When it comes to the leading edge of Experimental aviation, the Sport class hangar at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada is a great place to be. The need for speed drives relentless development that homebuilders will find trickling down to home workshops in a few years.
This last September we were able to visit with some of the fastest Sport racers at Reno. It was a Glasair and Lancair benefit as Jon and Tricia Sharp have retired their Nemesis NXT, Kevin Eldredge’s Relentless, the other flying NXT racer, was sidelined with a bum starter motor, and the one-off GP5 of Lee Behel was suffering from oil scavenging issues.
Carrying the torch in qualifying were Jeff LaVelle in a 403 mph Glasair III, followed by John Parker in his Thunder Mustang at a solid 390 mph, along with Dave Sterling, Lynn Farnsworth, and Andrew Findley in 350- to 360-mph Lancair Legacys. Gary Mead had another Glasair III just below 340 mph, and Lee Behel was running his backup racer, Breathless, a long-standing 330-mph Lancair Legacy.
All told, there were 11 racers qualified faster than 300 mph this year, and the class was actually oversubscribed with 28 entries total for the Gold, Silver, and Bronze divisions. That’s a sure sign there’s a healthy interest in Sport class pylon racing and the innovation it allows.
Because Sport class rules previously required a kit aircraft airframe—one-off racers were not allowed until recently—the racers have selected the Glasair/Lancair kits with minor airframe cleanups. Where they’ve really let loose is in the engine compartment where heavily hot-rodded Lycoming IO-540/580 and Continental IO-550 engines rule. Almost to a one, the fast runners are turbocharged, charge-cooled (intercooled), run ADI (anti-detonation injection), and manifold pressures that’ll definitely pop your ears when the knobs are all forward. Of course, once below the handful of top runners, the boost pressures moderate or even go away as less expensive, naturally-aspirated engines take over in slower Sport Gold, Silver, and Bronze racers.
Jeff LaVelle’s background as a machinist and owner of aerospace supplier JL Manufacturing gives him the advantage of technical understanding when it comes to air racing. He was the only Sport pilot to crack the 400 mph barrier at Reno this year.
Jeff LaVelle & Gary Mead
As always, the most-developed and best sorted racers are at the front, which is Gold winner Jeff LaVelle’s Glasair III program in a nutshell. Crew chief Grant Semanskee gave us the run-down, which begins at his own side-shop (he’s knee-deep in Boeing 787 hydraulics in his day job for Parker Aerospace). Working under the Performance Turbo Conversions banner in the Seattle area, Semanskee starts with TSIO-540 AE2A Lycomings removed from Piper Mirages undergoing turboprop conversion. In Gary Mead’s Glasair III the engine fitment is essentially stock Mirage, including automated wastegates, stock charge coolers and stock engine internals. There are changes, but mainly just for packaging under the Glasair cowl. This is Semanskee’s “daily driver” package, nicely suited for normal cross-country operation yet still capable of Gold performance at Reno when the boost is turned up.
Grant Semanskee is the specialist behind LaVelle’s Gold-winning performance. His engineering and hands-on skills in engine development and overall aircraft preparation are everywhere in the #39 Glasair.
In contrast, LaVelle’s Lycoming has been massaged by Ly-Con Aircraft Engines in Visalia, California to 580 cubes, along with lower compression pistons and numerous small modifications. Semanskee upgrades the installation with custom-spec Turbonetic turbochargers, custom charge-coolers, and other accessories to pure-race specifications.
Although he flies it to and from Reno for the races, LaVelle’s program is a dedicated racer. At Reno it runs on 115/145 octane fuel and a 1:2 ratio of water/methanol ADI injection. Clearly the engine program is designed around eye-wateringly high manifold pressure. Just how high is a trade secret, but LaVelle is roaring away from his competition who claim 70 inches of manifold pressure— and the inside word is his old 540 engine made 1200 pound-feet of torque. The current 580 version has yet to be dynoed, but you can bet it makes well north of 700 hp. The reliance on boost mirrors the Unlimited racers, who only lightly massage their Rolls Royce Merlin engine internals while screwing the boost knob all the way down.
