Coming off an incredible year in 2018, breaking the elusive 400mph mark, the quest for speed continued.  Over the past several years we have made some extensive changes with the wingtips, flap mod, body and paint work, and it was time to focus on refining the systems a bit.

In April we took the plane to Sun-n-Fun in Florida to display in the Lancair booth.  It was great to see all the fans and talk about going fast.  It’s great to see the recognition that the air races have gotten.  @charlie_the_flying_cavalier was on hand for the fans as well! 

PRS was a blast as usual. This year there were 52 Sport Class pilots and 10 rookies along with the addition of the STOL Drag pilots. This new class of bush planes provides some great flying at show center while waiting for other classes to take off and form up behind Peavine.   We had some incredible practice flights as we worked to perfect our racing craft.

Photo Credit: Andrew Osterman

Speaking of bush planes, I had my own off airport adventure. During a formation flight for an upcoming documentary, the plane suffered a battery failure. I safely landed on a road but by the time a replacement battery was found and installed it was too dark to fly back to Stead. So a couple of us stayed the night with the airplane. I took off first thing in the morning and made it to Stead in time for the morning’s photo shoot.

Photo Credit: Curtis Noble
Teaser for the new documentary by Vspeed films:

This year I spoke on several podcasts about air racing. Each show has a different focus letting us dig into different topics: my background in aviation, introduction to air racing, flying in uncooperative formation around the pylons, and how I mentally prepare for a race. This was a lot of fun, and it gave the race team opportunities to share our passion with new audiences. 
EAA Green Dot

Spread Aviation EP. 23

Professionals Playbook

One challenge we have had is getting the turbos to spool up without surging.  Working with Turbonetics we were able to size a new compressor and eliminate this issue. With the surging resolved we now had a new challenge. The larger housings didn’t fit on the old mounting brackets, exhaust, or intake tubes. Steve Sook designed some new turbo brackets and we got them water jet cut from titanium.  Matt Sparck welded up the titanium brackets that keep the turbos from shaking and cracking the exhaust (a problem we’ve had the last several years). Welding the titanium was a new challenge and we ended up building a purge box for the brackets. It started as a sandblast cabinet, but turned out perfect for purging.

We also welded new aluminum intake tubes and stainless steel exhaust headers. The intake tubes are a similar arrangement to last year’s, with only minor changes to fit the new turbos.


For the exhaust, Anthony Garcia focused on making the flow paths smoother, eliminating the sharp bends that caused the left side header to blow off while coming down the chute in the 2014 Gold. We also increased the tube diameters from 1.75 inches to 2 inches (a 30% increase in cross sectional area) to give us better flow into the turbine. All-in-all the new turbo-intake-exhaust system came together nicely.

The augmenters are on their 4th iteration, going back to the larger, chevronned downtubes from 2016. Walking around the pits this year it was great to see racers  #24, #42, and #47 with their own augmenter designs, bringing back some old school technology.  

Engine monitoring is a key component of going fast.  We are pushing the engines to 3x the normal power and making sure the parameters stay in line is paramount.  We have been using the Dynon Avionics Skyview Touch panel since 2014 and this year Dynon helped us upgrade to the Skyview HDX.  This upgrade still has the same compatibility with our engine monitoring and brings better display quality to the screens.  This is the same technology available for the certified products. My preference for the Dynon products is the ability to customize the engine layouts.  When you look at the Gold contenders in Reno, we all have Dynon and AFS systems to monitor our engines.

Last year we added an oil cooler duct to direct oil cooling air toward the cowling exit. Seeing we had margin with our oil temps, Mark Voss (Thermodynamic Sciences) calculated that a lot of our cooling air was being “lost” through the oil cooler. So we added a flap to manually adjust and restrict the oil cooler exit area. 

This year we linked the flap to a servo that is controlled from the cockpit. Now, with full spray bars at race power, we can almost completely close the flap, which provides a lot more cooling air to the cylinders. 

With more air going to the cylinders we refined some of the baffling. 

Cylinder 6 got hot during the gold race last year, so we added some baffling to catch more air and spray bar water. 

Added a carbon and felt prop seal to keep air from leaking past the spinner

To make the gear system control lighter and more robust we added the solid state controller from fellow racer Louis Gabriel.  This system eliminated the large mechanical relays(weight savings) and makes the system more reliable.

