Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Reno Wrap-up -- Merlins and Maydays

The Highlight - Tiger wins!
It is true. Sometimes age and guile win. After an 11 year dry spell, Bill “Tiger” Destefani won his seventh Unlimited National Championship in amazing fashion with his beloved Strega. The Prince, trapped in the body of a Farmer is your Unlimited Champion once again.

This year’s Unlimited Gold was the best in nearly 20 years. I predicted an historic outcome due to the large number of returning champions in the hunt this year, but the races surpassed even my expectations.

To end a final race with two Merlin-powered Mustangs not just still running, but finishing 1st and 2nd was what the fans wanted to see. And having Mike Brown hot in their heels, that is what racing is all about.

It was a long road for Tiger. After his last win in 1997, he had not finished a Gold Race until this year. Different gremlins were causing him strife, but Tigers will always beat gremlins.

He says he is retiring. However, we have heard that before. He says the reins to his Mustang are now in the hands of the new kid, Steven Hinton, Jr. However, he will be there, lurking in the background – making sure Stevo has the right combination of experience that will one day make him an Unlimited National Champion, too.

The long term fans remarked that 1991 was the last time the racing was this exciting. That was the year that the top three finishers in the Gold Unlimited Race on Sunday ALL broke the previous record. Lyle Shelton in his Rare Bear, Tiger in his Strega and Skip Holm in Tsunami were all over 478 mph during that race. For many fans that race still brings chills.

Rob Miller

Dago Red
The new owners of Dago Red must be happy with their 2nd place finish. Dan Martin muscled her around and just couldn’t overtake our leader. He did a magnificent job and I hope to see him again next year piloting Dago Red.

Rare Bear
Other Unlimiteds that weren’t as lucky include Rare Bear’s John Penney. He has great talent and courage – he must have because after visiting with the Rescue Teams after several horrendous Maydays during the week, he still got back in the cockpit for another run.

In talking with Rod Lewis, Rare Bear’s owner, he expressed his disappointment in the performance this year. “She was not running to her full potential this year. We plan a complete debrief session within the next 30 days. I have not had time to debrief yet with my crew chief and race pilots along with other important members of the crew, but it appears that our aircraft is now completely rebuilt and in excellent flying condition; it just needs a good engine to go fast.”

The Rare Bear fans, of which there are many, should be happy to hear that, and to know that despite a difficult year, work is already being planned for 2009.

Voodoo was filled with hope and expectations, only to have the engine let loose on their new pilot, Will Whiteside. The Mayday call goes out and Safety Pilot, CJ Stevens is on Voodoo – “Bob, yes, there is smoke.” And Will’s voice coming back, “Um.. CJ, it’s not Bob, it’s Will. But, I wish it was Bob.” In his first major Mayday at Reno, Will managed perfectly – despondently bringing a sick engine home to the new boss.

Bob Button, owner of Voodoo was hoping for two healthy race engines this year. He got one – and his “go home” engine. So, this gorgeous race plane was relegated to the Bronze Race with his stocker engine. Sad results for Mr. Button – but they learned many things this year and will be back next year.

Team Sanders
Other disappointments for this year include the Sanders’ Argonaut and Dreadnought. Argonaut had a catastrophic failure that resulted in a Mayday – complete with flames – for Superhero, CJ Stevens. I believe I received several grey hairs on that one. I bet CJ did, too.

Dreadnought, after losing 2nd place last year to a deadline infraction, pulled up short again this year, with a less catastrophic failure that resulted in metal being found in the screens. Both of these darlings were tugged away and hidden in a hangar until they could be retrieved another day. This was a sad ending to 2008 for a wonderful racing/flying family.

Unlimited Rookies
Sawbones, the old Southern Cross Sea Fury, was there with her new owner, Robin Crandall, and Sophomore Pilot, Ray Dieckman. The team had their ups and downs during the week – but it was all good when Ray passed three airplanes to win the Silver and bumping to the Gold on Sunday. Robin is still recovering from the experience.

They learned about the quality of people on the ramp – when they needed help, folks like Nelson Ezell, Stu Dawson and Dennis Sanders were there with the expertise. His team is also having a post race debrief in the next few days to decide where they go from here. I certainly hope “where” is “back to Reno in 2009”. Congratulations and Good Luck!

