Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Future of the Reno Air Races…

*** Since this column was written, Mike Houghton, the President of RARA has been let go. The Board of Directors will be taking over the day to day operations. We plan to continue coverage of the Future of Air Racing. Keep the faith, fans. 

Since the Galloping Ghost crash of 2011, the Air Races have been plagued with financial concerns and rumors about closing the doors.

In the last few months, Mike Houghton, RARA President, has been talking about this year’s event being in jeopardy if $500,000 was not raised by December 15th. Just in the nick of time, we were told the event is back on. This leaves many people wondering about the long term viability – and if this will continue to be a year to year endeavor.


The Insurance has been an issue since the crash in 2011 –the premiums skyrocketed. In 2011, they were paying around $300K; after the crash the cost was $2mil for 2012; in 2013 it was reduced to $1.2mil. A safe and successful race, year after year, will start to chip away at the high cost, but will take time.

The purse is another problem. It’s no secret that the crowds were highly disappointed in the lack of Unlimited Class participation last year – with only 14 racers in attendance and a mere five Unlimited Races over five days. One of the ways to build this class back up to its earlier glory is to have a decent purse to lure them to participate.

But, the reality is, NO ONE makes money in air racing… I can guarantee not one race team walked away with more than they spent. The cost of fielding even a F1 or Biplane contender is 10-100 times your purse. When you receive your winnings in a check, the running joke is, “Just put it on my Starbucks’ Card”.  Yes, that small.

Sponsorships would help – but this would assume people outside of the fans who attend each year –have heard of the Reno Air Races. 50 years of Air Racing in the High Desert of Nevada and every time we tell people we are Air Racers – they ask about Red Bull. Where did we go wrong!? Why don’t more people know about this event? It’s the best kept secret in motorsports – and it’s a pity.

Other difficulties include the uncertainty of the Unlimited Division – now Unlimited and Warbird Racing Class. Some of the Unlimited pilots/owners were unhappy with the change. There were concerns about who was in charge; who was pulling the strings and what it all meant. The new UWRC didn't have rules or certification from the FAA until the racers showed up at Reno in September. Racers lose faith when they are asked to walk into a situation without rules or clear information. There was too much left unsaid.

The course changes are still in contention. Since the Ghost accident, the course has “tightened up“ - increasing the g-loads going around the course. And the ceiling was lowered. One Unlimited Racer likened it to “racing in a donut” with a deadline on one side, pylons on the other, an arbitrary ceiling above and hard ground below.  

None of the issues from last year have been addressed, yet racers are being asked to “have faith”. Should we be spending our time preparing our air racers? Should we be putting in for vacation during that sacred second week in September? Is this the last year, or was 2013?

Is the constant “fundraising” message form RARA a “boy who cried wolf” scenario, or are things really as bad as they say. For those of us who have been around for many years, we've heard the cries of financial difficulties even before the Ghost crash. Each year our first Pilot Brief of the week started with, “We lost X# of $s last year”. Every year … EVERY YEAR!?

RARA is a non-profit organization – which means any income needs to be put back into the organization – it doesn't mean you can’t make money. Many of us wonder how we lasted as long as we have with the constant financial losses.

Let’s just say, some Racers and Fans are looking for possible alternate plans in September. Our hopes are high, but we’re not ready to put tens of thousands of dollars into single use aircraft. Will Strega, Voodoo and the rest go the way of Stiletto and become Stockers again? Only time will tell.

In the next few months, we will be taking a look at what can be done, other racing venues coming up in the future and other aviation topics of interest.

As always, thanks to my photographers, Rob “Phred” Miller, Bruce “20W” Croft, Tim “Nice Hat” Adams, and Anthony “Hopper” Taylor.  This month, we’re all Bruce Croft.

Let’s get 2014 off to a great start and go flying!