very noisy clock, that is ready to capitalize on any mistakes in the very front.

Sherman Smoot, flying the (for sale) Yak-11, Czech Mate, qualified fourth and ran over 440 all week. His strategy for the race? "Just run the best power setting, and fly the best course I can… and stay out of the bad air." Czech Mate is the smallest airplane in the Gold field, but it’s pretty trouble-free, running a "tiny" 2800 up front. "I don’t look at the engine instruments much" during the race, Smoot admitted. "It doesn’t do much good; they’re all up there," close to the red zone.

The Unlimited race was moved up an hour because of threatening skies. As they took off, there was decent visibility and a light drizzle; and it was cold. Rare Bear, with its aircooled radial, stood to benefit from the frigid air more than the watercooled Mustangs. Skip told a radio interviewer before the race, "If anybody out there thinks Rare Bear isn’t the fastest airplane in this race, they need to do some more thinking."

When the race started, Skip and Dago Red pulled out in front, by almost nothing. John Penney, in Rare Bear, stuck right on him, and Mike Brown, in September Fury (a Hawker Sea Fury) kept pace with the two, for a few laps. The front two pulled away, and started lapping backmarker Daniel Martin (who had to change to a stock engine the night before the race) on lap 3.

On the radios, though, the drama was intense. John Penney’s voice came over the freq, saying, "Dago cut a pylon! Dago cut!" Sure enough, Skip, who never puts a wingtip wrong, had done it. That’s a 2-second penalty… times the number of laps in the race: 16 seconds. Penney stayed right on Dago to the end, crossing the line about 1 _ seconds behind. That was well within the 16-second penalty, and Rare Bear joined Strega and Dago Red as a six-time winner of Unlimited Gold.

At dinner after the race, Skip told me, "I just couldn’t see." The changed start (Skip was all set to go race a jet when they changed the order. He had to get into Dago Red in just minutes, and he fogged up the canopy.) The 60-year-old P-51 doesn’t have a defroster, and Skip was flying low, at 500 mph, with nobody to show the way (Skip had qualified fastest, and was automatically in the lead at the start), trying to find ground references to get a fix on the pylon. He missed it by a lot. How much? He told me, "Probably the length of this hangar – 300 feet or so." He didn’t know that he had missed it, immediately, but he figured he did. On the other hand, there was no way he was going to open up 16 seconds on Penney and Rare Bear. I still couldn’t see great for the first few laps," he said. "Finally, about halfway through the race, I had wiped enough canopy to see most of what I needed." By then, he was lapping airplanes. He eventually lapped four of his eight competitors. Sixteen seconds is a lot. If Mike Brown had been two seconds faster over the eight laps, Dago Red would have finished third.)

It was great to see Miss America and ‘Doc’ Hisey back in the Gold race. Hisey’s essentially brand new Mustang (he had a terrible accident at Reno 02, and was just able to make it into the air last year) was all in its beautiful paint job as it won the Silver heat (at 417.161mph), and he opted to forego his Silver win (and money, and trophy) for a run in the Gold. No, he wasn’t fast enough for John and Skip, but he did edge Voodoo and Martin’s Ridge Runner III, to stay out of the Gold-lined cellar.


Biplanes are historically he slowest class at Reno, but that changed this year, as Tom Aberle, who didn’t race his Phantom last year after qualifying fastest (due to a propeller problem), again qualified fastest in 2004, running over 241 mph. Noting that the fastest T-6 (Alfred Goss in Warlock) went just over 238, Aberle, a former biplane champ, said, "Well, now the T-6s are the slowest class at Reno. We’re even faster than all but four of the Formula Ones. We’re 20 mph faster than last year."

Lining up for Saturday’s race, David Rose (Rose won last year, and was second-fastest qualifier this year) commented on the cold temps and high winds. "It’s a bit chilly." A fan nearby said, "That should be good for four more horsepower." Rose, heading for his airplane, responded, "I’ll need a lot more than that."

