Everyone likes him. Sure, he's the son of
Steve Hinton - arguably one of the most well known and skilled warbird
pilots today. But you don't get to race a gold-level Reno unlimited
without putting in the time, paying the dues, and exhibiting some
extraordinary talent and ability. But it sure doesn't hurt to have dad - a
former unlimited champion - and Bill "Tiger" Destefani
whispering the secrets of success into your ear. In his own words, here is
how Hinton Jr. navigated race week and won Reno Gold. Special thanks to
Tim Adams Photography for use of his photographs, as well those from
Walking down the gold line up for the 2002 National Championship Air Races, I was struck by an epiphany. Down in the number nine slot was a red and white P-51 which drew 110% of my attention. As I got closer I immediately fell in love with Strega... The light reflected brilliantly off of the glossy paint and I wanted to walk all around it and touch the glass-like wings. Since that moment when I was 15, I knew I wanted to race at Reno. It became a goal and priority to become involved with the air races.
Three years later in 2005, LD Hughes and Tiger gave me an opportunity to become a crew member on race 7; it was a dream come true. For several years I had been glued to my computer reading accounts of Reno and people like Tiger, Bill Kerchenfaut, and Dwight Thorn. Now I was working on the same airplane they had cultivated six championships with. I had to pinch myself all of the time and realize this was, indeed, real.
This was also the first year Bob Button took over the controls of Voodoo. I remember him flying down to Shafter to get some ground school from Tiger. They sat out on the ramp with a piece of chalk drawing the racecourse and runways for over an hour. As I quietly sat in and listened, I dreamt of flying around the pylons one day. I consider this my first education on flying at Reno.
Two years after that, now 2007, LD somehow talked Tiger into letting me fly his precious jewel. "Think youíre up to the task?," he asked me. I was speechless. "Yeah," I nonchalantly replied, though I was suddenly overwhelmed with joy and excitement. As I lifted into the air that afternoon, I couldnít help but feel a sensation of accomplishment. It was yet another dream come true and a day that I will never forget.
Over the course of the last two years Tiger, LD, and I sat around the hangar evening after evening talking about racing, mayday procedures, race situations, and how to handle Strega at 500 mph on the race course. Here I was sitting with one of the most winning pilots in pylon racing history - itís something that still doesnít escape me. He would encouragingly answer every one of my questions with detailed accounts of how he handled that situation, or how he would handle a specific scenario. The information Tiger passed on to me was invaluable - and is something which only I was privileged to. Tricks for flying the course... How to qualify... For the next year and half, my knowledge of flying at Reno grew exponentially and greatly shortened my learning curve. But as Tiger says, "You can only learn so much until you have to go out and do it for yourself."
In the summer of 2008 I got my first crack at flying Strega with a racing engine under her cowling. The difference between flying a stock Mustang and racing Mustang is similar to the jump experienced from a T-6 to a P-51: there are additional systems to operate and gauges to watch. In this case, the systems the pilot manually operates keep the motor alive. This means one mistake could turn the motor into a boat anchor in seconds. I learned a lot during that 30 minute test flight, and through more question and answer periods with Tiger. I gained a skosh of experience with a racing Merlin, and I liked the taste of it.
What..? A Merlin Held Together?
2008 was a Cinderella year for our crew. After a long ten-year dry spell, we not only successfully finished Sundayís gold race, but we finished first with lap speeds in the high 490s. We all were gratified we had finally found the road to victory circle once again. This was Stregaís seventh national championship; we had once again deciphered the code to a winning combination. At this point the stars and planets aligned for me. All I can say is I was at the right place at the right time; Tiger announced his intention to retire. I was given the task of racing Strega for the 2009 season.
The importance of finishing in 2008 cannot be overlooked. Prior to that, we had experienced mayday after mayday. Minds were settled with me taking over of the flying duties - solely because our engine had passed the test. This was due to the knowledge and perseverance of LD, the Strega crew, engine builder Mike Nixon and his man Jose Flores, along with the rest of the Vintage V-12s gang. Tiger was also persistent in fielding the aircraft after numerous heart-breaking seasons. We were confident going into 2009 we would be successful again.
Not That Race Video Again. And Again. And Again.
Because Iíd never been around the pylons above 350 mph, nor had I pushed a Merlin beyond 60" of manifold pressure, I searched for various information sources to gain some course knowledge. I picked up copies of the Skyfire videos and watched them over and over. Cameras mounted in the tails of airplanes provided me a vantage point of the race course as well as how certain guys flew. I could pick out which pylons guys like Tiger and Lyle were tight on, where they were loose, and how they reacted in different situations. During the 1988 race, Tiger experienced a catastrophic failure of the Merlin. He lost oil pressure and had the prop go flat; this was all caught with the onboard camera. If youíve never seen this video you should... Itís impressive. From the time you see the blacktop of runway 14, it takes one second until Tiger touches down. Thatís how close it was, and itís a great tale one should hear from him in person.
Another one I watched continuously was Skip Holmís cockpit video from Dago Redís record breaking heat race on Friday of 2003. Thatís when the 500 mph barrier was officially broken for the first, and so far only, time in Renoís history. The footage is a great tool because the course is almost exactly the course Iíd be racing. I paid particular attention to how Holm flew the course, and I also tried finding YouTube videos of that race from different viewpoints. I wanted to learn as much as I could from the guys who had been successful before me - and try it out for myself.
