Crewing at Reno

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A window into air racing.

If you've never wandered the pits at the Reno Air Races, you're missing out. I've crewed twice (crewing gets you a pit pass)—once in Formula One and again in Sport Class—and can't imagine going to Reno without a pit pass. There are so many amazing people, conversations, and airplanes. While you could simply purchase a pit pass at the box office, why not get directly involved? If you've ever wondered what it's like to crew, here's the answer straight from the teams themselves.

Getting Started

First off, let's be honest: you are unlikely to land a spot on an Unlimited or Jet Class team. Those crews are generally specialists who work on the airplanes year round. And the T-6 class doesn't allow a lot of modifications, so crew there are mostly polishing the plane between races. Instead, the best place to head is the hangars at the west end of the field housing the Formula One (F1), Biplane and Sport class airplanes. Depending on the time of day, teams and their planes are generally accessible to visitors. The first step is to just strike up a conversation. Perennial winner of biplane gold, Phantom builder and pilot Tom Aberle says, "Make friends first. That's what it amounts to, at least for us."

Andy Chiavetta, veteran Reno builder/mechanic for Darryl Greenamyer's Race 33 and other Sport class elite machines, says getting the average guy participating is what Sport class is all about: "That's the reason Lee [Behel] made the Sport class—to get people involved in racing with a minimal amount of effort."

Tom Aberle and crew busy on perennial biplane winner Phantom.

What's Involved?

Depending on the team and class, crewing can involve work during, immediately before and after the races, as well as during the off season. At one extreme, "A lot of stock sport planes show up, put fuel in the airplane, don't uncowl it, and race all week," says Chiavetta. At the other, most of the Formula One airplanes require significantly more time from their crew. "F1 is more involved­—those are unique airplanes. Some of them are just bare-bones Cassutts, but some are unique and modified. I would think Formula One is more involved than 80% of the Sport class," adds Chiavetta.

Part of this is because most F1s are trailered to Reno and are flown little, if at all, in the off-season. So the assembly and prep of F1s at Reno can almost resemble a combined condition inspection and impromptu speed-mods fabrication session. The F1 teams therefore tend to have larger, more experienced crews. As Ernie Butcher, a crew member of Mark Frederick's El Toro team pointed out, "The root of Reno air racing is in Formula One. It's budget racing. In every one of their pit areas, they've got every tool from their shop. The cowl is off of virtually every airplane all the time. That mostly goes away with the other classes because most of them are certified airplanes or daily drivers."

Last Lap Player owner and crew chief Creighton King hard at work changing out his Twisted Composites race prop for a Catto ferry prop.

Biplanes are similar to Sport class in that, as Butcher points out, most are certified and/or regularly flown and maintained, and don't get much more than speed tape and a wax job.

(Aberle's aircraft is unique in that from a crew point of view, it more closely resembles an F1: "Our process is a bit more arduous than most of the others in the Biplane class in that we trailer the aircraft. It has to be disassembled to go on the trailer, reassembled at Reno, and then vice versa on the way home. I come up ten days in advance with at least one crew, and other crew show up on Friday before the races.")

Off-season crew work can be a great place to gain building experience. For example, Lancair owners might purchase one of Chiavetta's speed mod kits, or do light engine mods such as ram air induction or electrical ignition. In this scenario, it's obviously best to find a team that's close to where you live. That's exactly what five-time F1 champion Steve Senegal did: "The way I got started in F1 was back in 2000 when someone at my local EAA chapter bought a Cassutt. They were getting ready to race it again after several years in storage. So I helped out on that crew, going over a couple times a week to help sand and do other 'grunt work'. I was building an RV, but I didn't have much expertise. I went to Reno and helped out that year and the following year, and ended up deciding I wanted to race myself."

Formula One, Biplane and Sport class aircraft are towed out to their races. Having a crew pass lets you accompany the plane and pilot past the spectator line to the starting area.

Creighton King, owner and crew chief of Last Lap Player, also got his start crewing. "My first F1 race I crewed for Jay Jones. First I was waxer and also put on some stickers and speed tape. Then he put me out at the start holding the tail, and then I became the hand-propper. The next year I brought my own airplane. It's a window into racing. I love it."

Wasabi owner Elliot Seguin has been making his way up through the ranks in Formula One. Seguin has ambitious racing goals, and competent crew is important to him. "There are a lot of people who would love to stand in a pit during Saturday and Sunday at Reno. There are fewer people who will want to be there when it's time to load the airplane back on the trailer. And then the people who will pull an all-nighter a week before Reno—they are like gold in your hand," says Seguin.

Elliot Seguin's Wasabi with its cowl off. Note the recently modified and as-yet unpainted landing gear—most F1 racers seem to be works in progress.

