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What to Watch at the Reno National Championship Air Races

by Tim Kern, for e-Hotline

The de Havilland Vampire flown by Pierre Wildman.

Bill “Tiger” Destefani's P-51 Strega

Jon Sharp’s Nemesis NXT ready to roll.

Lee Behel’s Lancair Legacy, Breathless

Tom Aberle's newly-painted Phantom

One of the many Cassutts in the F1 class, Outrageous

The T-6 class will be the tightest this weekend.

September 17, 2009 — After a year of preparation and this week’s last days of practice and qualifying, the fastest motor sport on the planet goes at it in earnest through Sunday at Reno Stead Field. Few things are certain, and a lot will be decided on race day for each of the seven classes of this year’s 46th running of the Reno National Championship Air Races: Jet, Unlimited, Super Sport, Sport, Formula One, Biplane, and T-6 (in order of qualifying speed). 

Jet - This year, we can expect more race records (early qualifying looks so very promising!). Retired astronaut Curt Brown in the Vipers of Delaware L-29 ran the fastest lap ever recorded on Tuesday -  538 mph! Close behind were Joe Gano and Mike Mangold, at 524.668 and 514.797, respectively, making three qualifiers over 500 mph! (Rick Vandam was right behind, at 497+.) Adding spice this year to the L-29s and L-39s is a lone de Havilland Vampire wearing British Navy livery and flown by.

Unlimited - Last year's champion (and winningest Unlimited ever) Bill "Tiger" Destefani's P-51 Strega, flown this year by the 22-year-old Steve Hinton, leads going in at 486 mph (in line with Tiger's winning average last year - 483 and change). The real surprise in qualifying was Sherman Smoot's Czech Mate, a Yak 11 with a 2800 up front. Modifications in the off-season include stiffer wings, an all-new cowl, tail fillets, and a final, real fix to the perennial gear door problem seem to have added up to more than 20mph over last year. Though a few favorites aren't here this year (Joe Thibideau's Crusader and Silver-winning Sea Hawk; the P-51, Dago Red, and Will Whitesides' Yak, Steadfast, among others), the presence of a T-28, a Wildcat, a Corsair, Bearcats, a pair of P-40s, and former winners Dreadnought and Rare Bear, plus lots of of P-51s and Sea Furies promises to make this race the crowd-thriller that fans expect.

Super Sport - Now officially its own class and running on the Unlimited and Jet course (last year it ran on the shorter Sport course), Jon Sharp's Nemesis NXT is a favorite to “three-peat” after a record qualification run at 412.554mph on Wednesday. However, four-time sport winner and five-time Unlimited champion Darryl Greenamyer is back, flying his somewhat heavy but very fast Lancair, now sporting a gear reduction that builder Andy Chiavetta says will survive the pounding of some 700 Continental horsepower. Greenamyer qualified third at 378mph, behind George Gibony’s V-12-powered Rapid Travel Thunder Mustang, which ran over 380mph. A true unknown but possible threat could come from John Parker’s brand new Thunder Mustang, Blue Thunder II. (His Blue Thunder is the fastest normally-aspirated airplane ever built.) Mike Dacy's really fast Questair Venture, Bad Attitude, is a proven ship, and may snag a top-3 finish, as could Kevin Eldridge's own NXT, Relentless.

Sport - Speeds are over 350 mph, with Jeff LaVelle's Glasair III at the top of qualifying (357.863) and David Sterling's Lancair Legacy at 350. Last year's winner, Lee Behel, has picked up a few mph since 2008, and his Lancair Legacy is a proven commodity. With several competitors' qualifying over 300, watch for this class to survive and grow on its own, even after the exit of the flashy Super Sport birds.

Biplane - Unless something goes terribly wrong with Tom Aberle's newly-painted (and aerodynamically improved) Mong Sport Phantom, there is no reason to pick anyone else. This machine ran 249.884mph on Tuesday, 25mph (10 percent) faster than second-place qualifier Norm Way's really fast Pitts S-1S. Dennis Vest and Leah Sommer, in two more S-1Ss, both qualified over 210, but Aberle's own-design plane has won not only last year (averaging more than 251mph), but holds the Biplane class record; and it won in 2004, 2005, and 2006, as well.

Formula One - The winning plane from 2007 and 2008, Endeavor, is again piloted by Steve Senegal. (Builder David Hoover flew her in 2007.) Again he's top qualifier; but barely two mph behind, at 243mph, sits Invictus, Thom Richard’s Cassutt. Outrageous, another Cassutt and often a top-running plane in the class, is now piloted by Australian Lachlan Onslow, who qualified third. Gary Davis (Cassutt) and Germany's GR-7 Panther pilot, Steve Temple, all qualified over 240 in this very tight class.

T-6 This class is always fun to watch; winners and winning planes switch radically from year to year. (Six different pilots in six different planes have won since racing resumed after the FAA canceled the 2001 edition in response to 9-11.) The top three qualifiers this year are all former winners. Encouraging for the rest of the field: everyone else, and all the other entries, have not won in this class! For T-6 racing, this is a major "shakeup," and a big opportunity for everyone to move into contention. This is the toughest class of all to call, and the absence of last year's winners Tinkertoy and pilot Ken Dwelle (whose father, Tom, won with the same airplane in 1990 and 1991) makes it even tougher. This might open the door for Al Goss and Warlock.

Keep your eyes on the progress at www.airrace.org. On Sunday, EAA members can watch all the championship races at Oshkosh365. Click here for details.

Look for a Reno wrap-up in next week’s issue of e-Hotline.

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