anticipation running high for this year’s edition of the Reno National
Championship Air Races, the hunger for news and information on the top
race teams is growing. Race fans know little tidbits about Voodoo, Czech
Mate, Critical Mass, and the lack of Strega. Miss America is also under
full thrash to make the race; while work continues on Furias, Rare Bear
But what of Dago Red? Named after an Italian wine, the red racer has been "aging gracefully" under the ownership of Terry Bland and the members of his air race team. Headed by Crew Chief Bill Kerchenfaut, they have groomed the aircraft into the first racer that could, without asking too much, run the very first official 500 mph lap at Reno.
"This is the finest air race team that ever existed," said Bill Kerchenfaut. With over 13 championship wins as a crew chief, ‘Kerch’ has been active in unlimited air racing since his meeting with Darryl Greenamyer in 1968. Under the Dago Red banner, Kerch is teamed with pilot Skip Holm and engine builder Dwight Thorn, He has been the key player in terms of planning and time management within the Dago Red team.
Earlier, the team - and the sport overall - suffered a setback when Thorn had a stroke. Questions were raised if his Mystery Aire would be able to come up with a Mouse motor for Dago in 2003. "John Slack and Steve Bartholf have been working on it full time, along with Mike Wilton," he said. "A lot has been done within the engine to improve it." At the time of this writing, Thorn has recovered enough to join in the effort, too. Make no mistake; Dago Red will be at Reno with a full blown, 100% overhauled, totally rebuilt Dwight Thorn racing Merlin for this year’s races. "We’re going to be better prepared than we were last year," Kerch said.
When asked about the competition, Kerchenfaut offered a few views on one top competitor. "Rare Bear flat out wants a 500 mph lap. They’ve been working like mad on that; and every time they run it hard, it’s wounded," he said. "It’s not our goal to do a 500 mph lap. It will do it, but it’s difficult to predict."
Over the years, Kerch’s strategy for qualifying has been singular in purpose - make the top five qualifers and avoid racing on Thursday. He also likes to get the aircraft qualified on Monday, so they have four days to tinker with the racer and ensure every detail has been addressed. "Time is the only thing you can’t buy or borrow at Reno," he said. "We also qualify at a fixed power setting, and over the years - even with Strega - I haven’t varied that much more than five percent or so."
So what has been done to Dago Red for this year? No major modification have been performed, but that is a bit misleading. Within the 480 - 500 mph speed range, every mph is a major improvement over drag and horsepower. Kerchenfaut reports that they believe they have put another 5 mph into the airframe for this year’s race. Will the extra five bucks be called upon? Ask Mike Brown.
"The only place you’ll see the speed is on the clock," Kerch stated. "It’s all within the airframe and not visible." So what has been done that they’ll talk about? "Dave Fagoaga and Dan Stout have been working full time on the airplane, and the team is expecting the engine to be ready at the end of July. It will be installed almost right away and test flown through August. New paint has also been applied, but it is the same scheme that race fans have come to know. "We also have redone the wings," Kerch said.
"We’re nowhere near wide open," he said. "You might see a 500 mph lap from us if we have the perfect day - hot, calm, perfect pilot. And sheesh... How more close to perfect can you get than Skip Holm?"
Dago Red is now a 21 year old airframe that began its career with a stunning rookie win, fell to the wayside, and once again rose from the ashes to become the world’s fastest P-51 Mustang. Terry Bland has made a five-year commitment to the aircraft and to racing. How will Bland end his agreement?
How about a World speed record?
Crew member Danny Stout laid out the basics of a future speed record run. "David Price, Dago's previous owner, ran a 537 over a 15 Km course, but there was a problem within the timing, so the run wasn’t official. Bruce Lockwood even had some friends at Edwards AFB look at some satellite tracking, and that information did confirm it. So, the aircraft is capable of doing that," he said.
As it sits now, Dago Red does hold the 15 Km record at 517+, but the airframe has come so far over the past 20 years. A big part of the equation will be increased horsepower from Thorne’s Mouse Motor. Today's engine will produce much more horsepower than the earlier Zueschal or Nixon race engines.
"We will go for the 15 Km record, and there are also plans for the 3 Km. record," Stout said. "Kerch says the 3 Km is pretty hard on the equipment, but it’s the speed record that counts, and we know that we can beat Rare Bear’s speed by a margin."
What is more exciting is the fact that the team will have two full-up Mouse motors for the attempt; one to break the records with, and one to go to Reno with. "If the Las Vegas race turns into something real in 2005 or 2006," Stout said, "Two engines will allow us to try and be prepared for that, too."
Thanks to Dago Red crew members Bill Kerchenfaut and Danny Stout.
Story and Photos Copyright 2000 - 2003 by Scott Germain - WarbirdAeroPress.com. All Rights Reserved.