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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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.

In Friday afternoon’s Gold heat race, Jimmy Leeward lost control of his formidable P-51 Mustang Galloping Ghost—which was flying faster than ever, thanks in part to Law’s ADI system. The airplane speared into the crowd. Leeward and 10 spectators were killed, and scores more were injured. Had it not been for the ADI fluid, which kept the ruptured gas tank from bursting into flames, the carnage would have been worse. Four lawsuits were filed against race organizers, and people wondered if there would ever be another race at Reno. Months later, the racing association announced that the 2012 event would proceed, but the organizers later had difficulty raising money for the insurance premium, which had jumped from $300,000 to $2 million.

But at the moment, the problem is getting 10 airplanes through the qualification trials.

Thursday, Day Four
With his son, Vance, chauffeuring him around the pits in the golf cart, Law makes the rounds. Miss America, a P-51 that has been racing since the 1960s, is his first stop; SteadFast his second, then Voodoo. “You doing okay?” he asks Voodoo crew chief Bill Kerchenfaut.

“It’s doing really good, and the data is clean,” Kerchenfaut says. “Now, we need a smart guy like you to tell us if everything is in the right place.”

“Remember, I’m not an aero guy.”

Kerchenfaut just shakes his head at Law’s customary humility. He likes to say that Law is the guy who “contaminated” him with a passion for air racing. He got involved with Law, Boland, and Greenamyer in 1968, when he was a sergeant at Edwards Air Force Base in California, and now, with 13 victories, he’s the winningest crew chief in Reno history. Yet to this day, Law remains his go-to resource for heating and cooling issues. “He was the senior thermodynamicist at the Skunk Works!” says Kerchenfaut, who, like the Gold racers he massages, runs constantly at redline. “That’s not a political position. They don’t give it to you just because. That’s big! Senior guy! The SR-71! The F-117! He can’t even talk about some of the stuff he did!”

The Bronze heat race is about to start. Law, anxious as a stage mother, asks Vance to park the golf cart as close as possible to the flight line. When the race begins, he carries on a running commentary about the action. “You’re a hell of an announcer, Pete,” a friend jokes. Soon, one of the two engines in Rod Lewis’ stunning Tigercat begins trailing smoke. After Lewis pulls out of the race, Law’s commentary changes, as if he’s talking Lewis down like a character in a cheesy airplane movie. “All right now, Rod. Stay calm. Stay calm. Stay calm. You can do it.” When the Tigercat lands safely, he cheers.

After the Bronze race, Rare Bear makes a quick test flight. When it’s back on the ramp, Law intently studies the airplane through his binoculars. “The exhaust pattern looks perfect,” he murmurs. But the big radial continues to pop and clatter while Dave Cornell and his crew check the magnetos. A spectator idly asks what kind of engine that is. “R-3350 Dash-91,” Law says without removing the binoculars from his eyes. “He’s not getting idle cutoff,” he adds, sounding worried.

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