Our last mod of the season was actually on the to-do list since we got back from Reno last year. While looking through all the amazing pictures taken from the pylons we noticed a small mist of spray bar water coming off the rudder trim tab. Thanks to all the body work done on the belly and fuselage, the air was staying attached and traveling 5 inches up the trailing edge of the rudder.

This photo messed with “young” Thomas’s OCD so much that he had to find a different picture for his desktop background. Credit: Will Campbell

Looking at other race planes like “Relentless”, “Turbulence”, and #39 we noticed their rudders had squared off or even pointed corners. This helps reduce drag by keeping the airflow parallel to the longitudinal axis. While making the corners sharper is simple in concept, executing requires a structural modification, something we didn’t have time for in late August. So the temporary solution (at least for this year) was to speed tape the corner on. 

This gives us the sharp corner for the airflow to follow, and the tape is flexible and does not take any aerodynamic loads during large rudder deflections. As to the tape’s effectiveness, we noticed the trailing edge is cleaner with the tape than without, and we haven’t seen any photos with mist coming off the rudder tab, so we count it as another microknot gained. 

In July we did the AirVenture Cup race from Mt. Vernon, IL to Wausau, WI enroute to Oshkosh.  It’s always fun to see all the competitors in the various classes.  Everyone has a unique aspect of their plane that makes it go fast, I learn something new from each one.  The banquet was filled with some great hangar flying and I really enjoyed the stories from Dick Keyt and his adventures over the years.  For the week at Oshkosh Airventure we had the race plane in the Reno Air Races booth to promote the races and meet the fans.  It was great talking with everyone all week and meeting people from around the world! Later in the week the Lancair Owners and Builders Organization (LOBO) invited us to present to the group and highlight some of the speed mods and challenges we have overcome pushing the plane to new speeds.  It was a great evening with the incredible people that make up the group.

The big surprise at Oshkosh was the news we would be on the cover of AOPA Magazine!  I had talked with Dave Hirschman earlier in the year and expected a quick story about the plane.  The cover was really exciting since AOPA hasn’t done much experimental aviation in the past or knife edge formation pics.  Big thank you to Dave and Mike Fizer for the article and great pictures!

Race Week Preparation

August and September were the usual thrash, though this year’s to-do list was mercifully shorter than in previous years. We got the new McCauley race prop installed in June to stay ahead of the schedule. The biggest issue we found was when we did a ground run and found the gascolator was leaking fuel. This grounded us through Labor Day weekend while we waited for a new gascolator to be delivered. This gave us some unprecedented time to review the smaller things like double checking the flow rates of the ADI and spray bars, check tire pressures, and leave the airport at a decent time. It was actually kind of relaxing, which felt kind of weird. 

“I’m panicking that we aren’t panicking.”-Andre

Race Week 

Practice was good, other than the automatic adi not working as well in Reno as it did in testing up high back home.   It was time to really test the new turbos and push the power up with the VP 160 octane fuel. Testing in Virginia was with 100 low lead so I didn’t try full power. The turbos spilled up nicely and it was making a lot of boost, too much boost, a great problem to have!

Monday practice we reduced the boost and dialed in the strategy to manually use the adi.  Getting it to light at the beginning of the race is a challenge, but I had a decent sequence that seemed to work.

We also got a very special gift from Michael Luvera.  He brought me some of Bill Kerchenfaut’s memorabilia. For those who don’t know, Kerch was the winningest crew chief in history, having worked on all of the super unlimiteds.  He was a special guy that had an ability to build successful teams. This was truly humbling and good juju for the week that the speed Gods were on our side!

Tuesday Qualifying

With manual ADI dialed in we were ready to post a time. The conditions were cooler, reducing true airspeed, and I had pulled theboost back a bit too far. I was bummed we didn’t get 400 mph, and was really surprised that Jeff in Race 39 missed it too that afternoon.  Overall it was a great day though and we were on the pole for the first time at 398mph! IT was a great start to the week and pretty incredible that Jeff and I were within 0.3 seconds, 1.5mph, the battle was set!

https://airrace.org/

Another amazing story during the week was Peter Balmer’s Thunder Mustang and crew. They have been developing a new engine package for a few years and finally had it ready.  They had the special VP fuel and were rumored to be making over 1000hp. During qualifying they had a piston fail. The crew pulled an all-nighter and put the stock Falconer engine back in to get a qual time Wednesday morning.  Meanwhile, the engine shop rebuilt the race motor Wednesday so they could install it Wednesday night. The thrash was on with crew chief Michael Cummings!

