Saturday, June 29, 2013

What does it all mean…


If you keep up with National Championship Air Racing (NCAR) news during the off season, you probably have read several press releases about the Unlimited Division of the National Air-racing Group (UD-NAG) and a Safety Stand Down for the 2013 NCAR. This was followed quickly by the announcement of the new Unlimited & Warbird Racing Class (UWRC). My goal in this column is to present to you a little history and hopefully answer some questions about the future of Unlimited Racing at Reno.  

History of NAG

The National Air racing Group was founded in the 1970’s by several Northern California air racing enthusiasts. Originally called the Northern Area Group of the Professional Race Pilots’ Association (PRPA), they later split off from PRPA and started their own group.  This organization grew to be the largest and most active air race organization, with over 2000 members scattered throughout the world. A recognized member of the International Council of Air Shows, NAG is a non-profit California corporation.

NAG offered their services to various racing classes, basically providing them with legal protection, support with race responsibilities and administrative matters as well as training officials, officiating, erecting pylons, facilitating negotiations with the FAA and assisting in designing and certifying new potential race venues.

Over time the other race classes left NAG and developed their own associations, (PRPA for Biplanes, Racing Jets, Inc., T-6 Racing Association, International Formula 1 Air Racing, and Sport Class Air Racing). The Unlimited Division is the only race class still directly associated with NAG.

At some point, NAG developed into more of a Fan Club for Air Racing, except for the Unlimited Division, which supported Unlimited Racing. UD-NAG is the governing body for Unlimited Racing. They are accredited by the FAA to speak for the race class. They are responsible for training and certification of the members for their class; they have their own rules, their own technical specifications and inspections. They operate as an umbrella organization for Race Pilots and Race Aircraft Owners and have fought for many years for the continued safe operations of Unlimited Racing.

How does this differ from what the Reno Air Racing Association (RARA) does? Well, RARA provides the venue. They provide overarching rules and structure and manage the event.

In a perfect world, these organizations would work together to bring exciting racing and a safe environment to the racers and the fans. As one race pilot said, “Keep the racers safe and you keep the public safe”.

A line up of P-51 Mustangs via Rob "Phred" Miller

What changed?

After the horrible Galloping Ghost crash of 2011, the FAA and RARA stepped in to alter the Unlimited (and Jet Class) Race Course. The changes were made to create more of a barrier from the deadlines, the areas that mark the outer boundary of our race course, and to allow for a great distance from the spectators.  

The goal was to “soften” the course and to keep things safer. What the pilots found, however, was that the course led to higher g-forces, instead of lower. They also found the old “Valley of Speed” was being tightened, especially as aircraft made the critical turn from pylons 7-8-9 to home.

The other issue was a maximum altitude restriction of 250’ (or 314’ on some areas of the course). The racers felt this altitude ceiling created an added complexity, as one of them put it – “We’re racing in a donut”. The minimum altitude is 50’ the max is 250’ so, 8 aircraft race inside a 200’ donut in the sky. So far, so good – until you consider that the average wingspan of an Unlimited Racer is between 40’ and 50’.

I use the example, Gold Heat 3A 2010, Strega’s average speed was over 473 mph and Here Kitty, Kitty and Bossman – two F7F Tigercats, were averaging 342 mph. So, as Steven Hinton in Strega was coming around the course, he was closing in on two Tigercats, both with over 50’ wingspans, with a closure rate of 130 mph. Pylon on the left, deadline on the right and a new maximum altitude ceiling above – where does he go?

When I asked what a racer was to do in that situation, I was told that “the overtaking racer should throttle back until he/she felt it was safe to pass”. This comment comes from someone who clearly doesn’t understand the fine line of detonation that is an Unlimited Racing Engine. We slowly move the throttle up, but we do not adjust up and down during the race. It’s all out, full throttle. It is unrealistic to “throttle back” – especially when you’re coming up on traffic at that incredible speed. And then, to be able to throttle back up – this scenario would certainly cause engine problems all over the course. Also, the how much time does it take an Unlimited Racing Engine to slow down 130 mph - who knows. 

The Issue

All the UD-NAG asked is that this wording is added to RARA’s Rules of Competition to say:

 “All racers are advised that deviations above the maximum race altitude will not result in a rules violation or penalty if such maneuver is deemed to be in furtherance of flying safety by the pilot in command and if such deviation is followed by a safe and reasonably prompt return to the maximum race altitude.”

Yep, that’s it. They wanted it to be in writing that if they needed to go above the 250’ AGL max for a safe passing line, or to get out of prop wash, or for whatever reason, that they would not be disqualified. They did not want it to be left to chance, they wanted their racers to know they could deviate if necessary, and they would not be violated. They also wanted to have the Unlimited Class provide input to the Contest Committee in case of an altitude deviation. The Unlimited Class knows the course, and the Contest Committee, while a professional and significant group of individuals, does not.
Unlimited Gold via Rob "Phred" Miller

What this means to racing

As UD-NAG has been saying since February, they wanted an answer by June 14, 2013 or they would convey to their members that they do not believe the course is safe. After safety discussions broke down, the UD-NAG Board voted unanimously to call for a Safety Stand Down. They told their members that the current rules proposed by RARA and the FAA may lead to an unsafe and potentially dangerous racing venue.

Absent the requested safety deviation rule, the UD-NAG believes the risk of another accident is too great to shoulder and therefore RARA, the FAA, UWRC and the UD-NAG Racers are on their own.

RARA countered with announcing the new Unlimited and Warbird Racing Class. It had to be done. Ticket sales were in jeopardy, questions about the safety stand down were flying and some kind of move had to be made.

But, what does it mean for September?

There are some unanswered questions. Is the new UWRC accredited by the FAA? Will they fly the course as it is without any changes?

Who will be on the Board of Directors for the new organization? The press release mentioned Bill “Tiger“ Destefani will be the President. But, who else will be involved? Is this organization part of RARA? If so, is that a conflict of interest?

How will the new organization certify racers? Will there be another PRS just for the new group? Who will join, who will not. What about the purse?

Who will be on the ramp in September? Who will stay home? When will we know?
Unlimiteds being towed out via Tim Adams

What happens next…

Right now, we wait and see. The hope is that this will all shake out and there will be Unlimited Racers on the Ramp in September.

Stay tuned, until then… fly low, fast and turn left – but don’t go over 250’ AGL. 


Marilyn Dash
Ruby Red Racing
The Pylon Place

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