I also watched how my competitors flew the course, looking for where they were wide and tight in case I might be placed behind them. One of the DVDís that RARA put out has some good in-cockpit footage of John Penney in Rare Bear. You can follow him around the course really well. I would constantly go to bed at night thinking about different mayday situations, where I would go, how I would fly the course, where I would pass Rare Bear at... It consumed me. If I had a question on my mind I would wake up, sometimes at three or four in the morning, and go to the television and watch tape again. Iím not sure if this is healthy or not, but I havenít seen any studies discouraging thinking about air racing 24/7. I continue the pattern to this day.
Are we there yet?
This past year was both the longest and shortest in my life. We worked are asses off in the off season preparing Strega for the 2009 campaign. Around April or May I found myself out of questions for Tiger which really bothered me. I wanted more. "Thatís all I got for you. You just have to go do it now," heíd say. Iíd think about potential questions for hours and found myself answering them myself.
When we got our race engine in late August, Tiger turned me loose to do the test flying. He enjoyed watching it fly enough to give me the controls for what turned out to be the remainder of the year. We ended up having some problems which we were not happy about. After many long nights and another engine change, we got our race motor back the week before the races. After a couple of quick test flights, we buttoned Strega up for the flight over to Stead. There would be no testing this year over 60" until we got up to the event, which was something that didnít concern me. Instead, I viewed it as another element to learn about while at Reno; people must have thought I was crazy when they asked if I had been over 60" and I replied "no."
After a year of preparing and waiting, I found myself strapping into the cockpit Saturday morning to launch out of Shafter for Stead. Everything I had ever wanted or worked for would be either realized or unraveled in the next 10 days. As I prepared to crank up, friends and bystanders saying, "Bring the trophy home Steve."
A Rookie Mistake
Fast forward to Sunday the week before the finale; we had the airplane serviced with hot gas and cold plugs and were ready to go out for our first power run at 80 inches. Within five minutes after taking off and preparing to enter the course, I noticed my induction temperature gauge was pegged at 150C. The induction temp is probably the most important gauge in that cockpit when it comes to racing; it conveys the Merlinís pulse, blood pressure, and can sign its death certificate. All of this comes from a little two-inch gauge. A stock P-51 prevents detonation by using an aftercooler to cool the air charge leaving the blower and entering the combustion chamber. In racing, the aftercooler is removed and replaced with a tube, hence the term Ďtube motor.í To cool the charge, we use ADI (anti-detonation injection), and the induction temperature is the temperature of that charge. Anything over 100C will usually detonate the engine: that means you have just become the proud new owner of 12 ashtrays.
Seeing the temperature that high grabbed my attention. Seconds earlier the temperature was normal, so I threw some more ADI to it to bring the temperature back down. That was silly. The engine began to rumble enough to where I declared a mayday for runway 14. I had plenty of altitude so landing was not going to be a problem. The next 30 seconds went by quickly; I realized the gauge would have pegged if there was a short in the system. In this case a cannon plug wire leading to the temperature probe had broken. This lead me to believe the cause of the rumble was that I had put too much water into the combustion chambers - I was putting out the flame in the cylinder... On downwind I figured out that I didnít have a real mayday, and was premature in declaring one. Anyhow, I was set up for final on 14 with a quartering tailwind gusting to 25 knots. This is not the most ideal situation for a tailwheel airplane to land in. "Hope I donít wad it up on landing due to a minor electrical problem," I thought.
I brought the airplane back in, and LD, Tiger, and I discussed the problem and our crew fixed it. We tried to squeeze in another flight, but the impending weather shut us down. After waiting an hour, we were back in the air and successfully ran 80 inches, which was a first for me. Let me tell you, the acceleration between 60 and 80 inches is incredible; I was put back in my seat as I kept the airplaneís vital systems in check. Half an orbit and we were done; back in for landing. I was happy to have finally crossed the 60 inch threshold, I was disappointed that I hadnít been able to go onto the course at speed. Weíd try again tomorrow.
Welcome to the 100 Inch Club!
Monday was the first day of qualifying. Though we had no intention of doing so, we would go out for another test of the pilot and engine at 100 inches. I was cleared onto the course at pylon 4, and ran a lap at 80 then half a lap at 100. I was surprised with how similar the airplane felt at 100 inches compared to 80. The only visible difference was the needle on the gauge was wound a little tighter and the ground moved by a bit quicker. Handling the systems was a cinch, and I greatly enjoyed my first tour of the pylons at high power. Upon landing, Tiger greeted me and said, "Welcome to the 100 club!," After I thought about it, it made some sense: not too many guys had been there before.
But it wasnít even close to where I was about to go...
After every flight (whether itís at Shafter or Stead) I ask LD, Tiger, our crew, and in some cases my dad, for critique. I want to know what I can correct for next time. With this flight, I was a little tighter on pylon eight than they would have liked, and a little too loose on pylon one. We talked about it some more and I developed a plan for changing my flight path that would fix both problems.
