AVweb's Expanded Reno Coverage

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

    • A
    • A
    • A

Images From The Pits, And The Unlimited Upset!

AVweb's Expanded Reno Coverage (by 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, Sharp 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 350-mph barrier. John Parker’s Thunder Mustang, Blue Thunder, qualified at 349.507, and ran a reported 354 in the heat race Thursday. Parker, 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. Behel 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 291 mph, to Lee’s 312, but as Behel said, "You won’t find two more closely matched planes out here." Unlike the hyper race planes in front of Behel (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 Greenamyer 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 Chiavetta's hand. Inside the cowl, there is a special plenum box, too. Chiavetta’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 60-hp 2si (the brand name) 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, Mathews' two-stroke didn’t work, and Mathews, 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 304 mph. The Zivko Edge 540 was represented twice at Reno: once by 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.

Unlimited, Last Week

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 1 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," Holm said, "with maybe 8 or 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, Utah, Holm 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. Holm 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, Holm had another event. He blew a tire on landing, and "I put a wheel off" the runway, Holm 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 20 mph 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.

Sunday's Unlimited Racing -- And the Big Upset

Dago Red was first across the line at the Reno Air Races, but pilot Skip Holm didn’t win. He cut pylon #4 early in the race, and the 16-second penalty was too much to overcome, even if he knew he had cut it (a fact which is not known at press time).

That meant that Rare Bear, with John Penney at the controls, was the winner. In fact, if Mike Brown (September Fury) had been two seconds quicker, Holm would be have finished third.

Holm and Penney led the whole race, and Brown was by himself, alone in third. As the eight laps unwound, the quick pair were never more than two seconds apart, and they ran away from September Fury, which itself was pulling away from the smallest Unlimited in the race, Czech Mate. Just a second behind the little Yak was two-time winner Dreadnought, a huge Sea Fury. Nelson Ezell, in his Sea Fury, led three Mustangs: Brent Hisey’s Miss America, Curt Brown’s Voodoo, and Daniel Martin’s Ridge Runner III, which was never in the chase, and was lapped on the third lap, and twice more. The first five machines were so fast that they all lapped the back four.

Rare Bear, with six wins, is now tied for overall wins in Unlimited, with Dago Red, which first won in 1982, and Strega, which won in 1987 and five times in the 1990s.


Biplanes are historically the 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 200 mph 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.

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 250 mph, 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 Dexedrine, 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.


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.

Red Bull

Something that has never been seen in the U.S. 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-foot-tall inflated gates (some are knife-edge!), and a touch-and-go on a 7-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 U.S. 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]?" Chambliss replied, "It’s just like hitting wax paper – just ‘WUMP!’ and you’re through it."

Goulian 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." Chambliss 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 7-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 David Martin, would sit this one out.

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

Race Results: Because of filing deadlines, not all of Sunday’s final results were not available. They can all be found at www.airrace.org