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50 Years of Air Racing

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

Torch Passed

None
(John Slemp)

No two Reno pilots are more famous—and more admired—than Bob Hoover and Steve Hinton. Fifty years ago, it was Hoover, flying his P-51 Ole Yeller, who led the Unlimited-class warbirds from Stead Field around Peavine Mountain, giving them the chance to form up abreast for the race. Hoover, known around the world for his aerobatic performances, invented the call “Gentlemen, you have a race!” which Hinton, today’s pace plane pilot, still uses to signal the racers to break formation and go for it. In Hoover’s autobiography Forever Flying, he tells of his first flights at Reno and many other adventures, including an escape from a World War II German prison camp in a Focke-Wulf Fw 190—the first time he’d ever climbed into the type. At 91, Hoover is still signing copies of that autobiography outside his motor home at the races.

Flying the T-33 jet trainer owned by the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California, museum president Steve Hinton orbits above the race, just as Hoover did, ready to offer advice or encouragement should a pilot call a mayday. Hinton is a two-time Unlimited Gold winner himself: In 1978, flying the P-51 Red Baron, he became the youngest pilot to win the Gold Unlimited, a title his son Steve took from him in 2009. Engineers had installed a Rolls-Royce Griffon engine with contra-rotating propellers in the Red Baron, and in 1979 Hinton nudged it past 499 mph to claim a world speed record. That year, Hinton gave race fans a terrible fright when he crashed the airplane. (The YouTube video of the crash, 4 minutes 50 seconds into “1979 Reno Air Races Pt.2,” is one of the most dramatic ever made at the races.) Hinton broke his back and leg, but returned in 1985 to win a second championship, in the Super Corsair.

If a movie were ever made of Hinton’s life—hey, Hollywood, there should be—he could play himself. He’s flown airplanes in more than 60 films.

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