Mathias Haid was the most surprised. After a week of canceled heat races and mechanical difficulties among the top Sport Gold front runners Haid was the one with a soundly running airplane under him when the checkered flag flew in today’s Sport Gold final.
The start was very fast and ragged looking from the grandstands, but how the faster gold racers prefer it as it quickly strings the very fast front runners from the distinctly slower bottom half of the field. This makes the sorting out around the far northern pylons less crowded for everyone, so for the racers it was game on and happy about it.
Jeff LaVelle took an authoritative if not overwhelming lead, for sure accompanied by a like-minded Andrew Findlay, then Jim Rust a bit back. Already well back and fading was Haid in his Thunder Mustang followed by Peter Balmar in his Vortech-supercharged Legacy and then Vicki Benzing.
The crowd had just settled in for a classic twin-turbo sprint when the collective groan signaled Findlay’s smoking upward exit. With one eye following the orange and white Stihl-sponsored Legacy to a safe landing and the other on the race the mood then switched to accepting the disappointment of a runaway parade. Truthfully, the field was strung out and attention in the stands wandered for a chattering critical minute—only to come back to a race that seemingly had no leader. Where was LaVelle? Or Rust? What’s going on?
What happened in that hot minute was Findlay was already landed after the same number six cylinder wildly overheated and the CHT’s zoomed north. While we were all watching that LaVelle’s right waste gate gave out, all his power went away and LaVelle had his hands full. Trying to continue naturally aspirated the engine wasn’t having it and quit, at least simplifying LaVelle’s decision making. He made a safe deadstick landing, found he was able to re-start the engine and taxied in.
About this time Jim Rust was thinking, “Cool! I’ve got this made!” a sentiment lasting a fat 15 seconds and rudely interrupted when, “It just blew up! It was running great, all the temperatures and everything were fine and it just blew up.” Luckily Rust has a full-feathering propeller (a perk of owning Whirlwind propeller company, we suppose) and that allowed him to dead stick to a safe landing as well.
So Findlay, LaVelle and Rust were all on the ground, and there was Haid calmly crackling along far in front of Balmer and Benzing who were having a rather close private duel. They had all the room they needed, with only George Catalano trailing in fourth place.
Haid’s race was, except for the result, “My usual race, I fly by myself.” Used to the big open hole in the middle of the Sport Gold race with the jockeys in front and the spear carriers bringing up the rear, Haid was minding his own business when he heard the first two maydays over the radio, “and I saw someone smoking.” Then he saw the white flag, a real puzzlement as Mathias thought he was in second and, “Where he comes?” he asked rhetorically in his German accent, “he always laps me.”
Noodling on the situation during that last lap Mathias realized he was about to win all the marbles in Sport Gold, a status that made him sit up a little and concentrate on not fouling anything up before he could take the checker. But he did take the checker and a much appreciated win, both by himself for his team, and by everyone else as Mathias is a well-liked, Sport Gold veteran. He said the realization finally came to him emotionally while taxiing in. “Now what?” he asked himself in his unexpected situation. He was still repeating, “Unbelievable!” When we caught up to him a half hour after landing.
Mathias was very pleased for his crew. First thing this year the team had suffered a pranged airframe during a forced landing with their second Thunder Mustang, and then Mathias’ Falconer V-12 engine had gone soft with high blowby. The team took the still good engine out of the wounded Thunder Mustang and put it in Mathias’, which is a long, hard slog given the heavy weight, liquid cooling and other complications inherent in the breed.
Mathias noted a good decision early on had been to qualify his airplane in lousy, rainy weather on Monday. Therefore, when he needed an engine change it wasn’t a rush job because the plane was already in the show.
Even better, Mathias, Balmer and Benzing all operate out of the same hangar at Reno, so it was a happy place with first, second and third in the Sport Gold sharing the same space.
And it was good to have a bright spot. With the loss of Sherman Smoot and Czech Mate in early September, the rain early on race week, the endless wildfire smoke, cancelled heat races, wide-spread mechanical carnage in the Sport class, and as we go to press a fireballing jet crash, this has been a challenging race week. But then, racing in any guise is tough and character building, but the personal growth and mechanical development always calls the faithful.