In 2011, even Reno Air Racing Association President and CEO Mike Houghton didn’t know whether the National Championship Air Races would make it to the event’s 50th anniversary. During the 2011 event, pilot Jimmy Leeward crashed his Mustang into the crowd, killing himself and 10 spectators and injuring many more. For most of what remained of that year, says Houghton, he was focused on “the personal tragedy.” Was there a question that Houghton himself would continue? “Sure there was,” he says. “It was part of the process of dealing with it.” But by January 2012, Houghton had made his decision. The push, he says, came from the fans, including many who had been injured in the accident. They reached out to Houghton personally, encouraging him to keep the air races going.
The Reno air races, the last closed-course air racing event in the world and the longest running in history, are a $6 million spectacle bringing into the state of Nevada $85 million every year. The event, to be held this year from September 11 through 15, is a crisply organized show with a small—about 200,000—inordinately passionate audience. The source of that passion is hard to pinpoint.
As in all competitive sports (and teams here have a hyper-developed spirit of competition), fans have loyalties and favorites. At the main event on Sunday of race week—the one that gives Reno the claim to “world’s fastest motor sport”—the crowd is intensely engaged. With a handful of souped-up warbirds screaming around an eight-mile oval at 500 mph 50 feet off the ground, who wouldn’t be standing? And to this crowd, with its strong patriotic streak, historic World War II fighters are almost holy.
The fans return because of history of another kind. Over 50 years, the races at Reno have built a dramatic narrative of wild surprises, wins-by-a-nose, dazzling comebacks, and broken hearts. And the racing tradition reaches back even further, to 1929, when national champions competed in Cleveland, Ohio, and all the way back to 1909, when Glenn Curtiss, stunning the Europeans and even surprising himself, won the world’s first air race, in Reims, France.
The momentum of history has helped the air races survive, but their continuation remains an against-all-odds proposition. Raceplanes have been retired because the sport is too costly. An Unlimited race engine alone can cost a quarter of a million dollars—more than twice what a raceplane owner can expect to collect if his entry wins. Can the association find replacements?
In June, RARA announced the new Unlimited & Warbird Racing class, to usher in, according to Houghton and veteran race pilot Matt Jackson, an era of cooperation. Behind the news is a long feud: Unlimited pilots have complained that they assume most of the risk but have no say over how the event is run. When they threatened to boycott the race to protest changes in the course that the Federal Aviation Administration had imposed after the Leeward accident, the promoters formed the new class—but extended the entry deadline, hoping most pilots would re-up. Crisis averted.
Despite the disagreements, high costs, and calamity, the races go on, and there can be only one reason. Here they are: the people who, over the last 50 years, have made Reno history.
Pictured above: Every Kid's Favorite Mustang
Miss America looks like a beauty queen, in the red-white-and-blue paint scheme made famous by thousands of plastic scale and radio-controlled model airplanes that delighted budding airplane fans in the 1970s. Neurosurgeon Brent Hisey of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, has cared for and raced the historic P-51D since 1993, continuing the story of an airplane that original owner Howie Keefe immortalized in his memoir Galloping on Wings with the P-51D Miss America.
Say that single name at Reno, and everybody knows who you mean. In the early days, Lockheed test pilot Darryl Greenamyer owned the Unlimited class, winning six of seven races held between 1965 and 1971 in his Grumman F8F-2 Bearcat, Conquest 1. The airplane is now on display in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. In 1977, Greenamyer returned to take the Gold again in the RB-51 Mustang Red Baron.
Greenamyer’s champion Bearcat is famous not only for spanking Mustangs at the air races, but also for evening a score with a contemporary fighter, the German Me 209, which in 1939 set a world speed record: 469 mph. That milestone stood for 30 years—until 1969, when Greenamyer flew Conquest 1 to 482 mph.
After grabbing the piston-engine speed record back from the Germans, Greenamyer set out to win the jet altitude record back from the Soviets. In 1977, Alexander V. Fedotov flew to 123,520 feet in a MiG-25 Foxbat. To beat Fedotov, Greenamyer built an F-104 Starfighter from pieces from what he estimates were a dozen scrapped -104s. Who would even do that? Only Darryl Greenamyer. It took him 13 years.
He first set a low-altitude speed record of 988 mph (this, at an altitude of 100 feet; again, who…?). The record still stands. Four months later, on a test flight before his altitude attempt, a gear problem forced Greenamyer to eject before his F-104 homebuilt crashed.
In 2002, Greenamyer came back to Reno—in a kit-built Lancair Legacy 2000. He snagged the gold in the Sport class four years in a row.