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paws, that is... Bill "Tiger" Destefani has cemented himself
into the halls of air racing history as one of the most determined,
competitive and hard charging unlimited pilots ever. Heíll tell you heís
there to win, or heíll break trying. Heís done both, too. He is a
six time unlimited champion, and he as blown up Strega on more than one
occasion in the quest for crossing the finish line first. He kept coming
back until 2003.
"I started flying around age 21 just like everybody else," he says, spitting a wad of chew into a paper cup. "But ultimately, I wanted to get into warbirds. In 1980, I had bought my first Mustang and took it to Reno to see what the racing deal was all about." Obviously, he liked what he saw and set out to kick some butt. He teamed with Frank Taylor, and had Dago Red built up for the 1982 Reno race. Right out of the box, Dago won with Ron Hevle at the stick. Not liking some of the features built into Dago Red, Tiger found a Mustang wreck in Australia and had it built into Strega.
Being of Italian ancestry, Tiger had been naming his aircraft with Italian monikers. Mangia Pane, his first Mustang, meant Ďbread eater,í which any warbird certainly is. ĎDago Redí followed, which is a derogatory slang but also a wine. When the new racer was finished, Tiger settled on ĎStregaí - The Witch. Ron Hevle flew the new racer for Tiger, but as with so many new racers, years went by as the airplane was sorted out.
Tigerís story is one of the more colorful within the unlimited racing community. Heíll tell you something with a straight face that, well, might not be totally true... Heíll inflate, play down, or downright be wiley about certain facts and figures. He might be one of the best pilots out there, too. Maybe not one of the best owners, but heíll whip your ass around the pylons.
What makes him so good?
"I donít know," he says. "I think itís more than flying because there are some pilots flying up there that have lots of hours, and they simply canít fly the pylons. And there are those without the thousands of hours that can fly the pylons. You have to have definite pilots skills, but when it comes to doing it correctly, you have to have the will to win. You need the ability to open up your mind and learn from the guys that have already done it. You gotta look... Watch all the time... Learn..."
He spits again. He spits a lot.
You should label Tiger as competitive. Anybody that has spoken with him or read his words knows this basic fact. Heíll tell you, too. "If itís ready to go, I run that sonofabitch wide open. Whatever sheís got, I got. And if I have a machine that is not running so good - take Phoenix as an example - Iím gonna take what I got and run it to what I think the maximum is that I can get out of it. Thatís my individual little race. I donít take a Strega airplane and run it at 70 inches. I take a Strega airplane and run it at 130 inches. But if I only have a 70 inch engine, then I ran it at 70 inches. The key is taking what you got and making the most of it."
Much of what makes Tiger who he is can be attributed to his crew. When Dwight Thorn urged him to hire Bill Kerchenfaut as Stregaís crew chief, things made a dramatic change for the better. The airframe was sorted out, Thornís engine had been refined and almost perfected, and the racer became the pony to beat around the sticks. Beyond that, Mike Wilton was on board with Dwight in the engine department. Tom McCafferty, Randy Foster, the Twidge, Matt Hoffman, LD Hughes and a lot of others have crewed Strega over the years. Kerch used to say that for a period of time, they had the best crew in air racing. The win column proves that, too.
A lot of success can be attributed to three stars aligning at the same time. When Strega got Kerchenfaut as crew chief, Thorn had a racing Merlin that would make the horsepower and - mostly - stay together, and you had Tiger doing the driving. Strega smashed the previous course record with a 466 mph lap speed. The bar had been upped, and over the years, it was Strega setting the mark, or keeping up with Rare Bearís pressure. We saw some damn good racing over that period of time.
Part of what makes Tiger so interesting is the fact that he has provided fans with a front row seat to his racing education and career. He has come from a rookie racing a semi-stock Mustang to front runner and an expert at Reno maydays. One, in particular, almost didnít end up well.
Reno 1988 was going to be a great year for the Strega team. Then entire combination of airframe, pilot, engine and crew had been proved the year before with a win. "We cleaned them out. But in 1988, we came into some trouble again. We knew what the problem was," he says. "We blew that engine sky high!"
