How Reno Racers Keep Their Cool
At the Reno air races, pilots know that to go fast, you have to stay cool. That’s where Pete Law comes in.
- By Preston Lerner
- Air & Space magazine, September 2012
(Page 4 of 6)
This year, Law has at least one of his cooling systems on 10 of the 11 fastest airplanes at Reno. And even if he hasn’t worked on a racer, he’s a resource. “If Pete’s got the time, he’ll answer any question,” says Mike Nixon, who built the Merlin engine powering Strega, which is the only top Unlimited that Law isn’t officially following. “He’s committed to the whole group, and everybody knows he won’t share your discovery without your permission.” Hence Law’s nickname in Unlimited circles: Secret Pete.
But despite all of Law’s efforts, at Reno, where engines are routinely run at twice the power anticipated by the original designers, things can still go wrong. Wednesday morning, when Law checks in with the 232 crew, Dale shows him a damaged piston that had been removed from the engine after Gibson’s 467.054 mph qualifying run.
“We’re officially out,” Dale says.
“Did he [engine builder Ray Anderson] have any comment about the little spot on the piston?” Law asks.
“He said, ‘Let’s have a biopsy, not an autopsy.’ ”
After Dale walks off, Gibson sidles up to Law. “I told them they were acting like a bunch of girls,” he confides. “We’re here to race, aren’t we?”
He’s joking, of course. If the engine failed in flight, the results would be not only outrageously expensive but also potentially fatal. Law has lost several friends in warbirds and has witnessed near catastrophes. He points to a woman walking through the pits: Karen Hinton. In 1979, her husband Steve was flying Red Baron, a Law-Boland collaboration that won two Unlimited Golds, when the Griffon engine quit. The last words Hinton radioed before auguring violently into the ground were, “Tell Karen I love her.” Hinton’s miraculous survival was widely attributed to a cockpit Boland had redesigned to maximize structural integrity.
“I get teary-eyed just thinking about it,” Law says. “Bruce and I almost quit after that. I’ve seen several people killed right in front of me. Back when we were doing stuff with Darryl, I got so nervous that I had to go to the doctor and get a prescription for Valium. I go on because I know people are going to keep on racing, and I do my best to keep them safe. I’m doing this to keep people alive.” Two days later, the air racing world would suffer the worst disaster in the history of the sport.