Wednesday evening was the sport class social at the Thunder Mustang Hangar.  For qualifying on the Pole Position, Fortis Watches donated a new timepiece to the fastest qualifier, thank you for supporting the class! We also received the coveted 400mph club patch for our win last year and averaging 402.7mph in a race.  So much work by the team to make this happen!

Thursday Heat 1A

Sport Gold Heat race start from the L39 pace jet. Little spread out to start with but they lined up a bit better before the release.

Posted by Sport Class Air Racing on Thursday, 12 September 2019

We’re on the pole! It’s so nice flying next to the pace jet for the race start. Jeff was smoking pretty bad during the join up, but he continued on.  Jeff got a great start when my engine stumbled from all the ADI. I got the engine to relight and we went charging towards the guide pylon. He was slightly ahead but wasn’t pulling away so I knew I would pass him back with the inside line around pylon 4. 

Credit: Will Campbell

We dove down the valley of speed and I started to pull ahead. The smoke trailing from Jeff’s plane has only gotten worse and he is losing boost. He maydays out and lands safely on Runway 14. For us it was smooth sailing the rest of the race

Thursday’s heat race 1A
he bad kind of airshow smoke. Credit: Steve Carter

The smoke from Jeff’s plane was caused by an oil scavenger pump failure. This subsequently led to a failure of both turbos. He was in touch with Turbonetics that evening and Friday was a long day spent retrieving and installing the new turbos. But even with the new turbos, there were concerns the engine would hold together for a full race.  

Firetruck!

Friday Heat 2A

Sport Gold Start

Posted by Sport Class Air Racing on Friday, 13 September 2019

With Jeff and Race 39 a DNS while waiting for the replacement turbos, we had a day to test some bigger power. This way if anything broke we would have time to fix it before Sunday.  We ran high power for a few laps and then pulled it back. Jim Rust and Crew Chief Robbie Grove did a great job on Race 24 and stayed close for several laps.

Friday’s heat race 2A

Friday Evening we had our crew dinner and sponsor appreciation. It’s a great time for the team and sponsors to hangout with each other and say thanks.  Each year we give out a few of last year’s old race blades. This year they went to Todd Woods and Sebastian Strauss. 

Todd has been racing with me since high school when we traveled all over the Northwest racing snocross. Todd is an incredible mechanic and can build anything.  We had lots of fun riding togethers and late nights rebuilding snowmobiles. Whenever I get stumped with engine problems, Todd is the perfect guy to breakdown what the root cause is and fix it. 

I met Sebastian at Evinrude (BRP) when I was his intern in college.  Sebastian is an engine expert and data analysis master and has his own consulting company Sestra Analytics.  Sebastian has been a great mentor throughout my career and I joined STIHL after he called me to come help with the Test Cell Team.  

The Team has so many incredible people and I really appreciate everyone’s contribution.  One of my favorite compliments is how we have so much depth and expertise in all areas.

Saturday Heat 3A

Sport Gold Start (Saturday)

Posted by Sport Class Air Racing on Saturday, 14 September 2019

Jeff and Race 39 were back and starting on the outside.  This is actually a great place to be, because you can pull less G around the back of the course and slingshot down the valley of speed, which is what I did during the Saturday race in 2018. Jeff and Jim both get great starts coming down the chute until Jim calls a mayday. He lost boost and the engine was running rough.  Turns out one of the through-studs had broken on the front cylinders, meaning he would be out for Sunday as well. I was bummed to see him out as they did such an incredible job with the plane this year. While holding off Kevin in “Relentless”, Peter Balmer was pushing the race engine in his Thunder Mustang until it also had a failure and he mayday’ed with a few smoked pistons.  This was a year of attrition, but a good example of how hard we are pushing the engines.

