By S. Clayton Moore
“Gentlemen, you have a race.” Those famous words, coined by the legendary Bob Hoover, have launched each race at the Reno National Championship Air Races and Air Show for over 40 years. Once again, blazing speed and technical ingenuity showed no bounds at this year’s races, held in late September.
More than 240,000 aviation enthusiasts came to see this year’s races. Event organizers say that’s a record crowd. In addition to its main attraction as “the fastest motor-sport in the world,” audiences saw air show acts performed by Mike Mangold, Mike Goulian, Kent Pietsch, David Martin, Scott Hammack and others. Military flights included the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds (F-16C Fighting Falcon) and the Canadian Air Force Snowbirds (CT-114 Tutor), a USAF Heritage Flight (A-10 Thunderbolt II) and a USN Legacy Flight (F/A-18 Hornet).
Unlimited and Jet Classes
The man of the hour was John Penney of Evergreen, Colo., who made history by winning not one, but two gold championships in a single racing season. Flying Lyle Shelton’s World War II-era Grumman F8F Bearcat, “Rare Bear,” Penney took the Unlimited Class championship for the second year in a row, at a speed of 466.298 mph.
In an unprecedented second win, he also won the Jet Class competition, flying “Pip Squeak,” an Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros, at a winning speed of 454.194 mph.
“It’s a great honor,” said Penney of his dual championships. “I feel really fortunate to be associated with two winning teams in one. It’s a real privilege.”
The “Rare Bear” was discovered as a severely damaged wreck in 1968 and has since been substantially modified and equipped with a Wright R3350 engine. This year’s race has to come as a relief to Penney, who won in 2004 after competitor Skip Holm cut his P-51, “Dago Red,” inside a pylon, resulting in a 16-second penalty.
This year, Penney faced stiff competition from Dan Martin in “Ridge Runner III,” a modified Mustang, but Martin’s engine blew after three laps and was forced to make an emergency landing. Sadly for race fans, Penney will not be flying the “Rare Bear” next year but will compete again in the Jet Class.
This year’s Sport Class winner was supposed to be retired. Air racing champion Darryl Greenamyer left the air racing circuit nearly 30 years ago, but emerged from what he calls his “prolonged layoff” in 2001. This year, Greenamyer, in his number 33 Lancair Legacy, successfully defended his Sport Class title with a top speed of 364.950 mph.
Greenamyer initially won Reno’s first air race in 1964, but was disqualified for landing at the municipal airport. He went on to win seven Unlimited Class championships in a F8F-2 Grumman Bearcat, “Conquest I,” which is now enshrined in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Greenamyer walked away from the Unlimited Class in 1977 after a crash destroyed his F-104 in the California desert.
“I didn’t get hurt, but it scared the hell out of me,” he remembered.
In 2001, he returned to the races in the Sport Class with a vengeance. He built the Legacy, which has twin turbo superchargers and no flaps, from a kit.
The competition in the Sport Class is fierce and racers are constantly being improved with the introduction of race-driven engine and airframe technology. Race watchers anticipated a threat from Jon Sharp’s Nemesis NXT but a vibration problem caused Sharp to bow out of the race.
In the T-6 Class, Mary Dilda flew “Two of Hearts” to blow past her competition with a speed of 237.180 mph, beating last year’s winner, Al Goss, in his SNJ-6, “Warlock.” Dilda, an accomplished U.S. Air Force instructor who has been flying professionally since 1980, won the T-6 gold championship in 1997, and has placed in the top five in that class over the past seven years. She also won the Jet Class championship in 2003.
“The guys hate it,” Dilda says of her competition. The prize reflects Dilda’s dramatic talent, as all the aircraft in the class are of the same type, placing the race’s emphasis on strategy and pilot skill rather than pure horsepower.
One of this year’s success stories is the gold championship in the Biplane Class for Tom Aberle and Andrew Buehler’s “Phantom.” A heavily modified Mong Sport built in 2003, the biplane has created a real sensation in the class. Although the pair had hoped to hit 250 mph this year, Buehler still flew the plane to gold easily with a speed of 230.827 mph.
The plane was the top qualifier at Reno in 2003, but the runs destroyed two propellers. Aberle set a class record in the biplane in 2004 despite a $400 fine for flying too low past a pylon. The plane fared better this year with a unique propeller designed by Paul Lipps, beating its closest competition, Jeff Lo’s “Miss Gianna,” by nearly 10 mph.
“The acceleration is just blinding,” Aberle told Airport Journals in 2004. “From the get-go, it will set your head back.”
Formula One Class
Finally, in the Formula One Class, Gary Hubler flew to victory once again with a speed of 252.302 mph. Hubler, who has been racing at Reno since 1984, has won the class for the past four years. He took the championship in “Mariah,” a highly modified Cassutt 111M.
Rocket Racing League
While the event’s air racing has always inspired aviation enthusiasts with a passion for the past, X Prize founder Diamandis is again looking to the future. In a daring plan that suitably complements the Reno Air Races, Diamandis announced the formation of the Rocket Racing League.
“It’s bringing 21st-century racing into people’s personal living rooms. .. It’s really the mix of NASCAR excitement and spaceflight,” Diamandis explained.
Like an airborne Formula One race, the Rocket Racing League will pit manned rocket-powered planes, dubbed “X-Racers,” against each other in a wickedly fast race along a two-mile course. Although the virtual track will be only a mile wide, advanced GPS technology will minimize the risk of physical contact between the racers.
The futuristic race, which Diamandis likened to the “pod races” in “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” will begin in 2007. Diamandis and his co-founders intend for the event’s semifinals to be held during the Reno Air Races, with the final held immediately afterward at the X Prize Cup in Las Cruces, N.M.
“The Rocket Racing League will inspire people of all ages to once again look up into the sky to find inspiration and excitement,” said Diamandis.