Ahh... Nothing Like Clean ScreensÖ
There is nothing more nerve-wracking to me than pulling the scavenge screens after a hard run on a Merlin. For the first three or four years I was with the team, I saw enough bearing silver in the screens to last a lifetime. Flakes as big as your thumbnail. LD was kind enough to leave the chore of pulling screens to me so Iíd be the first to know. Every time I pulled those screens, I found them clean as a whistle. I breathed a sigh of relief - we would fly again tomorrow.
A racing thoroughbred requires an intense workload by every crew member. Itís always been something I enjoyed since LD first let me wax the airplane. The longer Iíve been with them, the more Iíve earned their trust. Now I have a laundry list of tasks to accomplish during each maintenance stint! Itís something I wouldnít trade anything for - even flying the airplane. Each day I get to work on Strega is a good day, and I always learn so much about it. I feel this is a great advantage when flying her, too, because I know how the Ďins and outsí work. I have no doubt in my mind about what is going on in every nook and cranny of that airplane each second.
Another reason I enjoy working on the airplane is because it keeps my mind occupied on my work instead of the Ďwhat ifs,í or the circus in the pits. I think Iíd go crazy if I wasnít allowed to work on the airplane and was solely the pilot. I could never imagine doing that. Matt Jackson rolled up in a golf cart one day while I was adjusting valves and shouted, "What, a pilot that has to work on his own airplane?" I shouted back, "Nope, Iím a mechanic who gets to fly the airplane."
We have a great crew lead in LD; heís been with Strega since 1990. I feel the same about the rest of the crew: Tom Garagliano who is an expert machinist, Bill Rogers handles our fluids, Lyle Strader is an all around mechanic (and shared crew duties on Czech Mate this year), and Steve Smoot handles waxing and miscellaneous tasks. Each guy is an integral part of the team and a component of our success or failure. Mike Nixon is there with his expertise of Merlins. We weree also lucky to have Jose Flores in the pit for a few days; he adjusts valves faster than a turpentine cat.
Tuesday had two windows to qualify in. After seeing 16 airplanes lined up for the first session, we opted to stand down and wait for the second. Prior to the run, Tiger, LD, and I discussed our strategy. The top five racers stand down Thursday, and thatís all we want. A racing Merlin is a time bomb whose fuse is always lit, so thereís no sense in burning the fuse until Sunday. That was the attitude we carried all week - even Sunday, as it turned out.
I could not have asked for a better slot to qualify in; there was virtually no wind, and Ray Dieckman had just landed as I orbited. There are a couple of things to be aware of when qualifying; if youíre too high, the timers wonít have a time for you. You also have to confirm theyíll have you on the clock for your qual lap, then you have to confirm they have a time at the end. If anything is missed, the fuse you just burned off has been a waste. Itís critical to be squared up.
Again, I entered the course at pylon four at 80 inches and cruised the first lap. Once around to pylon 4 again I pushed the throttle up until the manifold pressure gauge showed a number in excess of 35 lbs of boost. Iíd gotten confirmation I was to be on the clock, and sailed around the pylons - which I had all to myself. The green flag came out, and LD called on the radio, "Race 7, airplane is clean, telemetry good, good on eight and one." I was sprinting around the track, careful to not overcontrol the airplane and induce unnecessary drag. A little over a minute later, I was back by the home pylon for the white flag. I pulled up and off the course.
"Race 7 we have a time."
Over the next few seconds, I tried to figure out if I had actually qualified or pulled up before my lap started. Everything happened so fast. I didnít get any word on the radio from our crew about a speed or "good job." I expected the worst; I either hadnít gotten a time or I was so slow that the guys were embarrassed. As I taxied in I was happy about the airplaneís performance, but still uneasy about how I had done. I had no standard to go by; that was my first full lap at power and it felt no faster than before. As I shut down, LD and Tiger jumped up on the wing and said they clocked me somewhere in the 480 mph range - good enough for the pole.
Another sigh of relief... It was a clean run and the airplane performed perfectly. I began to feel more comfortable at speed, and the systems were second nature to me. I was now free to figure out the course, which is something I was told would take a while because Iíd be busy in the cockpit.
My dad was ecstatic, and he started figuring out how many guys had gone that fast before. It was apparent I had gone fast, but we only cleared the first hurdle. The week was still far from over. That night was a good one, and we now had a few days off. We all reviewed the qualification listing board and took pictures of our speed: 486.170 mph. We were 20mph faster than second place. Strega hadnít been on the pole in a while. The Nixon built Merlin was humming like a sewing machine. We took the next couple of days to run through everything with a fine-toothed comb, while our competitors chased away their gremlins. I could not wait for Friday - my first taste of the pylons at speed was instantly gratifying yet over too quickly. I was eager to get back out there.
The Black Bellied Witch
On our days off, we made some adjustments to the engine to conjure up some more horsepower. Everything we did was minute - nothing major. We pulled the airplane out Thursday evening for what should have been a quick and harmless test flight. I took off, started a left orbit over the field, and began scanning the gauges before I came up on the power. As I pushed the prop handle up, and then went through 50 inches, I noticed the oil pressure fluctuate. A little bit is normal, and has been the case of every Mustang I have flown. But then it dropped 20 psi in an instant. No word from the crew regarding our telemetry. I pulled the throttle back and another 20 psi fell off! I immediately pulled the power off and pulled the prop back. I radioed LD, who hadnít seen anything on the telemetry to verify. He wanted me to land immediately. In the half orbit/30 seconds from the first fluctuation, the oil pressure had dropped to 20 psi. As I was on short final, I sawed off the mixture and shut her down. I coasted to the end of the runway and cleared by the jet pits on the east end of the field.