He isnít kidding. Dwight Thorn again built his Mouse Motor for Strega. Tiger was on the course and spooling up to run a hot lap. Then all Hell broke loose. Strega began vibrating and shaking, oil coated the windscreen, and Tiger was left with no power, no airspeed, no prop control, and very few options. The cockpit tape shows Tiger heading for the runway. As he turns final, an eternity goes by with nothing but desert sage flashing by the canopy... There is smoke coming out of the cowling and engine banks. At the last instant, you see him lower the gear. He fires a halon bottle. As the mains lock down, the tires hit what has to be the first six inches of runway pavement.
"A cylinder liner blew out," Tiger says. Another spit into the cup. He points to his shelf in the Strega hangar. The liner, probably steel, is ripped like paper. An Allison connecting rod is also sitting there, bent into the shape of a "U." That wasnít the only scrape he got into and out of, but it is certainly one of the hairiest.
There is no doubt that Strega, with a healthy Thorn or Sparrow racing Merlin, is still a force to be reckoned with. Tiger explains how far racing Mustangs have come from a stock airframe by saying, "Night and day... Strega is so modified that it changes the way you operate the airplane. The speeds are different and the feel is a whole lot different. When I get into a stock Mustang and fly one, itís almost a let-down. I sure appreciate Strega," he says.
Most people see the obvious - clipped wings, small canopy, some fairings and slick paint. That isnít even half of it. Look deeper, into the angle of incidence of the tail and wing. Look deeper for the little secrets that make a 380 mph Mustang a 490 racer. "When we built up Strega, we cut off about an inch of each side of the elevator bob-weight. It changed the pitch sensitivity so much that the stick hardly moves. Rolling into a turn is more putting a pressure on the stick rather than moving it."
Flying and racing at that level exemplifies how much the man has become a part of the machine he flies.
"When we went to the tube engine, we took out the aftercooler . We had to put 100 lbs of lead in the tail. It flew like shit after that. Iíll tell you how bad it flew... I roll into a turn and pull. Pull... Pull... Pull... All of a sudden, I ainít pulliní no more and the airplane is still turning! Very scary, cause now I am out of control. Iíve never experienced that before. Iím not a test pilot, but I started to get an idea of what was going on. So I get on the ground and I tell Kerch what Iím feeling. I told him to take that big chuck of lead out of the tail, cut it in half, and take half out." The deletion of some weight in the tail returned Stregaís center of gravity to a more pilot-friendly and race oriented location.
Overall, there is little left within Strega that is truly P-51 Mustang, and that suits Tiger just fine.
"Strega is like driving a Ferrari. Going back to a stocker is like getting back into your work car. There is just no comparison." One thing Tiger mentions is how the engine is hard mounted to the airframe. "There ainít no rubber in the mounts - it allows the engine to torque over too much. And Iíll tell ya, you can feel every little pulse of power through the airframe," he says. Another spit into the paper cup. He smiles. Apparently he likes feeling his airplaneís pulse.
The Sun Also Sets
Tiger arrived at Reno in 2002, he was hell bent on another win until the Sparrow Merlin burped and blew the induction trunk and bottom cowl off of the airplane. Immediately after the incident, while sipping a high octane beverage from a plastic cup, Tiger took some time to respond to my question.
"There is no next year. That's it; I'm done. I'm going to put the plane on a pole on the ranch and let it swing in the wind!," he says with amusement. "Actually, I'll just fly it when I feel like flying it. I've had enough success, and enough heartbreaks. And, I'm getting older... I can't take the G's any more... I've got to wear these damn glasses to see across the way there. There is a time to quit. I've had a lot of maydays, and they're testers. You're butthole puckers up pretty good! I'm tired of that, and there are other things in life. I just hope I gave all these people a thrill while I was here. I've been here 21 years, and I always come to win. There is a time, and now is the time."
Are you sure, Tiger?
Iím positive those were his real sentiments after the 2002 mayday. But time has passed and there have been rumors of Stregaís return to the Reno pylons. Maybe weíll again see Strega push it up when Hinton calls, "Gentlemen, you have a race." It would be something to see Tiger in the seat again, too. There are very few racers like The Tigeí up there. Even if it isnít him doing the flying, heíll play the roll of race plane owner, and be just as hard-assed as ever. Weíll just have to wait and see.
Story and Photos by Scott Germain - WarbirdAeroPress.com. All Rights Reserved.
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