At the end of the closest race in the 51-year history of the National Championship Air Races, seven-time race champion Tiger Destefani came within a spinner’s length of stealing first place from rival and one-time protégé Steve Hinton. The photo finish (see just how close it was starting around the 7:59:00 mark in the video below) came at the end of Saturday’s Unlimited Gold Race, run to determine positions for the final championship event the following day, Sunday, September 14. After flying a high course for all eight laps, Destefani, in the red-and-white Mustang Strega—which Destefani owns and Hinton flew to four straight Gold wins beginning in 2009—traded altitude for speed and plunged toward the finish line, pulling abreast of Hinton flying the evenly matched and exquisitely engineered Mustang Voodoo.
And the crowd went wild.
A single scream from the boxes and grandstands—“Oh!”—broke into minutes-long cheering, repeated each time LiveAirShowTV replayed the video in slow motion on jumbotrons at each end of the grandstands. The average speeds of the two racers on that last lap: Destefani, 492.541 mph; Hinton, 492.525. In a post-race interview, Destefani said of the spectators, “If that didn’t get their stuff, they got no stuff to get.”
It was a theatrical closing act for Strega, which was unable to compete the following day because of a shot cylinder, and for Destefani, who announced at the pilot’s briefing the following morning that he would retire from racing.
The Saturday spectacle made the championship race on Sunday anti-climactic. Hinton won easily after the fierce Bearcat Rare Bear—“You don’t fly it, you survive it,” hyped the announcer—pulled up and out of the race on the second lap.
For the first time in air race history, all three Sanders family Sea Furys contested in the Unlimited Gold: Argonaut also pulled up in a mayday orbit, leaving the kingly Dreadnought and 924, powered by a Bristol Centaurus engine, to finish number three and five in the remaining field of six. Rare Bear’s misfortune was a lucky break for the Yak Czech Mate, which, pushed by pilot Sherman Smoot to the best performance of its racing life, claimed second place. The mesmerizing Precious Metal, a P-51 pulled through the air by double contra-rotating props and piloted by Thom Richard, screamed past the finish in third, but was later disqualified for course violations. The Sea Fury Sawbones, having moved up from Silver to Gold, finished fourth.
In other racing news, Reno featured for the first time this year a DRONE ZONE, where 19 contestants flew small, remotely piloted aircraft around obstacle courses and in speed races, sponsored by Embry Riddle Aeronautical University and the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems.
A lush 1934 Waco YKC, restored and flown by Dave and Jeanne Allen of Albert, Colorado, won the Grand Champion trophy at the National Aviation Heritage Invitational, and a 1945 Goodyear F4U Corsair won the hearts of the fans, grabbing the most ballots in the People’s Choice voting. (The Corsair also won a trophy for best restoration of a military aircraft.)
And on the midway, 92-year-old aviation legend R.A. “Bob” Hoover signed books and posed for photos with hundreds of race fans.