As I shut down the avionics and master switches, Curt Brown pulled up to the airplane. I was climbing out when he asked if he could get me anything. I jokingly replied, "Sure, any kind of alcohol."
"No problem" he said.
"Nah, I am just kidding... I think weíll get it fixed and be back flying this evening. No drinking for me," I shouted back to him.
This whole time I was climbing out of the cockpit and on top of the left wing. "I donít think youíll be flying anytime soon," Curt replied. The next image is something Iíll never forget. I hung my head over the wing to see an oil puddle spanning from gear leg to gear leg. It also wasnít showing any sign of slowing down. I hopped off the wing and saw a tremendous amount of oil was coming out of the cowling - like somebody was dropping five gallon buckets through it. The entire belly was black with oil, clear back to the rudder. The scoop was full, and as I walked to the right side of the fuselage, I was treated to the sight of oil from exhaust stack to tail down the entire side. It looked like the aftermath of a burned piston.
"Iíll take a beer."
LD and the crew showed up with the tug. We were all stifled by the amount of oil coating the airframe. "Did the pressure get to zero?," he asked. I never saw it drop below 20psi, then I shut it off. I have never had such a sick feeling in my gut; here we were with an engine which was perfect and the fastest airplane on the ramp. Now there was a chance we wouldnít even race because an oil line had come loose. I felt horrible. I cannot even describe that feeling in words... All of your hopes and dreams dashed in an instant. We yanked off the cowling looking for the obvious - a cracked case, broken line, or a timing plug-in. But we just could not find the source.
I think we were down there for a half an hour or so. Our guys brought what seemed liked Costcoís entire supply of rags. We cleaned up the exterior as best as we could while the ground crew dumped cat litter everywhere. What a mess. Tiger was upbeat and thought weíd find the problem. LD was a little more suspicious. With the airplane back in the pit and uncowled, we discovered our oil well: a cap was left off an oil line to the wheel case which is used to pre-oil the cams.
We all talked for five minutes or so, developed a plan, and went into action. The incident had occurred so quickly, and the motor shut down fast enough, there wouldnít be any immediate sign of damage in the screens. Weíd have to clean up the mess, fill the oil back up, and ground run the engine several times. Each time we had to take oil samples and check the screens before we knew anything. At this point it was a guessing game whether or not the engine was hurt.
At this point, the family of air racers really came out. Our five guys had multiple rags wiping up the black gold. It was everywhere. Kim Nixon volunteered to run to the auto parts store and grab as much Simple Green and electrical cleaner as she could, while a group of about 10 guys from Chino came down and grabbed rags to clean, too. I laughed to myself; I was surrounded by my uncle John, Kevin Eldridge, Robbie Patterson, and several others as we wiped down the engine and airframe. They had a lifetime of experience with the races and flying aircraft and are in the upper echelon of respected warbird pilots. And here we all were cleaning up oil... Even a few race fans even joined in.
Forty-five minutes later, Strega looked clean, albeit with a bit of Aeroshell sheen to her.
We performed a few ground runs, slowly increasing power, and repeatedly pulled oil samples and screens. Nothing; clean as before. The final test would come in a test flight the next morning. Robbie Patterson volunteered to fly chase to provide a visual on the airplane. We cruised around for 45 minutes with my eyes glued to the oil pressure gauge. After landing and another inspection, we still had clean screens. We considered ourselves lucky to have dodged a potentially terminal bullet.
At last, after a year of waiting, Friday arrived. I would get my first crack at gold level air racing. Our work throughout the day was minimal; fueling the airplane, ground running the engine, and checking the spark plugs - all tasks we could accomplish with our eyes closed. Our crew worked automatically; by 1pm we had the airplane cowled up, waxed, and ready to go. As before every race, I climbed into our trailer and took a brief nap, secluding myself from the busy pit environment and visualizing what I would be doing in the next half hour.
Todayís race was going to be interesting because we would see, for certain, if the engine was race ready after the previous episode. Iím sure it was on all of our minds, though we never said a word about it to each other. This would be the ultimate test and the first sustained run at high power. By the end of the day, there would be an answer to our gnawing question.
Around 2pm, I suited up and followed the airplane out to the ramp, focusing on the job at hand. That first time walking out there, I was overcome by a strange emotion: loneliness. Itís very hard to describe. Everything weíd done before was as a crew. The test flights and qualifying were seemingly different. Yet for some reason, I felt a disconnect between everyone else on that ramp that afternoon. Tiger walked up to me and said, "Do you know where the loneliest place is in the world right now?"
"Funny," I thought, because I had just had that feeling.
"In your shoes," he said. Itís a bizarre sensation, but apparently Iím not the first to feel it.