We had the power pushed up and the engine was running smooth. I was expecting a challenge from Jeff, but his gear doors didn’t retract all the way and he didn’t get close.  3 for 3, one more to go!

After the race we gave everything a once over. We changed the oil and filter and installed fresh plugs. We inspected the new exhaust and intake and everything looked good and the engine was happy going into Sunday. 

Saturday’s race 3A
Credit: Kenn Smith

Sunday Sport Gold

Following the previous night’s maintenance, we did a quick ground run, during which Todd Woods noticed a loose fuel line.  It was a great catch as this would have definitely been a mayday event. So glad to have such an awesome crew!

The gold racers were lined up and ready to do battle.  Check-in went well and we took off. We fly around Peavine and drop down the chute for the last time of 2019.  Jeff was off my right wing and I had the power all the way up. We got a good start and the plane was really accelerating hard toward the guide pylon. 

Sport Gold Start (Sunday)

Posted by Sport Class Air Racing on Sunday, 15 September 2019

 I checked inside and the temps were ok. but climbing fast. I made sure both spray bar pump and ADI were flowing.  It’s Sunday Gold and time to battle it out! Coming around the backside of the course I hear Jeff call mayday. He was losing power, luckily it was just an intake hose failure and the engine was ok.   Coming past home pylon i started pulling the power back since Jeff was out. I focused on my lines as time itself seemed to slow down. …Up the hill to 3, past the 3rd board on the fence, three count and rolling into Pylon 4…  The Reno wind has kicked up and it is rough. I am getting 5G hits from the turbulence and then it will unload to -2G. I stay focused as I get into lapped traffic. The closure of nearly 100mph is pretty wild.

“White flag, white flag”, one to go, engine temps are looking good, and we have a commanding lead.  One last time down the valley of speed. “Checkered Flag, Checkered Flag.” Awesome!!!

I get the nose pointed up and zoom climb to 9000ft as I pull the power back and let it cool off.  We had a perfect week: fastest qual and winning all 4 races. It’s surreal! So many long nights, so much support from an amazing team and sponsors.  Back to Back Champions!

Sunday’s race Sport Gold

After landing we shutdown and debrief with the other pilots.  What a privilege to fly with such an amazing group! An awesome week of hard racing, attrition, battles, late night thrash’s, fast airplanes, supportive families, and dedicated crews, and the volunteers is what makes the September family so special.

Photo: Tom Wilson/KITPLANES
From left to right: Jeff Lavelle, Kevin Eldredge, Andrew Findlay, Bob Mills, Karl Grove, Vince Walker, Mathias Haid
https://airrace.org/

It was time for another fire truck ride with the Crew and stopping by the STIHL hospitality booth! Thanks so much for the support from our dealers that attend the races!

At the final Sport Class debrief we give out trophies for the fastest in type, Rookie of the Year, Rocketeer (best qual improvement), Tommy Rose Airmanship, Fastest Women, and the Lee Behel for promotion of Air Racing.  We were honored to receive the Lee Behel award. Lee was one of the founders of the class and I was lucky to fly with him for all my training when I was a Rookie. I was also with him the day he had a structural failure in his airplane during qualifying.  This award is very special to myself and the team, that have worked hard to promote the Sport of Air Racing, the class, and helping other racers succeed by sharing our knowledge. 

A huge thank you to everyone that makes it happen!  Speed mod season for 2020 has already begun, and I can’t wait to see where we can find more speed!!! See you in June at PRS.

STIHL
McCauley Propellers
Turbonetics
Airframes Inc.
Thermodynamic Sciences
Pinnacle Aircraft Engines
Dynon Avionics
Geoquip
Advanced Aviation
Lift Aviation
Air Capital Insurance
Beringer-Aero
Flying Eyes Optics

The team at the awards banquet. Photo Credit: Joanne Murray
From left to right back row: Scott Findlay, Andrew Findlay, Bob Fair, Brad Potts, Mike Turner, Danny Ball
Middle row: Jackie Fair, Thomas Lindgens, Polina Ball, Lacy Critchfield, Janie Smith, Ed Smith
Front Row: Shane O’Day, Mark Voss, Sebastian Strauss, Todd Woods, Thomas Lockwood, Travis Martin, and David Robinson 
One Moment and Charlie back home safe!

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