The year is 2021. Fear surrounding the pandemic has subsided a bit and the National Championship Air Races (NCAR)—Reno, in short—are back on. Jeff LaVelle and I stop at Starbucks on our way to Paine Field, where we’ll meet the rest of the crew and finish packing the trailer I’ll be towing to Reno. We make it to the drive-thru window and wait patiently for two grande drips. Naturally, the barista asks what we’re getting into over the weekend. Jeff lets her know we’re headed to Reno. She goes on to ask what we’ll be doing there. Gambling?
“Air racing,” Jeff mutters.
Her head tips to indicate confusion. I immediately feel nervous. Do I still need coffee? My eyes can’t possibly get any bigger. I’d been faced with similar questions countless times while grabbing a coffee on my way to a flight lesson. When asked what I had going on that day I always lied and said, “Not much,” for fear of sounding like a braggart. My brain would hit me with the truth, “You’re about to fly an airplane, you idiot!”
Jeff changed the subject. How does one even begin to describe the NCAR and what goes on there? A maximum of eight pilots enter a course marked by pylons, where they push anywhere from 150 to 500 mph, sometimes just 50 feet off the ground, until someone completes their final lap and is declared the winner. It’s the fastest motorsport in the world and if you’re wondering if it’s risky, the answer is yes.
My thoughts drift to 2018 when the crankshaft seal on Jeff’s Glasair III failed, the oil pressure dropped to zero and his engine seized, forcing him to dead-stick it in. He hopped off the fire truck, a lifeless Race 39 in tow, and quietly announced, “I Bob Hoover’d that s***!” It’s a story I’m almost certain has never been uttered to a Dutch Bros employee.
I met Jeff in 2017. The first time I saw him he blew past my office. Not only does he fly fast, he walks fast. Once the papers he’d stirred up had settled, Jeff returned to Glasair Aviation, where I was working, but this time he was there to see me. He presented an idea that a mutual friend had also hit me with a few days prior. He wanted me to drive a trailer full of his racing supplies from Everett, Washington, to Reno, where he races his Glasair III in Sport Gold Class. At this point in my life I was everybody’s young single friend—no kids, no pets and nowhere to be. I can’t tell you how many times I got roped into housesitting.
I agreed on one condition. I told Jeff he had to teach me how to back up a trailer. I feared I’d get myself in a bind that no amount of panicked phone calls could fix. The following week I met him at his hangar at Paine. He had hooked a jet ski trailer up to his Grand Cherokee, which is what I used to make the long commute my first three years on the job. (Now he has a Ford Raptor, which is much roomier and better for towing. Air-conditioned seats? A godsend.) After 15 minutes of us taking turns jackknifing his trailer, Jeff turned to me and asked if I wanted to go do aerobatics in his Super D.
Why, yes. Yes, I did.
To this day I still don’t know how to back up a trailer. We did loops and rolls, threw the smoke on, pivoted into a hammerhead and put it into a spin. It was my first aerobatic experience. I remember showing up to ground school at Paine’s FBO directly after, feeling incredibly woozy. Worth it! At school, nobody knew this life of mine that existed outside of the Cessna 172. There were those familiar nerves again. I didn’t bother telling my classmates what I just got to do.
My September Family
It wasn’t long before Jeff and I became friends. We found we had countless mutual acquaintances and could talk about Glasair and the people surrounding these airplanes for hours. When I experienced a horrific plane crash during my primary training that was not of my own doing, he was one of the few people I could talk to who didn’t question my desire to keep flying. (The short version: We had an engine failure on takeoff. The instructor had to put us between a tree and a pole to rip the wings off and stop momentum, allowing us to walk away nearly unscathed.) Jeff followed me to the ER and cracked jokes in an effort to keep my spirits high. One of my coworkers recently had us play an icebreaker game where we submitted surprising facts about ourselves and took turns guessing who each fact belonged to. While my airplane incident would be an ideal shock to share, I felt apprehensive. How many questions would I be faced with?
I want to note I don’t doubt anyone’s ability to comprehend flying-related subjects they’ve deemed unfamiliar. The uneasiness I feel stems from within. I don’t like having all eyes on me. If someone genuinely wants to know about these things, I’ll talk. Jeff is similar in this way. He’s definitely the “show, don’t tell” type. Given the option, I prefer unraveling my thoughts into words behind closed doors. I also realize I’m a statistic and don’t want to instill fear toward small airplanes, which are inherently safe.
