The Reno Air Races return, this time with jets ablazin’

 - May 7, 2008, 10:58 AM

The Reno Air Races were back on form this year as some 180,000 people trekked to Stead Field in mid-September to watch 128 aircraft compete in six race classes for a record $800,000 in prize money. Last year’s event was canceled early in race week due to September 11.

New this time was a jet class. This invitation-only race was between seven L-39 Albatross sport jets. The L-39 was the standard jet trainer in former Warsaw Pact countries, made by Aero Vodochody in what is now the Czech Republic. American Spirit, flown by Curt Brown of Alvin, Texas, had a near-one-minute lead after the six-lap race.

Brown’s winning race speed of 456.54 mph in the L-39 was impressive enough. Yet it was still 10 mph below that achieved by the winner of this year’s unlimited-class race. Skip Holm flew P-51D Mustang Dago Red to a second championship victory in succession, despite strongly gusting winds that threatened to delay or postpone the classic gold final, which was contested this year by four more P-51Ds and three Hawker Sea Furies.

By the end of the eight-lap race, Holm’s sleek Mustang was more than 12 sec ahead of Nevada’s own Michael Brown in Hawker Sea Fury September Fury.

Holm, a former test pilot, told AIN, “Although I get most of the glory, the team behind me makes the greatest contribution to our success. They’re 100-percent mission-oriented.”  He noted that Dago Red is neither the lightest nor the fastest P-51 he has flown. But, in an event that requires these temperamental, souped-up warplanes to last through three days of qualifying and four days of racing, the team with the best technical talent often has the edge.

Moving down the speed rung, this year’s sport class was won by racing veteran Darryl Greenamyer. Despite suffering a 14-sec penalty for cutting (flying inside) a pylon on lap two of the seven-lap race, Greenamyer’s Lancair Legacy still finished 1.68 sec ahead of John Parker in a kitbuilt Thunder Mustang. The sport class event was overshadowed by the crash of a Questair Venture 20, which killed pilot-owner Tommy Rose on the second day of the finals. The airplane suffered structural failure as it passed the crowdline at the start of the fifth lap, possibly as the result of wake turbulence.

As usual, the AT-6 class was closely contested. Twenty of these stock World War II-era trainers were in contention, the winner being Tom Campau’s Mystical Power. The formula-one class went to Gary Hubler in a Cassutt IIIM, and David Rose won the biplane class in his custom-built Rose Peregrine.

The Reno Air Racing Association (RARA) organizes the event–formally titled The National Championship Air Races. Despite losing $1.2 million on last year’s canceled races, RARA seems to have recovered from a rocky financial situation a few years back. With little sponsorship money, RARA must rely instead on race fans and the general public to fund the event through gate admission and a variety of add-on charges, such as passes to enter the pits, where the competing planes are fine-tuned between races.

A variety of airshow acts and static displays help boost the crowds. This year’s highlights included the first public appearance of a flying replica Hughes H-1 Racer. The original, which now hangs in the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington, set a new world speed record of 352 mph in 1935.