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.

Since 1966, thermodynamics engineer Pete Law has been showing up at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, with his toolbox and a career’s worth of knowledge about cooling systems. (Dan Whitney)
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Pete Law sits in a golf cart, shaded by the massive fuselage of a Hawker Sea Fury in the pits at the Reno air races. Spread out on his knees are a binder on World War II-era Bendix Stromberg carburetors—“Required flows for metering jets”—and a hand-made chart marked “Water regulator flow bench test sheet.” While spectators snap pictures of mighty warbirds and crewmen polish already gleaming metal, he punches numbers into a calculator and takes notes with a mechanical pencil.

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At 75, Law is one of the grand old men at the National Championship Air Races. Since 1966, he’s been the sage whom race teams consult in their fever to make fast airplanes faster. But air racing is not how Law makes his living. He’s a Lockheed lifer who spent four decades at the famed Skunk Works, most of them running the thermodynamics department. Though he retired in 2001, three years later a consulting firm hired him for a part-time gig on the Northrop Grumman X-47B unmanned combat air vehicle, and he’s been working on the UCAV at Northrop ever since.

But even as he was working on classified projects ranging from the SR-71 to the F-117, he was leading a second, far more public life providing engineering support for dozens of racers competing in the Unlimited class at Reno. The Unlimiteds are the racers fans love most—4,500-pound-or-heavier warbirds flown by people who revel in the reputation of aviation’s badasses. Law is one of the reasons the Unlimited racers fly as fast as they do. “Pete is the man,” says Will Whiteside, the owner of the Yak-3U known as SteadFast. “He’ll tell you ‘I’m not an engine guy’ or ‘I’m not an aero guy.’ But he knows a lot about a lot of things, and he’s got so much experience. He’s one of a kind.”

Each September, Law packs up hard-sided briefcases, cartons of books, and boxes of otherwise-impossible-to-find tools—including a sliderule, which he uses on occasion—and transforms a rented golf cart into a mobile shop at Reno Stead Field. He obsessively watches over the intricately tuned carburetors and sophisticated cooling systems he has installed over the years on warbirds that have racked up dozens of Gold trophies by racing at speeds near 500 mph. Aided by his son Vance and longtime assistant Greg Scates, Law hustles from pit to pit, dispensing advice and resolving problems.

Today is Monday, opening day at the races, when airplanes are flying qualifying rounds. Speeds clocked in these rounds will determine whether the pilots will compete in the Bronze, Silver, or Gold races; the fastest airplanes fly the Gold. After checking in with various teams, Law has parked next to the Unlimited that, as September Fury, won the Gold in 2006. Now owned by Rod Lewis, who also owns the nearby Grumman F7F Tigercat and a legendary F8F Bearcat known as Rare Bear, the Sea Fury races as 232. Although Law goes to great pains not to play favorites, this airplane is dear to his heart because it carries his carburetor, his boil-off cooling apparatus, and his anti-detonation injection (ADI) system—a Pete Law triple threat. But the airplane wasn’t making full power during practice this morning, with former astronaut Hoot Gibson at the controls, so Tigercat crew chief Jim Dale had collared Law. “We’d like to run a little bit more rpm,” he said, “so if you could come and work your magic ….”

Dale and Law agree to go 20 percent leaner on the ADI fluid, a mixture of water and methanol. After consulting the Bendix Stromberg manual and cross-referencing the data with his own charts, Law decides to replace the Number 16 drill size jet in the water regulator with a smaller Number 20, which will restrict the flow of the ADI fluid and make the engine run hotter. Limping on a bum leg set badly after he broke it in a 1973 skiing accident, he plants himself under the Sea Fury with a box stuffed with rare tools dating to the 1930s. He snips the safety wire and uses a special socket to remove the old jet. He takes off his glasses to examine it more closely, then inserts a new jet.

The fix takes about 10 minutes, but the perpetually amiable and notoriously talkative Law spends at least 20 telling Dale what he’s done. “I learned a long time ago to leave a lot of time for Pete’s answers,” Dennis Sanders says with an indulgent grin. The Sanders family, another Reno institution, is famous for Sea Furys, especially the powerful Dreadnought. “But I listen to everything he tells me, and I try my best to understand it,” Sanders goes on. “I figure that if 10 percent of it sinks in, I’m ahead of the game.”

Tuesday, Day Two
In a hangar at the east end of the field, Law is poring over a chart with Dave Cornell, the crew chief of 10-time Gold winner Rare Bear. Like most racers, Rare Bear has gone through many changes over the years, but Law helped develop its boiler, carburetor, and ADI system. The crew was expecting more than 500 mph, but yesterday’s qualifying run produced a speed of only 479.43 mph, and the highly analytical Cornell is flummoxed.

“So the induction temp is 80 degrees centigrade?” Law asks as T-6s drone overhead. “Does that seem reasonable to you?”

Cornell nods. “Oh, yeah.”

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