“The Unlimiteds are dying,” is once again the topic for air racing fans. This time it’s because Rod Lewis sold “232”. The stories say it will be shipped to Germany and restored to stock. But at the same time “Rare Bear” is back in Texas with hints of a new speed record attempt. These two events, happening so close together, sent air racing fanpages through a range of nostalgia, despair, and finally some hope.
But it was the despair that really got me thinking. More specifically, it was the despair caused by the fear that if the Unlimited Class dies, then the Reno Air Races die as well. I don’t see why that should happen. I see reasons to be optimistic and excited. I see a new golden age of air racing, and it’s not just coming, it is already on full display in Sport Class.
First, what is a golden age? According to Merriam Webster it is: a period of great prosperity, achievement, and happiness. So, if we look at the sport class and see those things, then we are in a golden age.
Prosperity: the condition of being successful or thriving
This is the easiest of the three to see. All you have to do is take a walk through the sprawling pits of the Sport Class. For the last two years, RARA has actually limited the Sport Class ramp to 40 airplanes. Basically they are saying, “You have too many people that want to race and we don’t have enough room on the ramp or in the schedule.” That’s a pretty awesome problem to have. This limit is important because it creates a trickle-up effect throughout the class. The racers that didn’t make the field last year will go searching for more speed, either in the form of mods or a different airplane. Similarly the racers at the bottom of the field will be searching for more speed to defend their position. This will then put pressure on those in the middle of the field, who in turn put pressure on the top of the field.
For example, Olivier Langeard drew attention last year with his TB 30 Epsilon, an aircraft unique in the Sport Class field. But without additional speed, it is unlikely Olivier would make the field, so he has been very active this #speedmodseason.
He is upgrading from a IO-540 to a IO-580 with 10:1 pistons and adding an array of cooling and aero refinements. It is also important to note that he is doing all of this with no guarantee that he will make the field. If that isn’t the mark of a racer, I don’t know what is.
But racer or no racer, no one gets very far on their own, and that’s where sponsors come in. When asked if sponsor decals made his plane go slower, Jon Sharp replied, “Without the decals, it doesn’t go at all.”
Olivier is sponsored by Dassault Aircraft Services, Daher, and Clay Lacy Aviation, so you have aircraft maintenance, manufacturing, and charter services. The airlines are also in the mix with Envoy Air sponsoring Paul Downing and writing an article about his experiences at Reno. If you look at our own sponsors you have McCauley, a propeller designer and manufacturer. We have paint and bodywork services by Airframes Inc. Beringer provides our color-coordinated wheels. Last year Dynon created a patch for our panel during race week. Turbonetics sizes a turbo setup specifically to match our engine parameters at race power. Mark Voss’s Thermodynamic Sciences puts math and engineering to the ideas for cooling and engine performance.
Sponsors also help with networking. Having sponsors will introduce you to others, as is the case when Mark introduced us to Pinnacle Engines. They overhauled the race motor and used their many years of Continental knowledge to build a robust engine.
Many of the racers are supported by Air Capital Insurance and build shops like Advanced Aviation help multiple racers. Outside of aviation, getting local support helps each team, in our case it’s the heavy equipment supplier Geoquip. And of course you have STIHL, a power tools manufacturer, not only supporting Race #30, but the whole event.
Sponsorship has been a difficult subject throughout the history of air racing. So it is encouraging to see so many Sport Class teams with sponsors. But what may be even more encouraging, is seeing how those sponsors come from a such a diverse range of industries.
Achievement: a result gained by effort, an accomplishment
In 1964 Bob Love flew “Bardahl Special” to win the Gold at 367mph. Twenty years later, in 1984 Skip Holm took the gold in “Stiletto” at 438mph, an increase of 71mph.
Shawn Aro, 1984
In 1998 Dave Morss won the first Sport Gold at 308mph. Again, fast forward twenty years and in 2018 Andrew Findlay wins at 403mph, an increase of 95mph.