Semanskee’s installation of LaVelle’s turboed, angle-valve 580 Lycoming is as efficient as can be imagined. The custom exhaust does not cross over bank-to-bank, freeing valuable real estate in the jam-packed accessory section. The composite intake plenum builds one inch of pressure, the secret to getting the many internal vanes to accurately direct air to the turbos, cylinders, oil cooler, and charge coolers from just two openings. It’s a work of hard-won art.
From below, LaVelle’s engine shows tightly-fitted turbos and the ADI manifold bolted to the front of the sump. The custom-built Turbonetics turbos feature billet impellers and have custom, welded-on discharge tubing for the tightest possible packaging. The cylinder baffles are also custom composite pieces wrapped well-around each jug.
A dedicated racer, LaVelle’s cockpit is functionally Spartan. Everything, from the removed radios, non-existent insulation, taped-on checklists, and lithium battery, is aimed at reduced weight and increased expediency.
Draggy antennas are mounted internally in LaVelle’s aft fuselage, along with the black ADI tank. The helmet, oxygen system, and parachute speak to the truly experimental nature of air racing.
Like most Sport racers, LaVelle’s Glasair wears a three-blade Hartzell “race prop,” a high-rpm version of their standard Scimitar unit. American Propeller in Redding, California is LaVelle’s prop shop. “They’re great to work with,” says Semanskee—but as demonstrated here, LaVelle is running against the low-pitch stops at racing speeds. The team is looking for either more pitch or paddle on the blades.
What’s amazing about the Semanskee-tuned combinations is their reliability. This is the result of good engine management—correct spark timing and air/fuel ratios—along with well-honed installations that pay careful attention to airflow and spraybar details for maximum cooling and minimum drag losses. LaVelle’s engine runs at cylinder head and induction temperatures stock Mirage pilots would recognize, with LaVelle noting his CHTs are typically in the 325° to 350° F range while wailing around the pylons at 400 mph!
Perhaps the most exotic of the current crop of Sport gold racers is John Parker’s Papa 51 Mustang. Yet it’s also one of the least changed combinations in recent years, the Falconer 90° V-12 engine and Thunder Mustang airframe having been well-honed previously, and Parker’s example runs 390-mph laps at Reno with sunrise regularity.
Obviously the water-cooled V-12 and P-51 derived airframe are fairly specialized units, and with so many mainstream Lycs and Continentals to investigate for this report, we’ll admit to not getting too deep into John’s program. The airframe and engine are both in production, however, and anyone contemplating this exciting single seater should contact Thunder Mustang directly.
One of the players in an incredibly close race for third in the Sport Gold (less than .8 mph separated third from fifth), David Sterling was a pilot/plane combination we didn’t get to spend time with. His Lancair Legacy was always neatly cowled when we were in the Sport hangar, so we presume he had a relatively trouble-free event on his way to nipping Lynn Farnsworth and Andrew Findlay for the third place trophy.
Gary Mead’s Glasair III uses an essentially stock TSIO-540 AE2A Lycoming from a Piper Mirage. Compared to LaVelle’s similar engine, the installation employs less efficient SCAT ducting and stock Mirage charge coolers mounted on the firewall, but it still goes 330 mph.
Perhaps the largest compromise of Mead’s Glasair/Mirage mating is a single automatic wastegate. It requires the exhaust to cross the engine compartment via the crowded accessory section, causing heat and interference challenges. Semanskee is working on a non-crossover system with an automated wastegate for cross-country flyers.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Lynn Farnsworth was piloting his “old reliable” Lancair Legacy, one of several aircraft prepped by the peripatetic Andy Chiavetta of Aerochia. In fact, Chiavetta is likely best described as a probability located anywhere in the Sport pits, and this year expanding to the Unlimiteds when he repaired the canopy on Strega after it suddenly turned into a convertible at 450 mph.
