Every September an event like no other in the world takes place in the high desert just outside Reno Nevada. The National Championship Air Races. What makes it special? A unique blend of high speed, high tech, and a mixture of vintage and modern aircraft all vying for a National Championship trophy. Nowhere else in the world will you find highly modified world war two fighters pushing back the edge of the performance envelope in order to take home the Unlimited class trophy. This also applies to the other classes of racers, the North American T6/SNJ/Harvard class, the Sport class, Biplane, F1 and yes there is even a class for Jets.
Each class has its unique features. The Formula 1 class is an amazing class of purpose built home built single seat racers running an 80 hp 4-cylinder air cooled engine with a fixed pitch propeller at speeds greater than 200 mph. The Formula 1 class is very evenly matched must race early in the morning due to their small size and weight. Any wind makes racing them dangerous. Next up are the Biplanes. The biplane class is similar to the Formula 1 class, but they are single seat biplanes, some of which are very exotic looking. They are also a class of close racing, making for some exciting passing. The T-6 class is a single make class. It’s comprised of North American AT6/SNJ/Harvard World War 2 trainers. These are powered by 9-cylinder radial engines. The fastest ones will be hard pressed to go 240 mph average lap speed, but the slowest one will be less than 15 mph behind. Its exciting racing to watch where pilots have to fly the smoothest cleanest line and in order to pass, trade altitude for speed. The Sport class is viewed by some as the evolution of Air Racing. These are some very exotic and creative designs. Some are normally aspirated, others are twin turbo, still others are turbocharged V-12 engines. The fastest sport planes are now running lap speeds faster than some of the Unlimited class. The Bronze heat of the Sport class is primarily made up of mostly stock general aviation aircraft. The winner of the Bronze heat can bump up to race in the Silver. The Silver heat are more modified and very entertaining to watch. The average speed of the Silver Sport class planes is in the 300+ mph range. Again, the winner of the Silver can bump up to the next fastest group. This leads to the Gold heat. The Gold heat is where the truly specialized sport racers dwell. Next we get to the jet class. The jet class is for non afterburning jets with straight wings. Mostly its comprised of eastern block trainers such as Aero Vodochody L-39s, Iskra TS-11s, Italian Marchetti S-211s and the occasional British De Havilland Vampire. The racing at the front can be highly competitive with the front runners swapping places back and forth, sometimes multiple times per lap. Lastly we get to the main and last event of the day. The Unlimited class. The sky is the limit for the Unlimiteds, as long as they retain a propeller driven, piston engine and weigh more than 3000 lbs empty. You want big displacement horsepower? How does 28 cylinders with a displacement of 4360 cubic inches producing over 4000 hp sound? What about a 27 liter two stage supercharged V-12? If that is too small, what about a 37 liter two stage supercharged V12. The average lap speed around the 8 mile lap for the top Unlimiteds is nearly 500 mph, with the top speeds on certain parts of the lap pushing 530 mph. Impressive for 70+ year old aircraft. This is the class where you find North American P51 Mustangs, Grumman F8F Bearcats, F7F Tigercats, Russian Yaks, and British Hawker Sea Furies, Vought F4U Corsairs, Curtis P40s, and other fighters from this time period. Some are highly modified, others are museum pieces that rarely get pushed hard, but always look good on course. There are other attractions to the Reno Air Races. Mixed in throughout the day is an airshow, for 2016 the US Navy Blue Angles will be the highlight performers. There are also other displays, and performances. Last year the Breitling jet team made its first appearance and put on an amazing display. This year’s performers will be the Blue Angels, Wings of Blue USAF Academy Jump Team, Mike Wiskus in the Lucas Oil Pitts S-1,
Jim Peitz in his Beechcraft F33C Bonanza,and the Smoke ‘n Thunder Jet car.The military displays include a C17 Globemaster III,A Lockheed C-130 HerculesThe F15E Strike EagleA display by the Idaho Air National Guards A-10 WarthogAlso performing will be the CH-47 Chinook helicopter, and Lockheed F35 Lightning II.
One of the coolest things about the Reno Air Races is how close you can get to the aircraft when they aren’t racing. A $20 pit pass is well worth the expense as it allows you to get right up close and personal with the pilots, crews and planes. You can watch the entire event without ever leaving the pits and have an amazing experience. The teams are all friendly and even when busy with the plane, someone will always try and answer your questions. The overall atmosphere of the event is the most friendly and inviting I’ve ever experienced.
A few more views from the pits. If you happen to stay late on Friday or Saturday night, you might get a chance to witness some pretty cool sights. Just because the races are over for the day, and the crowds have gone home, it doesn’t mean the crews are done. This is one of the most intimate and amazing parts of the weekend. Personally, it’s the evenings and nights that I look forward to seeing every year. I’ll let the pictures show you why.
If you are interested in seeing the fastest motorsport in the world, Stead airport, a short trip up highway 395 from Reno is the place to go. The races are September 14-18, and ticket prices are a bargain, $35 for general admission, $20 for a pitpass. Its pretty hard to beat for $55. Come early, stay late. For more info, www.airrace.org has all the info.