AT MOST OTHER TYPES OF RACES, FANS WATCH FROM THE STANDS.
AT RENO, THEY WATCH NOT ONLY FROM THE STANDS AND BOX SEATS, BUT FROM THE
PITS, FLIGHTLINE, OR FROM THEIR CARS ALONG THE ROADS AROUND THE AIRPORT.
THEY EVEN WATCH FROM HOMES ON THE SURROUNDING HILLSIDES. WITH BINOCULARS
OR A TELEPHOTO LENS YOU CAN SEE THE EXPRESSION ON THE PILOT’S FACE!
Every year since 1964 (except in 2001 when 9/11 grounded all
flying), the Monday after Labor Day has been the opening of race
week. Reno is the only place in the world that holds closed-course
airplane-to-airplane races. There are seven different classes—Jet,
Unlimited, SuperSport, Sport, Biplane, Formula One, and T- 6—that
compete separately on four courses tailored to the size and speed
of each group of airplanes. Depending on the number of entries,
each class may compete in Gold, Silver, Bronze, and sometimes
The sanctioning body, Reno Air Race Association (RARA), sets
general rules, maintains the course, and provides the operating
framework as it coordinates the teams, hangars, general sponsor-ships, airport use, the FAA, insurance, thousands of volunteers,
media, and general public. Each class basically sets its own rules
for pilot qualification, aircraft specifications, and whether the start
is from the ground or in the air.
WHEN THE GREEN FLAG DROPS
For all the races at Reno that have an in-air
start (only the Formula One and Biplane start
from the runway), those famous words,
“Gentleman, you have a race,” signal that the
race is on. Strategies differ, depending on
who’s fastest and where he or she is placed in
the lineup. Sometimes, the pole sitter is in
that position because the fastest airplane
hasn’t made a good showing in the last heat
race, meaning the faster plane may be starting from the back. Some pilots like starting
near the back (where they figure they won’t
be so carefully watched), and try to pick up
altitude on the rest of the field as the group
lines up; then, when the race starts, they dive
on the pack, hoping to pick up a few places.
Sometimes, it works.
With binoculars or a telephoto lens, spectators can see the pilot’s expression like this photo of
Tom Aberle in his biplane champion Phantom.
GETTING STARTED IN AIR RACING
Reno offers the only opportunity for pilots to
fly in multi-aircraft competition, and anyone
with a desire to race can participate. It just
takes a little learning. Dave Morss, noted test
pilot and the most-experienced Reno racer in
history with more than 200 races to his credit,
instructs at Reno’s mandatory “Rookie School”
(officially known as the Pylon Racing School,
or PRS). It’s held at Reno/Stead Airport in
June each year, and all competitors must
attend if they have not competed in the previous three years or if they’re changing classes.
“There are two things to look for [in a
rookie]. One can be taught; one can’t. I can
teach pretty much anybody to fly or to race.
But I can’t teach attitude or judgment,” Dave
said. “If he has a good attitude and demonstrates good judgment, we’ll all encourage
him.” A few years ago a pilot showed up green
and unsure, and said the competition was far
beyond his level. “We encouraged him to stay
through the school: ‘Don’t race this year; just
watch and learn. Then come back next year
and take the school again.’ He practiced all
year, flying formation with a buddy, in the
roughest air they could find,” Dave said.
That pilot, Mike Jones, not only returned
and passed the school, but also finished third
in his first heat race, won silver his second
year, and eventually became president of the
Sport Class, which sets the rules for competition in that class. “Racing itself is pretty easy.
It doesn’t require any extraordinary skill set;
it requires judgment. Of course, you need to
have the basics—basic aerobatic skills,