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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His cell phone rings. “Hello, Dave Cornell,” Law says after answering it. “It’s still rich? It’s doing exactly the same thing?” Pause. “Huh.” Longer pause. “Did he see it derich?” Longest pause of all. “Jesus!” He hangs up and sighs. “That doesn’t sound good,” he says.

The days at Reno are long and demanding, but when the work is done, there are parties everywhere. Thursday night, Law and his wife, Joanne, attend a barbecue thrown by Rod Lewis. In the middle of the festivities, Rare Bear crewman Matt Thompson announces that there’s an award to be bestowed, and Law is stunned to discover that he’s the recipient. For all of his work “protecting” Rare Bear, he’s given a sheriff’s badge, and dozens of smaller “Deputy to Secret Pete” badges are distributed to the crowd. Law tears up as he stammers out a characteristically self-effacing acceptance speech. “I appreciate it very much, but I want to give you guys all the credit,” he says. It is, he acknowledges later, one of the high points of his career.

Another high point comes on Saturday, the day after the horror. Law is summoned by Unlimited class president Tom Camp to the lair of Grumman F4F Wildcat Air Biscuit. There, before about 200 people who have just been through one of the most harrowing days of their lives, Camp and Steve Hinton present Law with a trophy inscribed “Lifetime Member #1 Pete (Secret Pete) Law. Unlimited Division since 1965.” The most competitive people on the planet take a moment to say thanks to an engineer who cheers equally for them all.

Preston Lerner’s last article for Air & Space/Smithsonian, “Wingman in a Pontiac” (Apr./May 2012), was about U-2 landings.

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