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Wed, Sep 25, 2013

Who Do Voodoo? You Do!

Why Every Aviator Needs To Make It To The Reno Air Races

By Maria Morrison

"Gentlemen, start your engines". R.A. "Bob" Hoover, calls out. It's Sunday afternoon at the Reno Air Races, and the Unlimited Gold Race is about to start. Seven racing engines rumble to life, belching out gray oil smoke. The lineup consists of P-51 Mustangs, Hawker Sea Furys, a Bearcat, and a modified Yak 11. The Yak 11, Czech Mate, has not yet started. The propeller spins without firing, glinting in the Nevada sun. After 30 seconds of motoring under the starter, the engine joins the others in the glorious growl from the ramp. The crowd cheers when the engine fires, adding to the noise and excitement. One by one, the taildraggers peel away and prepare for takeoff.

Minutes after the racers take off, there is an announcement that they are ready to race. The crowd stands up, eyes high and to the right, cameras prepped for the prized shot.

"Gentlemen, you have a race!" With Steve Hinton's call from the T-33 jet, racers zoom downward to the course as the pace plane shoots up.

Before rounding the first turn, the aircraft have begun to space out. Three or so planes are gathered at the front, while the rest of the pack works to pass each other. On the course are the best pilots and planes in the racing world today. They are going well above 400 mph, some approaching 500 mph. An obvious leader, Voodoo, pulls out ahead of everyone else. By now, there are aircraft at every part of the course. Every few seconds there is another roaring engine passing the crowd, another pilot intent on earning the Unlimited Gold Race Winner title.

Six laps pass with blinding speed. Soon, the white flag waves for the leaders. Racers give every last inch of power, and Voodoo happily keeps his eight second or more lead. The checkered flag flashes as Voodoo passes the Reno pylon and pulls up to clear the race course and bleed off speed. Strega follows in second, with Czech Mate coming up third. Rare Bear, another crowd favorite, finished in fourth place. Crowds cheer, whether or not their favorite plane won. In the pits, crews are celebrating, one team making space for the Unlimited Trophy, the others thinking of next year’s strategy.

It is later officially announced that there were no pylon cuts, a "clean" race, and a great accomplishment for everyone. Crowds flock around the first and second place planes, piloted by Steven Hinton Jr. in Voodoo and Matt Jackson in Strega.

Although only 16 planes have earned the title of Unlimited Gold Champion in the past 50 years, there is always a competition. Each year, fans gather to root for their favorite plane, hoping that it will pass the Reno pylon first. However, all race attendees are here to watch the best of the best Air Racers go head-to-head. Even the pilots congratulate each other over the radio at the end of the race.

Sometimes aircraft or pilots are unable to participate in the final race of their class. Such was the case for September Fury, a Hawker Sea Fury with an R3350 engine flown by Robert "Hoot" Gibson that was supposed to race in the Unlimited Gold category. During the Unlimited Gold Time Trial on Saturday, there was an audible "pop" from September Fury.

A mayday call was made as Hoot, a former astronaut, airline pilot, and Air Race veteran, flew the mayday with precision down to the runway. Upon further inspection, the crew confirmed that the induction scoop was blown off the top of the cowl, with debris striking the right horizontal stabilizer. There was also a five inch crack in the manhole cover-sized spinner.

Most everything at the Reno Air Races is up close. In the pits if you are wondering about the Sea Fury with an original Bristol Centaurus sleeve engine, just ask the crew chief, he's right there. When a race plane needs to be towed, wing tips pass just inches away from spectators. Photo opportunities are abundant. At Reno, the plane and pilot that you got your picture with a short time ago is now going over 400 miles per hour in the Valley of Speed.

All of these experiences happen in the pits, where the race planes stay for the duration of the races. Deepest in the pits are the Sport, Formula One, and Biplane hangars. The sport class consists of GlassAirs, NXTs, and multiple other home built racers. Many of these aircraft reach speeds of 330 mph or more. A new record was set this year by "Race 39", a GlassAir, when pilot Jeff LaVelle won the race at 394.33 mph. Adjoining the Sport hangar is the Biplane and Formula One hangar. The majority of the racing Biplanes are Pitts, along with Skybolts and several original designs. The Formula One class normally reaches speeds of 230 mph and more than half of the aircraft are Cassults. The Jet class, introduced in 2002, is set apart from the pits, simply for space reasons, which makes it accessible to all general ticket holders. The jet class holds the Reno Speed Record at 538 mph. Slightly closer to the pits entry gate than the Sport hangar lies the T-6 class. In this part of the pits, the T-6 racers are parked along the rows, at close range. The T-6 competition is one of the fiercest, as it is mainly a stock class. Many of the crews in the pits are selling hats or shirts to promote their race team. Just east of the T-6s are the unlimited racers, consisting mostly of P-51s and SeaFurys. There have been many types of aircraft entered in the Unlimited race. It is specified that Unlimited racers must be piston-powered, propeller-driven, and capable of pulling 6 or more G's.

Outside of the pits are the Air Race's many vendors, including several aviation artists and photographers, the Jelly Belly tent, and two Reno Air Race Association merchandise tents (complete with air conditioning!).

Just past the entry area lies the Static and Heritage displays. These contain beautifully restored aircraft. This year's entrants included a Grumman Albatross, Beech-18, Lockheed Vega, and many other wonderful aircraft.

The Heritage/Static display is also a great place for a different vantage point of the races. This year, the Patriot L-39 Jet team was parked directly in front of the displays. Their pilots include former Blue Angels, Thunderbirds, and Snowbirds. The team put on a performance every day in-between races. Other performers included the Jelly Belly stunt plane, flown by Kent Pietsch, Michael Goolian, and Jetman Yves Rossy.

Just across from the custom dog tag maker there is a man displaying his 5600 XBSAP engine. The problem? It doesn't actually exist. He bolted together two Pratt & Whitney 4360's to create this new engine. However, it was quite the talking point when some people even "recalled" the engine being in a plane they once knew.

But while you're in Reno, take time to enjoy the Silver State as well. Virginia City, a popular silver mining town, is a great place to visit old time saloons, walk around the boardwalk, see wild mustangs, and enjoy the rustic scenery of the Washoe Valley. Nights can be spent gaming in the "Biggest Little City in the World" or talking with racers and other big names in aviation businesses.

(P-51 "Voodoo" pictured in file photo. Other images by provided by the author)

FMI: www.airrace.org

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