LD and Tiger strapped me into Stregaís cockpit, patted my helmet, and wished me luck. "See you in a few minutes," he said. I think Tiger was fairly nervous that first day. It had been over 25 years since he watched someone else race his airplane around the pylons. However, he never showed an ounce of it to me. It was a bit of a cluster that first afternoon. We had a predetermined start time which had been pushed up and then delayed, so I sat in the cockpit for a while. Meanwhile, several of the other racers had started their engines and their ground crews were looking at me to crank over the engine.
"Race control, how long until unlimited start?" I asked. They replied, "Five minutes."
Looking over my left shoulder, I could see distant eyes waiting on me, but there was no sense in idling for five minutes prior to our start time. Eventually, the time wore down and I wound up the race bullet. It came to life with its customary burst of smoke. I have always loved how race engines lit up so much quicker than a stocker due to the compression; they just seemed to be itching to go.
I began my taxi to runway two-six, followed by the pack of racers and the pace jet. On the way, I set my spray bar pressure and checked the radio with our crew. I went through the normal preflight checks along with a run-up. As it rolled out onto the runway, I gave the pace jet the thumbs up and took position on the center line of the runway. I rolled the throttle up to 30 inches and waited for the call.
"Stevo, thereís 80 knots," said my dad.
On up to 60 inches I went, controlling the induction temperature down the runway and into the air. With the gear up, I began a left turn and headed for the smoke trail. I was easily catching up in a sweeping turn while pulling off the throttle. Once leveled out in echelon, I reduced power further and kept the engine in check, sometimes adding ADI, other times taking it away. I was focused on the jet; I donít think I glanced to my right but for a second once I was joined up. There was Sherman in the Yak - on we go! Coming around Peavine Mountain, I went through another set of checks to ready the airplane for racing: adding power and ADI, closing the coolant door, and flying formation with the jet. I didnít feel busy or anxious because I had played this scenario out in my mind hundreds of times, as well as having gone over it with Tiger. All of the preparation was falling into place. On the base leg, I came up on the throttle and prop handle anticipating the jetís final turn aiming us at the course.
"The guide pylon will be at our 11:45, Steve."
"In sight," I radioed back. Down we came; all six of us aiming for a tiny piece of real estate. Iíve been asked many times how does it feel coming down the same chute which so many legends have come down? Or how is it having your dad right next to you in the pace jet? To be honest, I donít know. I have never thought about it in those terms when Iím doing it. Iíve been focused on the task at hand and never really let my mind wander to those topics. When I look over at the T-33, I donít see my dad or Kevin, theyíre just the pace plane. In retrospect, itís pretty cool, but that sounds like a lame way to describe it. But that day I was lagging on the start... I was not perfectly abreast, but I was able to get away with it.
I pushed the throttle forward to a predetermined power setting over 35 lbs of boost.
"Öentlemen, you are looking good. Gentlemen, you have a race!"
With that, I streaked towards the guide pylon for four, only taking my eye off the target to check a gauge or two. Oil pressure was solid. As I headed into the first turn, I was already setting myself up for pylon six. The temperatures and pressures were perfect as I pulled into the valley looking for pylons seven and eight. Around the home pylon LD radioed, "Strega, telemetry is good, you are plus 4, back on the power to 100." I maneuvered around the pylons for the next several laps, gradually pulling the power back until I was coasting along at 80 inches. I had no problem finding the track, and tried to find a groove to get comfortable in. It came easily: finding a line I liked and where I was able to scan the gauges. My eyes were constantly fixed on the oil pressure gauge due to our problem the evening before. On the last lap, LD radioed Sherman was catching up. For the last half of the lap, I powered up to 90 inches and came down the valley. All of a sudden, off of my left wing, the little silver Yak poked its nose right next to me.
"This is real exciting," I thought.
It had been the first airplane I had seen during the whole race. Into pylon seven, I kept my line and ended up back on the inside of Sherman. We both dove for the home pylon and pulled off of the course.
Into the cool down, I had the throttle back to cruise power, which at the time sounds like the engine has quit. This is due to the noise change from 100+ inches compared to 36. Scanning the gauges, everything looked good, and I entered the pattern for landing behind Dreadnought. After taxiing in and shutting down, the crew came out to meet me and was all smiles.
"It looked like Sherman may have gotten you at the end, but he cut pylon six, so weíll have the pole tomorrow," LD said. Exiting the airplane, I was pounding with adrenaline. The time had gone by so quick it hardly seemed like we raced. I couldnít wait to try again tomorrow and do a better job. I was hooked bad, and I couldnít stop thinking about it. We ended up finishing first with an average speed of 450 mph, which was great considering how little power we used. The airplane looked healthy, and there was a lot more left in her.
I became greatly educated after that first race, and instantly began applying my findings to my next race. "Sherman said it looked like you were sucked a bit on the start," LD told me. I knew I had been, and that would be an easy fix. Tiger and I also talked about the last lap and how to solve that issue.
"The Yak was able to get inside of you, so you need to protect that territory. Try to stay a little tighter in the valley and not get out to the deadline as much," Tiger said. Check. All in all it was a successful first outing, and after running through the oil screens and valve train, we closed up shop around midnight.
