The crowning event of the 2012 National Championship Air Races in Reno, held at the last moment on Sunday afternoon—the race for the Unlimited Gold trophy that we race fans eagerly wait for all year—was, it must be said, a little dull. And everybody loved it. The tragedy at last year’s race wasn’t far from anybody’s thoughts, so this year, with nerves on edge, we were happy with predictable. Predictable was good.
We could predict that Strega, the streamlined P-51 Mustang piloted by young, handsome, perfect Steve Hinton, Jr. would win. We could predict that at least one racer’s engine would refuse the punishment that a Gold race dishes out, and, yeah, based on how pilot Stu Dawson was babying the engine on the F8F Bearcat Rare Bear during the early races, we thought it might be the Bear that would pull up before the race was finished. And so it did, leaving Hoot Gibson and the Sea Fury 232 in second place. We were all pretty sure that another Sea Fury would perform well: the Sanders brothers’ Dreadnought, which won the Gold in 1983 and has been a presence in the Unlimited class ever since. It was nice to see Dreadnought move into third place and join the stars in the 2012 winner’s circle.
But the real stars of the races this year were in the stands. Larry Cruz of Puyallup, Washington, who last year was in a box seat only a few feet away from the spot struck by Jimmy Leeward’s Galloping Ghost, came back to cheer the racers from the exact same seat. Cruz spent months in the hospital recovering from his injuries: a severed hand, crushed leg and foot, fractured skull, and dozens of wounds from flying pieces of airplane. When photo editor Caroline Sheen and I visited his box, a constant parade of people stopped in to shake his one hand and wish him well. Cruz and his friends had the Margarita machine going.
Not all the people who witnessed last year’s horror made the same decision as Cruz and Cherie Elvin’s family, who returned despite their mother’s death and injuries to other family members. Several news organizations reported that advance ticket sales were 8 percent lower than in previous years, and one look at the stands on Sunday, when there usually isn’t a single empty seat, made it clear that only about 85 percent of the fans had returned.
In an empty space in the pits, where the Galloping Ghost was parked last year, were bouquets of flowers. There was a Missing Man formation flyover, a moment of silence for those who died, a counselor on hand for people who were still struggling with their feelings, words of comfort spoken to the crowd by Nevada senator Dean Heller, and hundreds of quiet conversations among the race community, remembering where they stood and what they saw and heard that awful day, and offering to one another sympathy and encouragement. And there was Section 3, the group of famously rowdy fans all wearing orange T-shirts and all committed, according to several who spoke to us, to coming back next year for the 50th anniversary of the National Championship Air Races.