Tom attributes that speed increase to two main changes: he sawed off the exhaust pipes ("We had ten-inch stacks last year. They weren’t tuned anyway, so why have them out in the air?"), and he has a new, three-blade prop. "Paul Lipps offered me two props to try, provided we’d give back good performance parameters. Then he’d build one, optimized for the machine. I fed him the data, and in a week and a half, he had a design." Paul, who cruises over 200mph in his stock-engine Lancair 235, has some unusual prop design ideas, but they seem to work for him, and for Aberle. "Last year," Tom said, "we were turning 3550 rpm, and went twenty mph slower. Now, we’re turning just 3300. Once the wheels are off the ground, it’s like a slingshot."

Both David Rose’s crew and Aberle agreed that they would have to pass Norm Way. "He’s got the hole shot," one crewman said. The ‘tall gearing’ on the really fast bipes does cut their takeoff and climb performance a bit, but there is a lot of horsepower, too. Aberle operates out of a 2165 foot strip, "…and I’m not using half the runway," he said.

In a windy Saturday morning heat, Norm had that hole shot, and it helped him. "I was dealing with my canopy [it had come loose just after takeoff], and I didn’t know where I was," Norm said to David Rose, "so I just followed you." Rose, naturally, was happy to lead, but neither man could catch Tom Aberle and Phantom.

Rich Beardsley, who made a dramatic pass in his Rich’s Brew to win his first heat race, and also won his second, commented on Aberle’s so strange, so fast machine: "It’s magic, that’s all," he explained. (Note: Aberle’s machine may be ‘magic,’ but Norm Way’s is Magic.) [When Beardsley tried his come-from-behind trick in the Bronze race for the third time in a week, though, it didn’t work; he finished 1/6 of a second behind Cark Gruber’s Eightball.]

In the Gold, Aberle just smoked the field, finishing about 24 seconds ahead of David Rose, with Norm Way another 21 seconds back. Speed difference was huge: 238, 219, and 206 (rounded), respectively.

Aberle showed up at the awards banquet in a white coat and patent leather shoes. The former Formula One champ was ready for this. David Rose is now working on an Unlimited of his own. He’s going faster than Aberle next year, no matter what it takes!

Formula One

The smallest and least-expensive machines at Reno present the smallest cockpits, smallest (O-200) engines, and some of the closest racing at the event. With the fastest machines’ lapping over 250mph, they scoot, too. Last year, Steve Dari (former Tomcat pilot and Pitts driver) ran one for the first time. He said "It’s like a squirrel on dexadrine, that you set on fire." Steve was flying a biplane in 2004, as his formula ship is getting some mods.

So, they’re little, fast, and exciting. This year, Gary Hubler and Mariah topped the qualifying at 255.380, with Scotty Crandlemire and Outrageous right behind, at 250. Charlie Greer (Miss B Haven) was the other plane to watch, just a tick off that pace, at 248.737. Formula One and the T-6s are arguably the tightest groups at Reno, sharing parts, tools, advice (good and bad!) and stories, and their heritage is legend. Close as they are, though, in the paddock, when they start the race, the competition is intense.

Saturday morning’s final heat saw these three good friends finish as they started, but Charlie had cut a pylon, so the penalty dropped him to fifth place to start the trophy race.

Gary Hubler, to absolutely no one’s surprise, took Mariah out to a 13-second win. Scotty Crandlemire’s Outrageous was a solid second; then third place was the tightest match of the day, with Jason Somes trick move putting him in front of favored Birch Entriken and Charlie Greer. The three planes finished a total of eight tenths of a second apart.

Jason told me, "I saw Birch and Charlie battling for third, and they made an opening, and I just went through." Greer corroborated that: "Birch went past me, and I was looking to get back, and I didn’t see Jason. He went right by us both. Next year…"

Then Somes, who had never run a biplane before this year, went out and won the Silver.


The L-39 Albatros field perked up considerably from last year’s unexciting four-bird group, as ten entries qualified this year, all of them at over 400 mph. Astronaut (and Unlimited class Voodoo) pilot Curt Brown smoked the field in qualifying, at 452.622 mph, with Lancair (Sport Class) and Yak (Unlimited) driver, test pilot Dave Morss second, and Skip Holm (current Unlimited champ, in Dago Red) right behind. San Jose-based land developer Sal Rubino was next, followed by Lancair guy, Porsche dealer Lee Behel; John Bagley (who owns and races the former Bob Hoover P-51, Ole Yeller) was just ahead of fast-pedaling Rick Vandam, Space Shuttle commander Robert "Hoot" Gibson, attorney Cliff Magee, and last year’s winner and T-6 star (Two of Hearts), Mary Dilda.

