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Reno is many things to many people, but foremost, it is the place to go to see the unlimited class racers flog their engines in the quest for the checkered flag. "Whipping it," so to speak. This year, warm temperatures, well prepared racers and relatively calm winds meant high lap speeds for the modified Mustangs, Sea Furies and Yaks. There was even speculation that fans might even see the mythical 500 mph lap.
The unlimited class had slots for 24 racers; 12 P-51's, 13 Sea Furies, three Yak-11's and a single T-28 vied for the spots. The field this year was extremely fast: a stunning fifteen unlimiteds turned in lap speeds in excess of 400 mph! Reno 2000 was going to be many thing to many people, but most of all it was going to be fast.
Some big names had thrown their hat into the fray in the Gold class. The inline powered racers included former champion Skip Holm behind the stick for the Dago Red team. He was favored in Sunday’s Gold race, due in no small part to the victories the team earned in 1999 and 1998. Dago appeared this year with a paint scheme that included purple flames over the familiar white and yellow stripe. