Depending on where you look, the racing this year at Reno ranges from decline to epic. Luckily for KITPLANES readers the epic contests are in the airplanes we’re most interested in: Sport, Formula One and Biplane.
For sure 2019 is a fabulous year for Sport Gold racing. A full slate of blindingly fast Sport Gold racers are working towards a 400 mph shootout tomorrow during the feature Gold race. The depth of talent and machinery on hand is impressive, starting with defending 2018 champion Andrew Findlay in his Stihl-sponsored Lancair Legacy and perennial winner Jeff LeVelle in his well-sorted Glasair III. Both are running just below 400 mph as they work through the heat races. Well, Findlay has been running like a train all week, his Lancair bellowing out laps consistently just a little faster than necessary or expected as he charges through the heats in a statement-making demonstration of speed and consistency. LeVelle suffered turbo failure Thursday on his new 580 Lycoming thanks to a failed turbo scavenge pump and has been scrambling all the way to Los Angeles for replacement parts. Expect to see LeVelle all-tuned up in the Gold final tomorrow as he looks to avenge his mechanically-induced loss last year. Also expect speeds in the 410 mph range—or maybe a little quicker as these two friendly yet aggressively competitive teams lock in battle.
So far this week Jim Rust of Whirlwind Propellers has been looking very cagey as he circulates at 380 mph behind the Findlay/LaVelle match-up. Rust’s Glasair III that he shares with Robbie Grove of Grove Aircraft has been running low, clean and drama-free—and far enough behind the charging Findlay to avoid appearing as a threat. Yet in yesterday’s heat race Rust ran much closer to and stayed with Findlay for just a couple of laps in an apparent “let’s see” move. Rust has been testing his still relatively new racer over the last year so don’t be too surprised if he makes a big step up in speed tomorrow.
Things are less clear farther back in Sport Gold. Veteran Lynn Farnsworth is back after a Reno layoff at 360 mph in his red, white and blue Legacy. The Andy Chiavetta-tuned racer is always a solid performer and will be ready to take up any spot left by ailing front runners. Bob Mills has Mojo, the daily-driver version of LaVelle’s Glasair III qualified at 353 mph and the Thunder Mustangs of Pete Balmer and Mathias Haid are close astern.
The major wild card in Sport Gold is Kevin Eldredge’s Nemesis NXT Relentless. The always energetic and motivated Eldredge has been running a naturally-aspirated Lycoming 720 in the impossibly sleek speedster for several years, but for 2019 is packing a twin-turbo 580 Lycoming. The combination could be a major upset on Sunday if it can get past a series of small, maddeningly frustrating development issues surrounding the new combination. Eldredge has either mayday or not started most of the heat races as he sorts things out. If they come right on Sunday watch out.
Otherwise further down the 36 airplane Sport class nitrous oxide injection is the rage this year. Using no less than four bottles of the stuff Todd Rudberg has got everyone talking about his 277 mph qualifying lap—in an RV-8! Not to be out-done Neil Wischer has used the same RV-8 and giggle gas combination to post 267 mph in qualifying.
In Formula One it’s mainly Lowell Slater in Fraed Naught and Justin Meaders in Limitless having an absolute hammer and tongs bash in the high 240 mph range as they’ve put on a most spectacular series of heat races. Steve Senegal in Endeavor is right there as well. With any luck at all we should see the epic dogfight for the Gold win tomorrow morning that we were cheated out of last year.
Biplane remains Phantom’s private domain. With the passing of Tom Aberle last June the impossibly fast Mong derivative is being run exclusively by co-owner Andrew Buehler. The real racing is for second, a spot Scott Thomson seems to have figured out in Second Hand, but not if Sam Swift or Phillip Ensley don’t upset things. Like the rest of the Biplane Gold field all are Pitts mounted.
As for the decline, the Unlimited class continues to see its past champions retire to obscurity as stock warbirds or sit ignominiously in hangars as investment fodder. Dennis Sanders is cruising to a payday in Dreadnought via 420 mph laps. The Buick can run 460 mph all week if necessary, but with Brent Hisey’s Miss America (stock P-51 airframe, hot Merlin) well in hand and a pair of Sanders’ owned Sea Furys behind that, the outcome is forgone. The amazing thing—although we all knew it was coming someday—is the Sport Gold racers are going nearly as fast, making as much or even more noise and are growing in numbers and speed while remaining far more relevant to current enthusiast pilots.