Prior to Reno, LD and I had talked about my work hours and the need for me to be back at the hotel earlier than normal. However, it became apparent as the week wore on that this wouldnít happen, mainly because I was stubborn. Secondly because we had a small enough crew as it was. We figured that the races would be starting later each day so I could make up some sleep during the day if I needed to. The night hours are some of my favorite at Reno and I hold these memories close. After a post-race one hour break, we begin tearing into the airplane and prepping for the next day.
When Iím flying, there is a zone Iím in - that consumes me and I become pretty intense. But at night the tone is a little more relaxed; weíll crank up the Red Hot Chili Peppers and chat with fans that walk up. Itís all enjoyable. Ultimately, it is the fans that allow us to come to Reno. Without them - those of you reading this - air racing would not have survived as long as it has. We made it back to the hotel around 1am with thoughts of what tomorrow would bring. Again, I watched Skipís cockpit video and went to sleep thinking of flying the pylons.
The lead-up to Saturdayís race was much the same, with the exception of the oil pressure question. That weight was lifted from our shoulders. After my Ďnapí in the trailer and briefing our strategy, Strega was towed out to the ramp for the start of Saturdayís race. Tom had placed his hand held GPS in the cockpit to record, out of mere curiosity, what would be the fastest speed of the event.
LD and Tiger strapped me in again, wished me luck, and off we went. Compared to Friday I was much more relaxed with everything, not that I was nervous about it. But now, there were no blanks to fill in. I knew what would happen in each stage of the race. Although we werenít going to push the engine, I felt that we would win since no one had challenged us yet. When Stregaís engine runs like it should, it rarely finishes out of first place. We started engines all on time, taxied out and took off just like Friday. The join up was much the same as well. I kept myself busy in the cockpit adjusting pressures and checking gauges with a scan that worked well the day before. Itís important to know where the crucial gauges are on the instrument panel. On the race course, you have only a second or two to take a look, so that precious time caní be wasted attempting to locate the gauge.
As we rounded Peavine again, I came up on the throttle and prop lever quicker than Friday and edged myself into line abreast formation with the pace jet. Tiger always said take every inch that you are allowed, and when you are on the pole it is a lot easier to judge it. I was looking directly off of my left shoulder when those all familiar words were spoken...
"Gentlemen you have a race!"
I picked up the guide pylon without a problem and headed right to it. When in the pole position, you have to be careful not to start out wide - it forces the rest of the formation outside and threatens them with a deadline cut over Lemmon Valley. At the same time, you donít want to be too tight at the start because thereís no room to slide back outside. So the start is crucial.
Around the back stretch, I found the same groove I was in the day before, but I kept a little tighter in the valley like Tiger said. It felt great as I sailed around the pylons, hitting the apexes tighter than Friday and feeling the rush of the ground go by. Immediately, I had a good lead again and I began reducing power back to 100 inches per LDís radio call. I kept my course the same throughout the race and before I knew it, the race had concluded. Up into cooldown with a perfectly operating engine, and I came in for a normal landing.
After shutting down, LD came onto the wing and asked, "Do you think you cut a pylon?" No, I replied. I had seen every one of those barrels out there, I had no doubt that I hit them all. When compared to Shermanís cut the day before, which I had seen the cockpit footage of, it was easy to see that he just missed pylon six. You couldnít even see it in view. But I knew I had not blown a pylon. "They announced that you cut pylon two," LD replied.
Pylon two? That didnít make any sense... I was more loose on two than on many of the other pylons. "Donít worry about it," LD said. "It is what it is. You flew a great race, and we had you clocked at 512mph a couple of times. Great Job!" I just sat in the cockpit bewildered, how did I cut a pylon? Weíd have to wait for the final results to know for sure.
As I came off the wing, I was greeted with a lot of smiles and compliments about the speeds and flying, which wasnít too flattering to me due to the alleged pylon cut. The neatest part of it was the fact that we had broken the 500 mph mark - which had only been done by Dago Red six years prior. All of the hearsay about Strega not being as fast as Dago could be put to rest. Now, I hoped, Strega could be put in the highest echelon which had been reserved solely for Dago. We were capable of the highest speeds which Reno had ever seen, and Saturdayís race proved it.
Tom came out of the cockpit, GPS in hand with a big grin. "542 mph was recorded on this thing!," he shouted. ĎWow,í we all thought... That was darned fast - and it was with power being pulled off.
The difference between 480 and 500 mph is almost undetectable in the cockpit. It isnít like the ground is moving by any quicker or the airplane is harder to fly. I canít say I felt any faster Saturday than Friday, I certainly felt better about the line I had flown. But if someone asked me if I went 512 mph, I would probably have replied no. The way Strega has been laid out and refined makes the pilotís job easier. It truly flies magnificently around the pylons. There is virtually no trim needed; the airplane just wants to go fast. I never feel like I am forcing the controls, rather, Iím simply applying pressure on the stick to make the airplane turn around the sticks.
What Saturday really demonstrated, to me, was how important the pilot is to getting those high speeds. We had flown the race at basically the same power as Friday, granted we didnít go below 100 inches unlike the day before. But it wasnít like we were pulling 130, either. The only change I made was flying the course tighter, and it proved to me that every second out there really counts. Tiger showed me his stopwatch which displayed lap after lap at 59 seconds and 1 minute. That is something I will never forget. It was the perfect temperature, and everything fell into place minus a flying mistake. Very rarely does one get those conditions twice in a racing career. I hope I get that chance again.