Doug Matthews brought his pristine P-51, The Rebel this year. He knew he was a Bronze runner – but to finish 2nd behind Voodoo, was a great experience and he’ll be back. When I asked him what changes he was planning to his airplane, he said she is already at the shop getting modifications done. I believe we have a new victim of the Racing Bug.

And, our favorite Rookie is none other than Stevo Hinton. In his first year as a Race Pilot, he raced Sparky in the Bronze to finish third. He also qualified in both Lady Jo and Sparky, as well as trying his hand at the Wildcat, Air Biscuit. When he wasn’t wearing a flightsuit, he could be found in the Strega pit making things happen for his friend and mentor, Tiger.

Sport Highlights

John Sharp and his NEMESIS NXT were the hit of the show in Super Sport this year. While Kevin Eldredge in Relentless, George Giboney in his Thunder Mustang, and Mike Dacey in his Questaire Venture (Egg, to the regulars) were all in the hunt earlier in the week, NEMESIS was just that – their nemesis.

Sharp’s qualifying time was an astounding 409 mph, which was 34 mph faster than the next competitor, Dacey. On the final lap of the final race on Sunday, he lapped half the field. It was a truly decisive victory. Congrats to Team NEMESIS and to the Sharps.

Jet Highlights

Astronaut, Curt Brown battled USAF Academy classmate Mike Mangold in the fastest race I’ve ever seen. Curt’s final speed was over 500 mph with Mike at 499 and change. This year, we saw two L-29 Vipers along with a host of L-39s and a beautifully painted Fouga flown by Lee Behel.

T-6 Highlights

Our winner this year was Ken Dwelle in Tinkertoy at 244 plus mph, a new T-6 Record. When asked how he got that much speed this year, Ken was quick to point out that Reno moved two pylons, to create a more optimal line on the east side of the course. That fact, plus they ran a different prop set up this year. Otherwise, we’ll leave the rest of the increase to magic pixie dust and good weather.

Whatever it was, the T-6 racing was some of the most exciting in years. Al Goss in Warlock took second and John Zayac in McDonald Racer rounded out the top three.

Nick Macy, last year’s winner pulled up with a Mayday during the final Gold Race on Sunday with a lost counter-weight on his prop. From the time he said MAYDAY to the time his wheels were on the ground, no more than 10 seconds had elapsed. I bet that plane was shaking like an earthquake. Glad that Nick brought her down safely.

And before I forget, the Warlock Party was the best ever. Thank you, Al and Anita!

Biplane Highlights

Tom Aberle has been racing Biplanes every year since 1964. And, he won again – with a new race record. His Phantom is just a sight to behold running around the pylons with that “it slices, it dices” propeller. Tom is a true professional and a true showman and an asset to the Biplane Class. Congrats to Team Phantom.

Biplanes lined up in hangar>

For the first year since I’ve been racing, the Biplanes didn’t have enough entries to fill the field. So, using our team work and sense of play, we gather three full fields with volunteers and alternate pilots. So, I finished in my spot in Silver (8th) and I filled in at the back of the Bronze race also. So, I have two trophies, one for the house and one for the hangar.

Daddy Dasher was there this year, for the first time. He was able to see two of my races and meet about 2000 people who all told stories about me. Thanks, Guys! I believe he will be back next year, I hope so.


Last year’s winner, Endeavor was sold over the winter. Yet that didn’t stop her from reviving her winning ways with her new owner, Steve Senegal. Gary Davis, Doug Bodine and Smokey Young made the fight for first place in the Gold a very interesting endeavor (pun intended).

With lots of new pilots and new planes on the horizon, IF1 looks to be a happening class again. Rookie Pilots Thom Richard, finished 7th in the Gold and Dan Peters in Route 66 (previously known as Pooder) came in 2nd in the Bronze. Sadly, another Rookie, John Kokshoorn, new owner of Outrageous and our lone Aussie, wasn’t able to finish the Gold race on Sunday due to an engine hiccup. But, they will all be back next year, I’m certain.

Final comments

For true racers, only a few days go by between the end of one race week and the start of planning for the next year. Already several teams are planning their changes in preparation for more excitement next year.

Furias has been sold to someone who has great plans for her future. We know that Doug Matthews is already making changes to his race plane. The new owners of Dago Red, The Costo Family, are busy making strategic moves for their mighty Mustang.

It only gets better from here. Congrats to all the winners and all the racers!

And a moment of silence for my friend, Erica Simpson, who we lost in a testing incident early in the week. Blue skies and tailwinds forever.

Marilyn Dash