Farnsworth’s Legacy has the full Aerochia treatment, including Aerochia wing and tail root fairings plus the Aerochia TSIO-550 Continental installation kit. Originally developed for Darryl Greenamyer’s Lancair racer (which should reappear at Reno next year, pilot unknown), its signature piece is the charge coolers atop the cooling baffles with corresponding bumps in the cowling. Again, this is a well-developed system—Chiavetta admits to not changing it in eight years—and yet Miss Karen II ran in the top four all week. Chiavetta was just as candid about continuing the status quo, saying the competition gets tougher every year.
The only issue was a new fuel pump that was delivering more gas, requiring a bit of a learning curve on Farnsworth’s part as he juggled the stick, mixture, manual turbo wastegate, and throttle with only two hands. The potent fuel and turbo systems—Farnsworth’s engine consumes 40 gph at race speeds—must be brought to their highest settings both gradually and in concert, which explains some of the lagging and then shooting ahead we see at the start of many Sport class races, explained Chiavetta.
Andy Chiavetta, right, started his Aerochia hot rod shop with Reno legend Darryl Greenamyer, left. Darryl has retired from flying, but with Andy, has been developing a Glassair III with a gear-reduction engine that they’re hoping will reset the Sport Gold standards next year.
Refreshingly young rookie Andrew Findley was getting noticed in his debut year thanks to solid Gold speeds and his engine management savvy. A mechanical engineer with engine development experience at Bombardier and now Stihl, Findley scrimped and shopped for three years before buying a Lancair Legacy to race. Originally built by RDD in Bend, Oregon, the plane had their turbo-normalized twin-turbo kit with no charge cooling. This follows Findley’s philosophy of relying strictly on ADI for detonation protection and foregoing the cost, complexity, and especially the aerodynamic drag of charge cooling.
Andrew Findley’s closely fought fifth place helped him earn the 2013 Sport Rookie of the Year award. Absolutely loving air racing, he’s rapidly learning what his Lancair racer needs. A fan of spraybar and ADI cooling, he reports a 25° F drop in oil temps after putting four spray heads on his oil cooler, plus a 100° F drop in CHTs with ADI.
Other race prep includes fitting the obligatory engine cooling spraybars and Findley’s own engine monitoring system. Following his power sports background, Findley monitors fuel consumption via automotive-based air/fuel ratio instruments rather than gallons per hour, giving him a more intuitive sense of what the engine needs.
Two things stand out here. First, with so much reliance on ADI Findley has fitted dual pumps to his system in case one fails. The other is he is sold on the need to know and understand the air/fuel ratio rather than relying on EGTs to infer the A/F number. To that end he’s fitted oxygen sensors, one in each exhaust bank. That allows dialing in the A/F ratio using the traditional mixture control. It takes just a glance at the A/F meter, says Findley, which is a big help flying formation or on the race course where you don’t have time to follow an EGT instrument’s rising and falling cascade of numbers.
Findley mounted automotive boost and air/fuel ratio instruments to the right lower corner of his instrument panel. The black-faced Innovate Motorsports MTX-L air/fuel ratio instruments are adaptable, allowing end-user calibration and leaded fuel compatibility.
Likewise, to lean the A/F ratio when the copious volume of ADI comes on, Findley has learned via the A/F and EGTs together that it takes a quick quarter turn of the mixture knob to do the trick.
Like many, Andrew Findley uses his Lancair as personal transport the other 51 weeks of the year, so it wears a full interior and instrumentation. Also like many others, Andrew temporarily straps his ADI tank into the passenger’s seat for racing.
The ADI is administered by a controller from automotive aftermarket engine management specialist AEM. It ramps in the water progressively in relationship to manifold pressure (a relationship Findley can tune via the controller). Originally the system had one large central nozzle, but one nozzle downstream of each turbo has proven better. The system is full on when the engine reaches 70 inches, where he races at.
Findley’s TSIO-550 Continental is fitted with the larger Garrett turbos good for 60-70 inches manifold pressure when pushed for racing. His hope is to build a lower compression 550 with larger turbos good for 100 inches while not going over 3000 rpm to avoid propeller issues.
