After a winter spent licking the wounds from battles lost last fall, the Bear stirs, indifferent to the bracing wind and brilliant sunshine. It emerges slowly from its cave, pauses to orient itself, then gravitates toward its natural hunting ground: not a forest or a river full of salmon but the ramp of the Reno-Stead Airport in Nevada. Here, for four decades and counting, the Bear has stalked its prey: Sea Furys, Lightnings, Super Corsairs, and, tastiest of all, the fleet, slender thoroughbreds known as P-51 Mustangs.
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“God, it’s just such a big, handsome, good-looking critter,” says crew chief Dave Cornell as he watches the freshly painted airplane roll past the lesser creatures parked nearby. “It’s got a fine wing and a ferocious engine, a sturdy and rugged landing gear—everything you need for air racing. The Mustang has a wonderful laminar-flow wing, and it would be fun to race. But just in terms of going around Reno, it’s really tough to beat the Rare Bear.”
Seldom has a warbird been more aptly named. Packing up to 4,500 horsepower in a muscular 8,700-pound package, Rare Bear is a radically modified, one-of-a-kind version of a Grumman F8F-2 Bearcat. It has won more Unlimited races than any airplane (the Unlimited category is open to any piston-driven aircraft with an empty weight greater than 4,500 pounds, typically stock or modified World War II fighters). Rare Bear also holds the three-kilometer speed record—528.33 mph—making it the fastest piston-powered, propeller-driven aircraft in the world. But what sets the Bear apart from its rivals is the cult that surrounds it.
In a milieu dominated by million-dollar airplanes and zillionaire sportsmen, Rare Bear has been the people’s choice, the low-buck underdog that triumphed against all odds. The team has made ends meet by selling not only T-shirts but also used engine oil (marketed in vials as “Bear Blood”), and the vast majority of people who have worked on the airplane have been volunteers. “There were times when I stayed on after the races and washed down the airplane myself because everybody else was so worn out,” says Chris Rakestraw, a retired TWA flight attendant who now works as the team’s administrative coordinator. “I understand that it’s just a piece of metal. But it’s taken on a life force of its own.”
For most of its life, the Bear exuded the can-do personality of longtime owner Lyle Shelton. A naval aviator turned TWA pilot, Shelton plucked the derelict Bearcat out of an Indiana weed patch in 1968. Then he begged, borrowed, and promoted like crazy to customize the airplane with an oversized Wright R-3350 radial engine, transforming the wreckage into a winning racer. Even the people who know him best are mystified at how he accomplished so much with so little. But Shelton didn’t just own the Bear; he flew the bejeezus out of it, collecting six Golds at Reno as well as winning races at Mojave; Miami; Hamilton, California; and Cape May, New Jersey. “It was a big part of my life,” says Shelton. “The Rare Bear project was probably the most riveting that I ever got into. We didn’t have big investors or big sponsors. We just did it because we wanted to do it.”
Shelton belongs on the short list of greatest air racing pilots ever. But what made him such a crowd favorite was how he won his races. “Fly fast” was his motto. When he retired, he turned over the flying duties to another military-aviator-turned-airline-pilot, John Penney. Although Penney didn’t have Shelton’s swagger, he scored back-to-back victories in 2004 and 2005. But money was tight. Shelton had no personal fortune to draw on, and sponsors were impossible to find. An engine meltdown in 2006 seemed to be the end. But the Bear has always depended on the kindness of strangers, and so it proved then, in the form of San Antonio oil man Rod Lewis.
“I think I’ve been to every Reno air race since ’95,” says Lewis, a major-league warbird collector who owns three stock Bearcats and Glacier Girl, the world’s most famous P-38 (see “Glacier Girl,” Feb./Mar. 2004). “I’ve always liked the sound of Rare Bear, and I’ve always liked the look of Rare Bear. Sometimes we’d see it race, but not all of the time, because of, ah, economic issues. It was a really lean, low-budget operation. Some years I’d see Lyle sitting there with a coffee can, looking for donations.”
In 2006, after several months of negotiations, Lewis bought the Bear, paying just under $2 million. Since then, he’s spent almost $2 million more refurbishing and upgrading it. In 2007, Penney rewarded Lewis’ largesse with a Cinderella win at Reno. But last year was a nightmare. The spray-bar oil cooling system ran dry after a qualifying heat during the week, and the engine overtemped, setting it up for failure. Sure enough, on Sunday, Penney started the Gold race down on power, and the engine blew before he reached the finish line.
Modified 3350s don’t grow on trees, so there’s plenty to do before the Bear can race in 2009. Here in Reno, the work is coordinated by team manager Alby Redick. Twenty years ago, he helped start the movement to import Soviet bloc jet fighters to the States. (He still runs a company called Aviation Classics Limited, known informally as MiG Alley.) But his father was a mechanic at what’s now the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California, so he grew up surrounded by World War II aircraft.
“When my father would ask me what I wanted to do, I’d whisper, ‘I want to sit in the Bearcat,’ ” Redick recalls. “I know it’s not a consensus view, but I think it’s prettier than the P-51. And there’s something about the mixture of 60-weight oil and avgas coming out of a round motor. I could stand in back of one and”—he inhales deeply—“all day. And the sound! I don’t care who are you. You stop and look around when the Rare Bear is flying.”