It’s a good start to the Stihl National Air Races in Reno, Nevada. Similar to Air Venture it’s a victory simply to hold the races in the face of COVID restrictions, but it’s looking like we’ll enjoy much more than that as there are well-subscribed fields looking to run hard. No races were held in 2020 due to the pandemic, so there’s an especially strong enjoyment simply being here.
We’ll get to the big bottle of Jameson in a minute, but first a very quick, incomplete rundown on what we’ve seen on this, our first day on site. While the first heat races were run today most racers are still settling in and in many cases will be deep into their tuning starting tomorrow. In the F1 / Biplane hangar there is a relatively small field of the diminutive Formula Ones, but certainly enough for Gold and Silver heats and their always close racing. Notably missing is Fraed Naught, owner Lowell Slatter having decided to retire from piloting at the races, but he’s here helping run the class.
The Biplanes are well represented by what seems the usual contingent of hot-rodded Pitts and the odd Mong or Ultimate. Not on site is the uber-champion Phantom, so clearly someone else is going to have Gold glory in Biplane this year.
We did make a quick strafing run through the Sport Gold ranks. Andrew Findlay has returned in his familiar Stihl-sponsored Super Legacy, this time sporting a 4-blade McCauley prop along with some hasty fairings on the cowling to fair the much larger 17-inch spinner. There’s also an entirely new instrument panel and wiring with some nifty integrations we’ll cover later.
Jeff LaVelle moved heaven and earth to get his Glasair III here. He spent the two-year hiatus removing his wing and making extensive airframe modifications and just barely got the racer to Reno, but he’s running well so we’re hoping he can finally make a hard charge through the heats to the Gold on Sunday.
Jim Rust and Robby Grove likewise have their 540-powered Glasair on hand and are reporting no issues. Even Kevin Eldridge is running okay. Two years ago he worked like crazy all week just to get his Nemesis NXT running correctly, so he’s left it alone in anticipation of building on his tune this year.
Poor Karl Grove turns out to the be guy in the bucket so far. His new water-cooled cylinder engine has not been cooperating so the wrenches are all that’s flying in his pit so far.
All of the fast Sport Gold racers are qualified in the high 300 mph range, no one yet ready to run over 400 mph, but that ought to change by week’s end.
As for that 4.5-liter bottle of Jameson Irish whiskey, it’s a tradition started by airline captain and Biplane racer Sam Swift. He’s able to purchase the large bottle and stand during his trans-Atlantic hops (the big bottle is not available in the U.S.), and has been bringing them to Reno since 2016. The bottle remains capped until after the first successful day of Biplane heat racing—that was today—whereupon the Biplane class and some of the willing F1 racers gather around. The first toast for a fun and safe race week goes to my, “Smoking Hot Wife” which is actually Sam’s Pitts S1-D racer (among others, we’re sure). The second and third toast goes to the Silver and Gold top qualifiers and there is a toast, of course, for long time racers who went west since the preceding race. The bottle remains open all week for post-race enjoyment, and is presented to the Biplane racer who’s proved most worthy that year at the race-concluding awards banquet.
Smoke from wildfires in California have been a concern right up to race week, but so far visibility has been very good. Afternoon winds have picked up late today, so with any luck the remaining smoke should blow out. It sure is good to be back racing.