Experience Not Always Required

While some teams like Phantom and Endeavor are fully crewed, others like Last Lap Player are happy to take on new help. So what kind of skills are teams looking for? "We've got positions from bug-wipers and tapers to cylinder-changers and prop-torquers," says King. "We want people who are enthusiastic about the sport. We would prefer somebody who's worked on airplanes before, but they don't need to be an A&P—they can just come and enjoy it. We'll do the parts that are important. As the airplane owner, I put a second eye on everything, and then I ask for other people to put a second eye on what I do also. We spent a lot of money to be here, and we don't want to get out there with a loose spark plug wire."

A typical F1 pit scene: Two crew members have the cowl off and are working on the engine. Another mans a table selling team shirts. And of course it's always a good time to practice your crane kick.

Seguin stressed that not only mechanical competency, but good team dynamics are important: "A race team needs the same thing everybody else needs: hours and hours of skilled and engaged labor. It is the most valuable thing a person can offer, and it's the hardest thing to get." But communication is also important: "During race week it can get pretty intense and you need to know the people working with you, so that everybody knows what's going on," added Seguin. As Justin Gillen [one of Seguin's coworkers at Scaled Composites and a key crewmember] says, "It's much more helpful for someone to say 'I see you need X. Would you like me to do that?' than 'What can I do to help?'"

As both King and Seguin point out, although mechanically competent crew are desirable, the most important factor is enthusiasm. In other words, don't let the fact that you've never bucked a rivet stop you from approaching a team. As Drew Seguin, Elliot's father and a Wasabi crewmember points out, "There's always non-technical work to do. I'm willing to do whatever needs to be done. I run to the store, go get spark plugs cleaned, wipe down the belly, sweep the floor, wax the tail, whatever. What I try to do is be there 100 percent for the entire time we're at Reno." For Drew, who's from Michigan where deer-hunting is popular, Reno is "deer camp for gear-heads: a lot of prep, a lot of waiting, moments of excitement, and a bit of time to relax and enjoy the camaraderie."

Winning at Reno gets you a ride on the fire truck. Tom Aberle's team are practically honorary firemen by now.

One thing you'll notice at Reno is that airplanes are constantly getting polished. Of course keeping the plane clean helps aerodynamically, and at such a big event everyone wants to look good, too. It's one of those jobs that just about anyone can do. Father and brother Glyn and Stephen Grove crewed for Karl Grove's DragRacer25 biplane and with no aviation experience, their main job was to clean the airplane after races. So polishing can seem like the job of the low man on the totem pole. But Phantom's Aberle sees it quite differently: "Polishing the airplane is a constant process. That might seem like a mindless task, but it really is not. The best technician to wash the airplane is an A&P mechanic because he is forced to look at each and every square inch of the machine, looking for fractures, damage, and deterioration." That's good to remember if your first tools as a new crew member are a rag and a can of Pledge.

Crew for Vito Wypraechtiger's Scarlet Screamer replace a cowl after engine work.

Super Educational

For Jeff Lange and Mark Hegy, my crewmates for Bob Mills' Sport class Rocket Six, the greatest benefits of crewing are educational. Lange, an A&P, races a highly modified turbo Sonerai that won the Best Design Award at the 2014 Mojave Fly-In. He met Mills at the 2010 AirVenture Cup Race and ended up in Reno as his crew chief. "It's super educational just to be able to walk around. I've got hundreds of pictures of those Formula One planes. When I'm working on my Sonerai, I look at those pictures. It's a huge education just to be out here in these hangars." (You can see the result of Jeff's education at schmleff.blogspot.com)

"This is my first year at Reno and it's absolutely amazing!" said Hegy, Lange's classmate at A&P school. "I've met a lot of incredibly awesome people. The biggest thing is you learn so much from all these people who are the tops of their field. And you can just talk to them like they are average Joes. The races are almost over, but I'm still in shock."

Jeff Lange fabricates a plate to fill the spinner/cowl gap while Mark Hegy checks the oil on Bob Mills' Rocket Six.

If you do decide to crew, realize that it's voluntary. Although you'll probably get a wristband allowing free access to the races and pits, you will be responsible for your food and lodging. Racing is expensive for owners: "Pilots spend more [racing at Reno] than what they get from any winnings," points out Senegal.

When asked if he had any final advice for someone wanting to get involved, El Toro pilot Mark Frederick said, "Be in control of your addictions." Like drinking? I asked. "No," he laughed. "When those airplanes go by and you discover that your guts are an auditory reception device, you'll realize how addicting racing can be. You'll be coming back."

This article originially appeared in the June 2015 issue of Kitplanes magazine.

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