The Last Laps

The racing at the final Reno races was good until it wasn’t.


For its “Final Flag” finale, Reno delivered the now expected mix of both hotly contested races and high-speed processionals.

With the remaining hot-rodded Unlimiteds almost universally sitting out the event for lack of funds or with future record-setting goals in mind, the Unlimited field was narrowed down to Steve Hinton Jr. in the approximately 470-mph Bardahl Special as the runaway presumed winner, with the super-sized Dreadnought locking up second at perhaps 460 mph, followed by the remainder of the Sanders family’s Sea Furys and a flock of variously prepped P-51 Mustangs and the odd P-40 and P-63 for variety.

Jeff LaVelle.

The best high-speed racing was, as usual for the modern era, set up in the Sport class where Gold division regulars Jeff LaVelle and Andrew Findlay both arrived seriously looking to win. This now famous, friendly but intense rivalry drove qualifying speeds up to 410 and 406 mph, respectively, and with spare engines on hand everyone anticipated a delicious week of firewalled Sport Gold action. It was also soon apparent that Sean VanHatten and Tom McNerney were right on top of each other for third and fourth spots, and indeed the pair put up very close cat-and-mouse heat racing as they sized each other up for Sunday’s final.

Jeff LaVelle’s Race 39 Glasair III.

In Formula 1 it was sure to be Justin Meaders in Limitless and Josh Watson in Fraed Naught whipping each other like side-by-side charioteers with Justin Phillipson mixing in as possible with his No Strings Attached. Due to the fallout of an unfortunate lawsuit last year, there was no Biplane racing this last year.

Andrew Findlay.

Underscoring the fragility of the well-worn Unlimited iron, we arrived at Reno-Stead just in time to watch poor Dreadnought—the most reliable high-speed Unlimited of all time—finally succumb to engine failure. Pulling off course in a chuffing, smoking fit of backfiring, Joel Swagger got “The Buick’’ safely on the ground. But with screens full of metal, Dreadnought was hors de combat by Tuesday afternoon. No one else was in the same zip code as Stevo in the Bardahl Special and for all the parading around in Unlimited during race week—some of it at embarrassingly economy throttle settings—the field finished as qualified. That made Stevo the final Unlimited Gold champion.

The Formula 1 contest was spiced by Meaders mysteriously encountering low power in Limitless. This allowed Phillipson and his fast accelerating but top-speed-limited No Strings Attached to actually best Watson in Fraed Naught on Thursday, but order was restored for Sunday’s Gold final where Watson simply drove off into the win, followed by Phillipson solidly in second and Meaders playing catch-up to take third. He had started last after poor heat race finishes.

Andrew Findlay’s Lancair Super Legacy.

The Formula 1 and T-6 Gold races were the only Gold races actually run as the event was stood down following the horrid T-6 midair and loss of veteran racers Chris Rushing and Nick Macy. The pair had just finished first and second, respectively, only to tangle in the landing pattern in the base-to-final turn with fatal results for both. The final races could have been run, but with their close personal ties to the T-6 competitors, the Unlimiteds elected to not race, while the Sport class elected to run. With the Jet class indecisive RARA said enough and canceled all remaining contests.

It was the most unsatisfactory finish imaginable to six decades of Reno racing. Certainly the LaVelle/Findlay match went to LaVelle, his very impressive eighth Sport Gold championship. This was earned as LaVelle was on pole and hot all week while Findlay lagged at the starts due to a slow-responding engine. He had the issue identified and fixed for Sunday but the race was not run and the results set per the heat race finishes. That made LaVelle the final Reno Sport Gold champion.

Additionally, VanHatten and McNerney have unfinished business. This could have been a real dogfight but was left hanging into racing’s indefinite future. To understate it, we’re all ready for a rematch as soon as possible.

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Tom Wilson
Pumping avgas and waxing flight school airplanes got Tom into general aviation in 1973, but the lure of racing cars and motorcycles sent him down a motor journalism career heavy on engines and racing. Today he still writes for peanuts and flies for fun.


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