Monday, September 30, 2013

The 50th National Championship Air Races -- Wrap-up -- Part 1

Well, the 50th is in the books. The same kid won, but he was riding a different horse. There was good, there was bad, and there was not a lot of ugly, thankfully. Let’s get started with the review.

The UWRC (AKA Unlimiteds) competitors were few and far between, with only 15 racers showing up for race week. But, the big iron was there. Returning champ, Strega, along with Voodoo, Rare Bear, Czech Mate, 232 and Dreadnaught all have the pedigree. All of them could win; nearly all of them HAVE won. But, it was Bob Button’s year --- finally.

After threatening retirement for the third time, many didn't expect Button and Voodoo to be back at the races - ever. A change of heart, the right team, the right time and the right combination all came together and they did it. Voodoo, who has maydayed out of so many races over the years, finally wins it all on Sunday.

We affectionately called the combo, “Yoda and the Kid” – but it was so much more than that. It was a team effort, including an owner who was dedicated to winning it all. You could feel the excitement coming from their pit each day. You could see it on each of their faces. It was magic – or Voodoo. Voodoo glasses were the fashion statement of the week. All the cool kids were wearing them.

Proud Father and Son - Champions

And then there was Matt Jackson. Matt has watched the Championship slip through his fingers more times than anyone else. Many thought this was his year – to get the monkey off his back and finally win it all. But, bad luck struck him over and over again.

Tuesday afternoon, Matt heads up to put in a qualifying lap. We all see him coming down the chute and then there was a mayday. The fan next to me with the binoculars said, “I don’t think he has a canopy”. That’s crazy – how could his canopy have broken…. We just shook our heads and watched him pull off a flawless mayday landing in his new Mustang Convertible.

Czech Mate with Strega on her tail
Rob Miller - Photography

Within minutes, Dennis Sanders walks over and says… "I have a canopy at the shop, sending Korey to go get it." WHAT? Maybe Matt’s luck will change!

Speaking of Korey Wells, he flew in his FIRST GOLD RACE on Sunday in Argonaut. Great work - well deserved! 

Back to Strega.. by the next day, Andy Chiavetta, the Carbon Fiber Guru from the Sport Class, had joined the Strega team and the canopy was coming along.

Unable to qualify, Matt would need to start in the back of the Silver and work his way up. Matt and the Strega team had to sit back and wait. On Friday, Matt started on the outside and moved up quickly to first place and was crossing the finish line when we heard there was a deadline cut. DEADLINE? AGAIN?

Back in 2007, Matt was flying Dreadnaught and in the final race was called with a controversial deadline cut – this was familiar territory to him. But, rather than throw in the towel, he threw his efforts into winning the Silver AGAIN… on Saturday.

Sunday’s race was epic. Fast, exciting and safe. Voodoo first, Strega second, Czech Mate in third, Rare Bear in fourth.

Earlier in the week…

Precious Metal showed up with 19 minutes to spare on Sunday, skating past the original “All Racers must be on the field” deadline of noon on Saturday. While this may make it exciting for the fans, the program has a long way to go before they are taken seriously by the brethren. Three years in a row, they have arrived with more oil on the sides than in the engine. 

I look up to professional teams like Voodoo, 232, Rare Bear, etc., who work the program together and are ready when the clock strikes noon. This isn't an easy sport and may not be for everyone – this is serious business and shouldn't be taken lightly or with a smirk. Show up prepared, on time, ready to race and be professional – that’s the minimum requirement.


Strega’s canopy wasn’t the only calamity of week. After qualifying faster than any other Sea Fury in history, 232 lost the intake on the top of the engine in the first race on Saturday. When it let go, parts flew off and skimmed the top of the canopy, hit the tail and could have done much more damage. 

Part of the scoop ended up rattling around in the engine and Hoot Gibson, in his third year flying 232, performed a perfect mayday landing while all of us held our breath.

Hoot in 232 - before the intake let go

The repairs will be done at Sanders Aeronautics during the off-season. I should say that Dennis did walk up to the team afterwards and said, “That’s why we made our's out of aluminum”. So, expect 232 to have an aluminum intake next time you see her.  

Rare Bear

Rare Bear’s new Texas Crew had their work cut out for them all week. Chasing demons, behind on power; they wrenched and scratched their heads and wrenched some more. While the testing at 1000’ MSL went well, the racing at 5000’ MSL did not. I’m certain Stewart Dawson, Nelson Ezell and the team will figure it out. And they can still walk away with their fourth place finish – which is still better than a DNF.

Czech Mate

Sherman Smoot looked right at home flying Czech. Last time we saw her was 2009. The new wing did great and Sherman flew to a comfortable third place. Unfortunately, on his return to Shafter had a brake issue and ground looped the aircraft. The damage isn't as bad as originally reported and John Moore, owner of Czech Mate, has confirmed his interest in rebuilding.

Other classes…

I will cover the other classes in next month’s column, but I didn't want to give you just a brief overview of this amazing group of aircraft. Since I've been going to the races, this was the best group of potential winners we've seen in the Unlimited (UWRC) Gold. It really could have been anyone’s game. But, this year, it was Voodoo's.

Happy Team Voodoo

So what does the future hold for the Reno Air Races? Most people we spoke to on the ramp made a special effort to get there this year, because they thought it would be the last. Will we all return for the 51st, or are we done? That remains to be seen. I do know that I heard the “Wait until next year” comments coming from many of the UWRC pits. So, there is hope.

Until next month… Fly low, fast and turn left…

Marilyn Dash
Pylon Place