Rocket Racing League Has Promise
By Kevin R.C. "Hognose" O'Brien
Well, the Rocket Racing
League is a reality and you can read all about it alongside, here. For reasons evident in
the news story, Jim's objectivity on the whole enterprise is a
bit... er... weaker than usual. And who can blame him? Because this
is one of the best indicators that air racing has, not just a
fabled past, but a secure future.
To understand why air racing needs this kind of boost, we need
to look at history. In the 1920s, 30s, and postwar 40s, air racing
was a popular sport. The two types were, essentially, distance
racing: "last one cross the continent is a rotten egg;" or
thrilling wingtip-to-wingtip pylon racing.
Air racing, was, in fact, as popular with spectators as motor
racing. But after a nightmare accident caused the end of the
Cleveland Air Races, air racing began its slow slide to its current
diminished position. From a stable of events, it collapsed to a
single event, in remote Reno.
Reno has been good from the standpoint of safety -- an
out-of-control racer, as has been sadly demonstrated from time to
time, will not kill innocents in their homes -- but even at Stead,
the pressure of a growing population threatens racing.
What's more, it's been difficult to attract sponsorship for a
single event (compare the weight of sponsorship that is attracted
to single-events in motorsport, like the Pike's Peak Hillclimb,
versus ongoing series like Formula 1 or NASCAR). Yet the Reno
sponsoring body has been (to say the least) difficult about its
participants', such as International F1 Racing, attempts to grow
The postwar years in motor racing, unlike air racing, saw
incredible growth. This growth has been driven by television and
sponsorship. To put it another way, many more people get the idea
to go to a NASCAR venue after watching events on TV than the other
way round. But air racing, which would seem made for TV with its
speed, color, and noise, has struggled to gain traction there.
Some of this is that same one-event, one-body problem. It's hard
to sell the idea of growing a stable audience to TV people who have
an attention span of 13 seconds, when you can't offer them a
follow-up event in twelve months. This is part of why you have to
pass by 10,000 Dale Earnhardt "3" displays before you see someone's
bumper sticker or t-shirt promoting "Rare Bear."
Fortunately, the new century has brought us new kinds of air
racing. Air racing that is exciting, telegenic, and that has
definable stars. The first example, of course, is Red Bull Air
Racing. Sponsored by the energy drink, this event involves
aerobatic pilots racing aerobatic planes through safe, air-filled
collapsible pylons. Each course is different with unique
challenges, and top pilots from around the world compete -- both of
those are nods to Formula One motor racing. So far, Red Bull looks
like a competitive, aesthetic, and television success.
The new Rocket Racing League is, like Red Bull, strong on the
visuals (think TV) and conducted as a race-against-time for safety
reasons. It has some nifty features -- the RRL will use spec
planes, all identically prepared, to make it very clearly a race of
strategy and skill, and will use a staggered start to allow the
planes to all be in the air at once in perfect safety.
To succeed it will need to develop a series of events near
population centers, to develop a good symbiotic relationship with a
TV network, to develop and promote stars. Can it do that? The
answer is, probably. It's got a good idea and good people behind
it. I've wanted to write about this since I was first let in on the
concept, and one reason I've been so excited is that this is a form
of racing that I don't think you need to be a pilot to appreciate
I think folks are going to get a kick out of Rocket Racing
Can both Red Bull and Rocket Racing League succeed? Well, can
both NASCAR and Formula 1 succeed? As a motorsport fan, I'm an F1
guy, but I've been dragged out to NASCAR events and forced to enjoy
myself, and heck, if I had a TV, I'd watch tricycles race before I
turned on a ball game.
The question is, can air racing as we've known it succeed? The
wing-to-wing racing of Reno is the most exciting racing you're
going to see, in the air or on the ground, period, full stop. But
it faces a lot of challenges -- encroaching development, the
possibility of an air cargo hub locating at Stead, feeble
marketing, a bad value proposition for sponsors, a tired old way of
I was initially concerned when I saw that RARA's Michael
Houghton was on the Advisory Board of RRL. Would he bring the ideas
that have held RARA back into this new sport? Then I thought about
it a little: why wouldn't he pick up some new ideas from Dr
Diamandis and his team, which might revitalize RARA?
Dr Peter Diamandis is one of the most high-energy guys I've ever
met, and he's got a track record of pulling off the impossible and
trying things that were either unimagined or in everybody else's
"too-hard" pile: The X-Prize, Zero-G, the X-Prize Cup, and now,
So who's the real winner, with RARA, RBAL, and now, the new
upstart RRL to choose from? The race fan, of course!