What makes the numbers for the Sport Class even more impressive, is that these speeds have been achieved while using less than 60% of the class’ 1000cu-in displacement limit. So, it is a safe bet we will continue to see faster and faster speeds for many years to come.
It’s also impressive to see how the aircraft in both classes developed during those time frames. Aero improvements, ADI, spray bars, clipped wings, and boil off systems are all mods pioneered on the old Unlimited racers. Today every one of those mods have been adopted by one Sport team or another. The lone exception is a boil off system, but it’s only a matter of time before we see one of those on a Sport racer.
Of course no discussion of Sport Class achievements would be complete without mentioning Team Nemesis. They designed and built a race plane from the ground up (a feat on its own). They then raced that airplane to four consecutive Sport Class championships, flew past the 400mph mark and set six world speed records (five of which are still standing). Now Race #3X has retired to a well-earned place in the Smithsonian and will be a central part of the coming “Nation of Speed” exhibit.
Happiness: a state of well-being and contentment, joy
There are always comparisons to NASCAR or Red Bull Air Race (which sadly just announced 2019 will be its last season). But a better comparison would be to an open track day. No one comes to Reno looking to get rich. Many aren’t even out there to win. This makes Reno special, because everyone comes to have a good time.
And for the One Moment Team, working on the plane each year is an annual party. You look around the pit and you have family, friends, co-workers, friends of co-workers, former bosses, airport neighbors, and they all converge for one week in September.
I stumbled onto the team four years ago. I was a bored engineer with a fledgling interest in Reno when I found the team’s Facebook page. About a week later Andy got me out to the airport and immediately put me to work. Now working on the plane is like a part-time job, and in August and September, race prep becomes full-time. It’s ton of work and I love it. We all love it.
This attitude is reflected throughout the class and the “September Family.” While it may sound cliche, a family reunion really is the best description for the first half of race week. You have a bunch of people who love to fly and, if you follow enough of their social media pages, you will see they simply enjoy flying with each other. This creates a very fun and welcoming atmosphere, and has definitely contributed to the growth of the class.
Even on the more competitive side of things, things remain friendly and fun. When it comes to speed mods, Sport Class has taken a more “open source” approach. Tom McNerney and Sean Vanhatten helped on the mods for #30 last year. This year Andy has been helping Bob Mills install exhaust augmenters on #47 “Mojo”. There’s still some secrecy of course, but in general we try to share as much as we can. Personally I’ve found keeping a speed mod a secret for a season or two can be fun, but talking about it and sharing the process and the science is way more fun.
The “Good New Days”
In conclusion I did not write this article to claim Sport Class is better than the Unlimiteds (or any other class). I did not write this to argue that the Unlimiteds are dying or not dying (but I do hope it is the latter). I wrote this because I see people talking about how they have been going to Reno for 40+ years but they’re going to quit coming because it’s not like the “Good Old Days” or one of their favorite planes isn’t racing that year. Reading that invokes two responses in me: 1) I’m a bit envious because I wasn’t alive to experience the “Good Old Days”, and 2) I feel a fire light in my belly because I’ve only been to Reno four times and I have a HECK of a lot more years left in me! So I need the races to continue for another couple decades. And that means I need people to keep coming and to bring their friends and relatives along with them. Because while I can’t help the fact that I was born after the golden age of the Unlimiteds, I can and will support the golden age of the Sport Class.
So if you’re favorite plane doesn’t show up this year, then come through the Sport Class pits, and start asking questions. “What’s special about your airplane?” “How did you get involved in this?” “What’s the story behind the airplane’s name?” Whatever it is that “does it for you”, whether it’s the background of the pilots (like Darryl Greenamyer and John Parker), the airplanes, the close racing, the speed, the mods, the paint schemes, the sound, there’s something for you in the golden age of Sport Class Air Racing.
See you in September,
P.S. I intentionally did not talk about the other classes much. This is not to say great things are not happening in the other classes, just that I do not know enough of the goings-on in those classes to write about them.