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50 Years of Air Racing

Over half a century, a devoted few created the unique culture of Reno.

More Medals of Honor

None
(Robert Seale)

302 miles per hour. That’s the top speed of Air Biscuit, Tom Camp’s FM-2 Wildcat. “Just enough to get in the race, just to fly last place,” he says. That would be last place in the Bronze race, the slowest of the Unlimited class, and that’s okay with Camp.

“There’s no reason to try to make it go any faster because it won’t, and it doesn’t matter because the closest airplane is 20 mph an hour faster, and no matter what you did to it, it won’t go 20 mph faster—maybe if you zoom-dived it from about 10,000 feet. You might get to 320 before it hit the ground,” he says.

Every person at Reno who races or works on raceplanes will tell you there’s no money to be made in racing, but coming from Tom Camp, president of the traditional Unlimited class and a guy who makes his living as an accountant, the statement has more credibility. “And there’s less margin in being a first place finisher than being a last place finisher,” he adds. Entering the Wildcat in the race has gotten him just enough money—from the fees the association pays for each heat the airplane flies—to cover his entry fee, insurance, gas, and three hotel rooms for himself and his friends. “There’s nothing left,” he says contentedly. “There’s no income to pay tax on.”

As Unlimited class president, Camp was the one who relayed the pilots’ position to the race promoters: The person in command of the airplane must have the authority to deviate from FAA limits in any way necessary to avoid an accident. The issue is over who gets to judge the pilot’s action—pilots or regulators. In June, Camp was awaiting an FAA ruling and hoping that he’d be there in the pits come September with Air Biscuit.

Camp deprecates his stocky little Wildcat, even though it’s a General Motors-built FM-2, “the wildest Wildcat,” lighter and faster to climb than the Grumman F4F. It’s slow, he says, it’s heavy, it’s unmaneuverable. “If you dove down at a 5,000-foot runway and initiated an aileron roll at the threshold, you’d complete it at the departure end,” he says. “It would take you a mile to get around. That’s the roll rate.”

But talk about the airplane long enough and he’ll tell you that World War II pilots flying Wildcats were awarded more Medals of Honor than those flying other types. “I don’t know how those guys had the success rate that they had with that airplane. The Hellcat had a better kill rate, the Mustangs went further, but…” Pilots. They love the airplane they fly.

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