As for the A/F ratio, Findley reports seeing 10:1 rich of peak at takeoff, about the same at high-boost cruise, 11 to 12:1 at low-boost cruise, and 17:1 at lean of peak cruising.
When you’re the CEO of Lancair, guess what you race? For Bob Wolstenholme this meant a new Legacy; it had 65 hours on it at Reno and was fitted with some trick parts, along with the usual small teething problems common to all new airplanes.
Dominating Bob Wolstenholme’s engine compartment was this bundle-of-snakes exhaust under his Continental 550. Creative thinking is the norm on this new Legacy racer, but small issues kept the effort 27 mph behind the other Lancairs.
The 3-inch SCAT tubing arcing from behind the firewall up to the canopy are Bob Wolstenholme’s charge-cooling ducts, which exit via the reverse scoops seen on the side of the canopy frame. We have no word if the tactic is successful, as the team was chasing other issues at Reno.
Fitted with the expected IO-550 Continental, Wolstenholme’s Legacy was purchased by him as a partially-built project and has been worked on in fits and starts as his hectic schedule allows. It was actually at Reno in 2012 as a static display, but didn’t fly thanks partially to rather abrupt handling characteristics. Test pilot Len Fox found accelerated stalls at 4 G quickly turned into snap rolls—not a good idea at Reno where high Gs, wake turbulence, and low altitude make unintended acro a poor idea.
For 2013 Wolstenholme “took the wings apart and corrected some issues” and “got happy with the flight characteristics.” Then the plane went to finishing school at Cascade Aircraft Management in Caldwell, Idaho for 500 man-hours worth of interior, paint, and avionics. Still, it was new enough at Reno this year that it was fitted with ADI after qualifying.
Several items merit attention on Wolstenholme’s Legacy. All three gear legs are titanium, whittled out by another of Wolstenholme’s companies, WM Robots, for a 12-pound weight savings. The exhaust headers were equal length, even though they are feeding turbos, and there’s some innovative thinking about exhausting the charge cooler cooling air. Most Lancairs duct it out the lower cowling; Wolstenholme sends it out the canopy frame.
Racers know the mother of invention well and aren’t afraid to do what it takes with the tools on hand. When Alan Crawford’s upper engine plumbing proved too close to his Lancair’s cowling, crew chief Bobby Bennett secured and cushioned everything with silicone sealer. Crawford might also merit a most-improved award. His naturally-aspirated Lancair Legacy went 292 mph this year, 14 mph faster than 2012, thanks to pressure-referencing the injectors, plenum cooling, a ram air inlet, adding ADI, and taping the flaps shut. He finished fifth in the Silver.
Long-time Sport racer Lee Behel would have brought his one-off, Chevy-powered GP5 to Reno again this year, but the still-in-development racer isn’t scavenging its oil correctly. So, he trotted out his previous mount Breathless, a Lancair Legacy.
Breathless hasn’t changed since at least 2010. It’s Behel’s “station wagon” according to a crewman, and its 2013 Reno preparation was “another bottle of wax.”
That black and red paint ending abruptly below the canopy on Tom McNerney’s Lancair 360 is because he filled in the fuselage from mid-wing to the trailing edge fillet for increased streamlining last winter. He was “telling myself it’s working,” but ran out of propeller in any case. The stock butter-knife 68-inch Hartzell is good to 2700 rpm, but it just makes more engine heat and no increase in speed when spun 3000 rpm as it will now do. Tom took second in the Bronze at 267 mph.
A Bronze class racer, Bob Mills qualified 10 mph faster this year at 254 mph due to a new intake plenum and cowling cleanup. His IO-540 powered RV-6 started life as a Harmon Rocket project, hence the tall landing gear. Like many, he was searching for any little detail that would help him catch the plane in front of him at Reno. For a while that was a Rollerblade sourced tailwheel faired in cardboard and tape, but when he finished fourth on Sunday it was with his standard 4-in. tailwheel.