History doesn’t repeat itself in this class, though. Mary, fierce competitor that she is, qualified last and finished last in her heat. She didn’t make the race on Sunday.

The formerly small and (dare I say it?) uninteresting race of last did not v(emphatically NOT) repeat itself. Nine jets went out, with two astronauts, test pilots, military pilots, and Skip Holm in their cockpits.

Curt Brown took his fastest-in-class Albatros to an early lead, which he never relinquished, and land developer Sal Rubino stayed just two seconds back. After a 12-second gap, test pilot (and former Sport Gold champ) Dave Morss led John Bagley (who was also piloting crowd favorite Ole Yeller in Unlimited – that was Bob Hoover’s plane, remember?) , who beat Skip Holm and the most-luxurious plane in the field (leather, power seats, DVD, and Wild Child models, anyone?). Half a second off Skip’s tail was last year’s second-place Sport Gold finisher, the fast-pedaling Rick Vandam. Two more seconds say astronaut Hoot Gibson (also pilot of Unlimited Riff Raff), then Cliff Magee and Sport Class guy Lee Behel.

Red Bull

Something that has never been seen in the US happened at Reno: the Red Bull Air Races. This is a concept developed by Hungarian aerobatic ace Peter Besenyei, infamous for (among other things) flying inverted under Budapest’s famed Chain Bridge. The course consists of three laps around a tight course, close to the crowds. Aerobatic pilots perform different maneuvers on each lap, maneuvers that include vertical rolls, passes through 60’ tall inflated gates (some are knife-edge!), and a touch-and-go on a seven-foot chalk stripe, all against the clock! Fastest wins.

The Red Bull Air Race is invitation only, and the cast is top-drawer, including Kirby Chambliss and Mike Goulian from the US. When I talked about this concept with Besenyei, I admitted that "I still think you guys are crazy." He replied, "Yeah, we are," and added, "but we’re safe."

I heard Michael Goulian, who had never done this before, ask Edge 540 pilot Kirby Chambliss, who has won the first two events (held in the UK and in Hungary), "What’s it like to hit one [a pylon]?" Kirby replied, "It’s just like hitting wax paper – just ‘WUMP!’ and you’re through it."

Mike wasn’t sure. "Do they make a funny sound? I thought I got one – there was just this funny sound – then the next time through, I heard it again." Kirby calmed him down. "You were probably just getting close," he said.

Every course (there were three events in this inaugural year; Reno is the final venue) is different, and incorporates different trials. At Reno, the pilots fly through a set of pylon gates, each of three laps having something different to do. There are straight pylon passes, knife-edge; there are vertical rolls and point rolls, and a touch-and-go, on a seven-foot chalk stripe.

Some of the hand-picked pilots had never flown this type of event; others had, but the newbies learned fast. By the time Sundays "championship" race field was set, only Peter Besenyei was not from Camp USA. British champs Paul Bonhomme and Steve Jones, and American champ David Martin, would sit this one out.

Mike Mangold, exploiting his higher-horsepower Edge 540, was top qualifier, nearly nine seconds quicker than deadlocked Kirby and Peter; and Mike Goulian was nine seconds back, in his CAP 232.

Mangold won it over Kirby, Mike, and Peter Besenyei. Besides the higher horsepower, Mike said, he suspected his Hartzell prop was a better screw for racing the Reno air than Kirby’s M-T.

"It was unbelievable out there," said Mangold, 46, a former U.S. Air Force fighter jet pilot and current U.S. Aerobatic Team member. "Maximum speed, maximum G-forces, tough obstacles -- I’m just glad I got through it. It’s the best two minutes in air racing."

Who else was there? Sue Putnam, the races’ Manager of Public Relations, said that it was too early to get a good grip on the attendance figures, but she thought that the estimated 200,000 plus who came out this week were sure to come back – they really got their money’s worth. "It’s not as good as our record in 2002," she said, "but it’s right up there, and considering the weather, it’s fantastic."

All the results can be found at