Within a few minutes of exiting the airplane, it was confirmed I cut pylon six. I remember Voodooís pit celebrating as we towed back into the rope line. Much to their credit, their hard work was finally paying off. They had a fast airplane and the win was theirs to savor. I was utterly pissed off at myself and became overwhelmed by disappointment and resentment. Our crew gathered in our trailer to debrief the race and make a plan for the eveningís work. I apologized to each of them, none of which were upset. They simply smiled, knowing we had dominated the race.
We took an hour break from working on the airplane, collected our thoughts over some food and relaxation with friends, then got to work preparing for Sunday. After we dismissed, I was still infuriated with myself. I cannot even describe it. I was intent on never letting this happen again. By the end of the hour, I had flipped the scenario and considered myself lucky to have cut a pylon on Saturday as opposed to Sunday. Dropping our average from 496 mph to 480 mph didnít matter. Losing out on possibly having the fastest lap at Reno didnít matter. The only thing that was important was that we were still in the hunt for a gold victory on Sunday.
Once again, we turned up our stereo and went to work on the airplane pulling screens, dismantling the top portion of the engine, changing spark plugs, and servicing the fluids. We worked until 2am, and made it into bed by three. Everything we worked for over the past year would be realized in the next 14 hours.
Sunday: Gold Race Minus Seven Hours
My Sunday morning started out much differently than the rest of the week. I was silent but focused. The memory of yesterdayís mistake was still fresh in my mind. I went to the pilot brief and said nothing as I sat in the back of the room, listening to a few other guys ask where they were to park after they won the race that day. I resented their arrogance, and was determined to make sure that we would be in the winnerís circle - not them.
This was something I had longed for: that feeling of intense competition which almost becomes bitter. Growing up watching sports and playing them; it was something I heard about but never truly felt until that morning. I had a job to do, and there would be no satisfaction until it was accomplished.
Many people thought I was still upset about Saturday and tried to comfort me. Once they realized it was more determination rather than anger, they left me my space. Back in the pit, I went for a stroll with Mike Nixon. We briefly talked about Saturdayís race, making sure that I had moved on. Then we talked about many things not directly relevant to the race, though they were words Iíll never forget. This was the last break I had before consuming myself with the task at hand. The next several hours seemed to drag themselves out.
Per tradition at Reno, the gold racers are lined up in front of the crowd for introductions prior to the race. We towed out, then had to wait about 45 minutes before we could make it down to the grandstands. I stood and waited with our crew, keeping my eyes on the start chute towards pylon four. I could visualize the start and where I was going to make my pass. I figured I would be next to Voodoo for about a lap before I got around him - based on how I was flying and how I thought he was flying. I hadnít seen his line all week, so I just assumed a Ďworst case scenarioí - meaning Whiteside would be perfect around the course. After a lap I knew weíd be in first place; the biggest asset I had was confidence. There was no doubt in my mind we would win. None. Barring any mechanical problem, there was no reason Strega should not earn her 8th national championship. There were not going to be any pylon cuts today. I cannot emphasize how much this confidence played to my advantage. It wasnít a cockiness per say, because there are always a thousand things that can go wrong. But like I said earlier, when Strega is running on Sunday, she rarely gets 2nd place. We had the fastest airplane on the ramp.
LD and I talked about Saturday, in that thereís no need to fly tight on the pylons with a nine-second lead. Once in the lead, I should fly a bit wider than normal assuming no one was pushing me. We again strategized a predetermined power setting, holding off on running wide open unless we needed it. I would take the start and based on the situation, either begin pulling the power off or push the Merlin to its full capability.
As we finally positioned in front of the grandstands, I saw the gold trophy sitting there on a pedestal. I remember thinking that was the symbol of my dreams... This may be the only chance I ever get to race here, so I better leave it all on the table and not go home thinking I had anything else to give. This was the moment I had been waiting for my whole life.
Throughout the introductions I was mundane, incapable of sensing the excitement in the air or the peopleís faces that went by. I was determined to get into first place, but I couldnít do that here on the ground. After a lifetime I climbed into the cockpit for one last time during that long week. LD strapped me in, patted my helmet, then left. Within seconds the Merlin roared to life. I followed Will to the runway and readied the airplane for one more race. It was my first experience starting outside the pole but the task wasnít any more difficult. I joined up on Voodoo and cruised along the edge of Peavine Mountain.
Around the base-to-final turn, I put my previous experiences to use and quickly moved into the line abreast position along the jet. I would not accept anything less than perfection today. I made sure I was looking right into my dadís visor for the start. As we came closer and closer to the release, I was surprised by Voodooís position somewhat behind me. He didnít move into line-abreast formation and seemed to be lagging in echelon. Moments away from being released, I thought this race was mine. If he was going to give me an inch, I was going to take it for all it was worth.
Throttle up in excess of 35lbs of boost.
"...entlemen, youíre looking good. Gentlemen, you have a race!" Up the jet soared, and down we went.
