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The airplanes that compete in the unlimited class at the Reno Air Races are, to say the least, very colorful. Only a few aircraft can boast speeds of 490 mph; a speed you need in order to win against Strega, Dago Red or Critical Mass. The fact that winning speeds at Reno have risen to this plateau is a tribute to the owners, pilots, crews and engineers that are associated with these aircraft. It also means there is a whole group of "slower" racers that don’t have the top speed, but they play an equally important role at the races.

One such racer is John and Marcia Moore’s Czech Mate.

During WW II, Russia had used a successful line of fighters from the Yakovlev Design Bureau. The Yak -3, -7 and -9 were nimble low wing fighters with inline V-12 engines. Later, the two seat Yak-11 trainer was developed for pilot training duties. Poland, Czechoslovakia and a host of other nations either flew the Yak or built them under license.

Czech Mate had originally been built as a Yak-11, and was last used as a primary trainer in the Egyptian Air Force. With dual cockpits and controls, the 700 hp aircraft proved to be tough, reliable, and relatively fast. After its military career was over, the airframes were stored. French warbird collector Jean Salis came upon the cache, and thinking the aircraft would make a good warbird/sport plane, was able to acquire and export forty-one of the surplus airframes. He sold them as restoration projects around the world. Czech Mate, airframe number 407, was one of these.

At the same time, Robert "Bob" Yancey had been racing his F4U Corsair at the Reno Air Races. He had carved out a reputation as a well-liked and capable race pilot over the years. His blue Corsair sported a few mods but would never mingle with the gold racers. But he had an idea...

In stock form, a 289 mph stock Yak-11 would probably not even qualify to race at Reno. But Yancey considered the airframe and what could be done to bring the speed up. The Shvetsov radial engine was reliable, but if he was going to make a racer out of a Yak-11 airframe, a lot more power would be necessary. Yancey’s idea was to graft his Corsair’s R-2800 CB-16 to the Yak airframe - that would take care of the horsepower requirement. The airplane already had short wings, and enough internal volume for fuel, ADI and the associated plumbing for race systems. Several other modifications could be made for increased speed.

After purchasing one of the airframes, Yancey and his crew went to work on the aircraft. A new engine mount was designed and fabricated, and the massive R-2800 was attached to the airframe. The cowling was taken from a French transport aircraft and modified to fit the engine and fuselage contours. Stock Yak’s had some fabric covering on the fuselage; that was discarded in favor of aluminum skin that would hold up at race speeds. A new four blade propeller would be necessary to absorb the high horspower, so a cut-down Aeroproducts unit was installed. Due to the short landing gear, clearance between the ground and the propeller would be tight.

Thousands of detail items had to be designed, worked out, built, installed and tested. When the project started looking like an airplane again, the racer was beginning to resembled a modern day Gee Bee.

 

After fourteen months of work, Yancey debuted the #101 Yak at Reno in 1987. The polished airplane sported a sleek racing canopy that drastically impaired visibility from the cockpit, but added greatly to is image as a racer. The oil cooler had to be relocated behind the cockpit due to lack of space near the  engine, or possibly because of weight and balance issues. NACA inlets on the fuselage sides fed the unit.

The R-2800 brought the power to approximately 2,200 hp in an airframe that weighed just over 7,200 lbs. This could be one fast racer!

 

Without being pushed too hard, the nameless aircraft placed second in the 1987 bronze race with a speed of 370.217 mph. Over it’s career, "Yancey’s Yak" would always finish with a faster speed than the year before. In 1988, the wings and horizontal tail had been smoothed and painted a bright green. He placed fourth in the silver race at 386.515 mph. 1989 saw Yancey break the 400 mph barrier with a gold race finish at 406.046 mph. In 1991, he had named the aircraft Perestroika and finished the gold race at 428.293 mph - a quantum jump in speed.
Yancey was quite successful with the aircraft at the races. Like several other competitors, Perestroika represented a low-budget approach in air racing. There was no corporate sponsor, no huge race trailer or entourage. Just Yancey, his wife, the crew, a few rental cars and a tool box. This makes his race record all the more impressive. His best finished came during the 1993 gold race. He beat out Risky Business, The Super Corsair, Pardue’s Fury and Deja Vu to take third pace at a outstanding speed of 439.543 mph! Only Dreadnought and Strega beat him.
As can be expected with any racing airplane, Yancey and Perestroika experienced some bad luck, too. Several mechanical failures forced him out of a few heat races, and a engine failure in 1990 took him out of contention before the gold race. Another failure - this time the R-2800's master connecting rod - forced him out of the 1993 Kansas City. Sadly, this would signal the end to Yancey’s air racing career. The aircraft was disassembled and trucked back to Oregon.
When Yancey passed away from bone cancer in 1997, he had already sold the airplane to Alan Preston, who planned to race it as #6 Hell’s Bells. That never materialized, so Preston sold the aircraft to John Moore. Moore already owned a racing AT-6, and had won the 1996 gold race with his race pilot, Sherman Smoot. Moore and his team now set their sights on competing in the unlimited class. Smoot would also fly the Yak.
The airplane had been put back together, worked over, and a new R-2800 was installed. New paint was applied to the wings and tail; it featured a pearl white finish with reflective checkerboard. In keeping with Yancey’s Russian name theme, Moore renamed the aircraft Czech Mate. With race number 86 assigned, they arrived at Reno in 1998 ready to go.
 

With only a few hours of stick time, Smoot took to the course like a seasoned veteran. He qualified at a respectable 423.459 mph, and won his first heat race at 399.528 mph. After placing fourth in the next heat races, Smoot got loud and clear wake up call. On the first lap of Saturday’s heat race, the R-2800 failed in a grand manner, causing a fire and forcing a hot mayday landing. Smoot did his level best to get the aircraft stopped, but was forced to groundloop the airplane at the end of the runway’s overrun.

Unfortunately, the landing gear folded during the ground loop, causing a good deal of damage to the aircraft. Fortunately, the most important part of the equation was unscathed: pilot Smoot. The airplane could be rebuilt - and it was. Smoot brought the racer back to Reno 2000, but a burned piston and ADI problems were plauging the team. The racer, now with cobalt blue wings and tail, would have to wait to strut its stuff.

 

The annual Pylon Racing Seminar - 2002's event was held this June - provided an opportunity for Smoot and crew chief LD Hughes to run the aircraft and find any bugs that need to be worked out. In the off season, the ADI system has been refined, and airframe modifications have been undertaken. Czech Mate has never been an easy aircraft to fly, but the addition of a taller vertical tail has made it more manageable. The large NACA intakes for the oil cooler had been covered over some time ago; the only one left is a small rectangular one on the right fuselage.

 

 

 

After several flights with a taller vertical tail, Smoot was happy with the aircraft’s - and engine’s - performance. With improved handling characteristics and "the best engine we’ve ever had," Czech Mate will once again prove to be a colorful and competitive racer around Reno’s pylons.

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Story and Photos by Scott Germain. Additional Photos by Gerald Liang. Copyright 2002. All Right Reserved.