Air Racing 101

A course in handling the course at the National Championship Air Races.

A trio of Sport class racers skim the high desert. (Jan Peters)
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(Continued from page 3)

On the last day of the seminar, each aircraft class is given an extended single session on the course. As many pilots as care to can fly in a simulated race. The combined Sport class flights make an impressive gaggle of 10 as they come down the start. Stephens casts a watchful eye on the rookies from the ramp.

After 10 laps—more than the number in a real race—Lloyd finds himself in a tight formation of racers when keeping track of everything overwhelms him. Wisely, Lloyd elects to pull up and enter the cool-down area.

After a few laps, he’s sufficiently recovered the proper frame of mind and makes a diving reentry at the home pylon. The decision to pull out rather than continue in what was becoming, for him, at his level, an overwhelming experience is the critical mark of self-awareness—exactly what the instructors hope for.

Two months later, the graduates show up at Reno for the 2006 National Championship Air Races. Michael Lloyd arrives with the Glasair III in perfect condition, sporting race number 21 on the side and “Miss Conduct” on the cowling. He has enlisted a support crew and is keeping the dangers and rewards of air racing in perspective. On Wednesday of race week, Lloyd becomes the first rookie of the class of 2006 to race at Reno, taking third place in Heat 1-C at an average of 261.712 mph. He can now add “race pilot” to his aeronautical résumé.

Vince Walker has barely finished his homebuilt Lancair Legacy in time. The airframe is still in epoxy primer. Self-sufficient to a fault, he works alone, preparing the airframe for racing when he should be focused on preparing himself. As race day approaches he’s still making significant adjustments. Finally, members of Andy Chiavetta’s crew give him a hand finishing the preparations.

Heat 1-B takes place under overcast skies on a blustery Thursday morning. This race has the largest number of rookies, including Walker and David Sterling, who says he’s prepared for what is about to unfold: “Without PRS, I’d be a hazard to navigation” on the course.

The Lancair IV pace airplane, flown by Lancair factory pilot Timothy Ong and carrying pace pilot Rick Vandam, launches down runway 26, cuts to the north, and begins the turn to allow the racers to join up. First in is Craig Sherman in Race 19, a turbocharged Glasair. Sport class president Mike Jones slips his Glasair smoothly into the number-two position. Suddenly a white and orange blur slides under the gathering flight, racks into a steep bank on arrival in formation to kill the excessive overtake speed, and parks in the number-four spot. It’s an unnecessarily flamboyant arrival for Scott Alair, in Race 77. He passed his re-certification check ride just in time to enter the competition.

Eventually the remaining racers assemble in a long string off Vandam’s right wing and are headed behind Peavine Mountain for entry onto the course. Amid the turbulence, the racers are managing a stable separation. As speed increases on the final run down the chute, Heat 1-B forms a single line abreast. Just short of the approach end of runway 26, Ong tells them they have a race and pulls the Lancair IV up abruptly so he and Vandam can evaluate the critical run from the start to the number-two pylon. It looks clean.

Eight minutes later, after Craig Sherman flies inside, instead of outside, a pylon, Mike Jones wins. Ernie Sutter edges out Vince Walker by 0.4 mph, with both of them a fraction short of 290. In his first race, David Sterling takes last place.

Rod Von Grote takes off in the gold race for Sport class. On an early lap, he radios to his crew that he thinks John Parker, in his Thunder Mustang, has cut a pylon. Darryl Greenamyer advises Von Grote to ease in behind Parker and stay there. Von Grote blisters past the home pylon behind Parker but ends up winning—when Parker is disqualified—by doing just what C.J. Stephens advised back in July: Keep your head up and know what is going on elsewhere on the course.

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