My eyes were split between the guide pylon and Voodoo, which forced me to look back and over my left shoulder. A quick sweep at the panel and everything was perfect. I was careful not to encroach upon Willís line to pylon four, although he seemed to take an angle inside of the guide pylon. Then he moved back to the right. As we came closer to both the ground and pylon four, I realized Will wasnít in a position to begin his turn around four. I had used the guide pylon as my reference point all week, and upon reaching it, Will was still straight and level. I edged up a bit higher and began my turn, still looking behind my left shoulder at the purple racer. Never once did I look ahead for Will, he was almost even with me, but not quite.
I had two options in this scenario: obviously I didnít mull it over in my head while traveling at 500 mph.
This was one of those situations I had visualized myself in while planning for the start. I could have followed Willís line, which would have taken me wide on pylon four, possibly allowing for another racer to move inside both of us and drop me back. The better option: make my pass now and fly the line I wanted to. Itís important, from the standpoint of a racer, to remember weíre not flying formation. It may seem like it at times. Tiger talked about a situation he faced in 1999 when he started second, outside of Dago Red, for Sundayís race. Near pylon four, Dago didnít begin the turn, so Tiger left him his slot, stayed high, and flew his line which moved him out to first place. Dago eventually made his turn much farther outside and caused him to fall seconds behind Strega. This was something which I had talked with Tiger about numerous times. So in my present situation, I went with the second option.
At the guide pylon, I began my turn and watched Voodoo quickly disappear beneath me. The last I saw, he was just entering his turn. Gone. I dropped into my slot and flew the race more conservative than I did before, giving myself some space from the pylons. Although, in retrospect, I wish I had been a little tighter. Going by the home pylon the first time, LD radioed, "Strega, telemetry is good, you are plus three." We would keep the power on as I entered the first full lap of the race, but by the second time around, he radioed to begin pulling it back. At this time I widened my line further, making damn sure that there would be no pylon cuts today.
After lap three, I began to gain on Howard in the Bearcat. I set up high to pass him on the back of the course around pylon six. As the ground sailed by, I became more occupied with my gauges, ensuring that everything was in the green. "Keep the power coming back," I was told. By lap four, I was running a more conservative power setting. As I was coming down the valley during lap five, I heard, "Race 5 is a mayday." That was followed by another power reduction after going by the home pylon.
The rest of the race I flew very conservatively, too conservatively in hindsight... But I was opening the coolant door and trying to coax some more life from the motor. The thought of a last lap mayday never escaped me since weíve seen it happen to Tiger before. I urged to airplane on and on into the last half a lap. Finally the radio call came.
"Checkered flag... Checkered flag..."
I was up and off the course, my heart pounding and heard shouting over the radio. "You did it buddy, we did it!" I was elated and overjoyed. I began my cooldown high above the airfield. This was the first time I recognized my dad flying the jet. He joined on my wing with my uncle, John Hinton, in the back seat. They both were giving me thumbs up, and I could see the grin on my dadís face; a memory which will stay with me until I die. It didnít fully sink in that I had won; I was busy managing the airplane and landing while the celebration began on the ground.
Taxiing in, I was overcome by a feeling of relief. We had done it again - convincingly. Strega earned her eighth national championship. As I shut down, Tiger and LD jumped up and gave me hugs and congratulations. All signs of tiredness and sunburned flesh were erased by overwhelming smiles. I consider it my most significant accomplishment knowing I made those two guys proud. I had not let them down in their decision to choose me - an inexperienced twenty-two year-old - to take over Stregaís reins. Add my dad and my friends to that, too.
There was so much build-up over the year about whether or not Tiger and LD made a smart choice in me. Or whether we should run a stock engine for a year or two. Despite all the e-mails and phone calls they received, they had enough faith and believed in me. They gave me this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
I am forever in their debt.
I was speechless exiting the cockpit, breathing heavily, and shaking from adrenaline. I probably conducted the worst post-race interview ever, but I hadnít even begun to think about expressing it in words. Even now, I still canít do the experience any justice in writing. All of my family, and friends from Bakersfield, screamed and hugged one another, exhausted from the arduous year they had endured. Yet they were overjoyed at the result. My family, and extended family from Chino - mentors who had coached me from a young age like Kevin Eldridge and Uncle John, among others - showed their pride on their faces.
As my dad moved closer through the crowd, I clamored to meet him. As we came closer, I began to see tears in his eyes before greeting each other with a hug. There are moments when no words need to be said to tell how proud someone is. All of these words fail to exemplify the emotions I felt at the time. This was the culmination of a period of time when I made the people closest to me proud. I felt that was a tremendous accomplishment.
Within a few minutes, Strega was engulfed by fans and I found myself signing autographs with a shaky hand. I was completely parched and had only made it halfway through a rum and coke before I had to set it down. We must have been down there for a half hour before moving back into the pits, where the party continued. Fans of all ages came and offered their congratulations and posed for pictures. It was a great connection having so many people in our pit. It affords a continued interest in air racing, and when the fans are happy, it makes the experience much more enjoyable.
If it werenít for the fans of air racing, we wouldnít be here... So, thank you to all of you who continue to support us.
Story by Steven Hinton Jr. for Warbird Aero Press. Photos by Tim Adams, Scott Germain, and courtesy of Steve Hinton Jr.. Story copyright by the author - 2010. Special thanks to Tim Adams Photography for use of his photos. All Right Reserved by Copyright Holders.