Red Bull’s Rodeo

Take two parts aerobatic skill, add daring, throw in obstacles and speed: Air racing’s got a brand-new bag.

On Reno's hallowed ground, Red Bull deployed dashing new racers and elegant graphics. (Caroline Sheen)
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Despite the runway incursion, Gardner approved the Red Bull Air Race for exactly one public performance on Thursday. Keeping the Austrian air circus on a tight leash, she wanted to watch the first heat before deciding if the team should be allowed to operate the remaining three days under the RARA's mentorship.

Overnight, all of the pilots seemed to settle into the rhythm of the course, and the race went off without a hitch. Satisfied that the race design and operations were sound, Gardner signed off on a waiver that allowed the remaining three races to proceed.

Whether it was the focused practicing, the need to convince Gardner, the intensity of race day, or the prospect of performing for a live audience, something had made the pilots sharper. During Thursday's provisional heat race, even the rookie pilots displayed a disciplined élan in the air, pausing for just the right amount of time to slice cleanly through the gates and arcing around between them with competitive urgency.

By race time on Friday, the cold and wind had arrived and it was blustering, near the limits of what was safe for aerobatic performances. Red Bull course designer Martin Jehart pumped up the pylon pressure a little and declared the course viable in the wind. Sterling Price polled the pilots, who elected to race.

Mike Mangold attacked the course first. In ski racing and auto racing, there is a certain trajectory through a turn that will leave a competitor set up to enter the next turn. The best combination of these is "the line," the most effortless path a racer and his machine can trace through the course. It's not always the shortest, but it will be the fastest. Mangold found the line; his intense rehearsals at Beckwourth field had paid off. He positioned the two-point-of-four roll strategically and coasted over the Red Bull logo slow enough to make it easy to jab the stick forward and nail the center point-blank. Two gates later Mangold startled the field with a no-penalty, 2:09.68 flight. That lead would never be in serious jeopardy. Both British pilots, justifiably cautious in the unfamiliar density altitude and flying ponderous radial Sukhois, were eliminated in the opening rounds. Chambliss, already in the final by virtue of his earlier wins, ran through the course in his best airshow display manner, showing the Red Bull logo to good advantage and taking second.

On Saturday, Besenyei, Chambliss, and Mangold, all flying Edge 540s, were joined by Michael Goulian in the Castrol Cap 232 to vie for the U.S. National Championship.

First on the course, Chambliss turned in a flawless 2:03.04, the best time to date. Second up, Mangold crossed the start line

7 mph slower than Chambliss and was over a second slower at the first time mark, but aggressive flying through gate 6 enabled him to gain ground. By the next time mark, at the touch-and-go, Mangold was leading by more than seven seconds, despite a two-second penalty for touching down in the entry buffer zone. Chambliss was fast but Mangold was faster; finishing with 1:54.12, he became the first pilot to break the two-minute barrier on the Reno course. Michael Goulian had a good run, but his Castrol Cap couldn't compete with the Edge. He posted 2:12.61. That left Besenyei, who blasted through the start gate in the two-place Edge at 255.7 mph, the fastest start in any race. Besenyei led at the first time mark by .03 second, but lost time on the remainder of the course and had to settle for third. Mangold upset Chambliss and Besenyei to become the U.S. Red Bull Champion.

In the month after Hungary, all air racing fans could talk about was how close Besenyei would get to Chambliss in the final; on Saturday all anyone wanted to know was who was Mike Mangold and could he do it again? Now, in the stands, it was a race. Regardless of who took the world title the next day, Red Bull had already won; it hooked a U.S. audience.

The sky was overcast on Sunday, but the winds had died down. The air was cooler and thicker and the pilots were now more familiar with the course, so speeds would go up. Goulian flew a perfect routine-but couldn't break the two-minute barrier. Besenyei set a second consecutive entry speed record, 262.88 mph, but his flight fell apart as a pylon on the number-three gate collapsed after he sped past; that cost him 10 seconds, and an overshot touch-and-go added five more. It was an unexpected disaster, and the errors cost him the world championship. Without them, his time would have been an unbeatable 1:53.43.

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