Despite feeling apprehensive for my first solo trip to Reno, I was really excited to go. And boy did it prove valuable. Getting to ditch my day job for a week and speak freely about this wild world I was becoming more intertwined with felt like a dream come true. No more lump in my throat. Approaching the Reno-Stead airport is mystifying. There are L-39s ripping overhead, Cassutts being towed below and dusty mountains all around. It’s a sort of aviation oasis tucked among sprawling dry desert land and flashy casinos. The NCAR is where the real gamble takes place. All bets are off.
Neon orange merchandise bobs along waves of people. If you follow these plastic sunglasses and beer Koozies you’ll find Andrew Findlay and his wife, Jackie, sporting orange toenail polish. Andy races the infamous chainsaw Lancair Legacy and is sponsored by Stihl, hence the orange. He’s similar to Jeff in that he’s a fierce competitor, but I’d say he’s a lot more approachable during race week. He offers big grins and big hugs and zips through the pits on a minibike. Not only do the crews work hard on their own airplanes, we work hard to help each other. I can’t tell you how many times Andy and Jackie have offered assistance when we’ve needed it most. “There’s no race without you guys,” they’ll say. Everyone in Sport Class wears each other’s race team shirts throughout the week. We truly are one big happy family.
Crew Chief Life
As you can imagine, my daily responsibilities differ quite drastically from that of my day job, buying aluminum for the big B. Similar to piloting, I’ve just gotta be thinking one step ahead at all times. When does Jeff spot? Has he had lunch? Fuel is always on my mind. They pull the fuel trucks when the Unlimiteds are out, so I have to be mindful of that. I also can’t decipher how much Jeff wants. That’s all on him. When things are slow I clean and polish the airplane and pass out T-shirts. If a spectator asks him about his manifold pressure or fuel flow I politely intervene and joke, “A lot.” It’s an opportunity for me to take some pressure off of Jeff. He can keep wrenching while I answer questions.
I’ve been commended for my patience. There are a lot of moving parts and I’m pretty good at staying organized while dealing with the ever-changing schedule and mixed bag of personalities. By now I know who to ask for spare hardware and the like. Oil filter cutter? I’m on it. Borescope? Be right back. My buyer skills have also proved valuable during race week. Send me to NAPA or Summit Racing and I’ll get you what you need. I’m a sensitive, empathetic person. With this I’m constantly observing and trying to read the room. What do others need? It’s a blessing and a curse. If you can’t tell by now, I struggle with anxiety, but this tends to fuel me throughout race week. Or is it the excitement I’m feeling? I never know.
Come evening we return to our hotel, eat a hot meal, head up to our air-conditioned rooms, struggle to fall asleep, wake up early and do it all over again. In the morning Jeff and the remainder of the crew meet me in the lobby where I have coffee waiting for them. If Jeff doesn’t make his morning brief he can’t fly that day so it’s critical I get him to the airport on time.
Scheduling is more complex now that Jeff also races his P-51, Sweet and Lovely. The Sport and Unlimited schedules can overlap so there have been days where he’s had to hop out of one airplane and into the next—a nice problem to have, am I right? I never thought I’d be lucky enough to spend a week crawling around a Mustang. Thankfully Jeff hired B.J. Healis, a skilled warbird mechanic who was Steve Hinton Jr.’s right-hand man when he raced Voodoo. B.J. handles everything pertaining to the Unlimited side of things. He fuels and preps Sweetie while I raid his trailer for cold beverages and shout “Sport Class for life!” at him as I commandeer one of his lawn chairs to sit and drink said beverage. It’s a collaborative effort.
Watching everyone come together and put their all into a very long week is incredibly thrilling. It feels as though anything is possible and to some degree, it is. We swap flying stories and very few details come as a surprise. When I get home I unload my neon orange freebies and return to my nine-to-five. I imagine some of the attendees, such as Hinton Jr. (who everyone calls “Steve-o”), Bud Granley and even Ariel Tweto of Flying Wild Alaska, don’t go back to driving spreadsheets like I do. It feels weird to return to this life spent lying to baristas. Maybe one day I’ll figure out how to talk to them without fear of being the center of attention. After all, for all I know they’re slinging iced lattes to fund their own flight training!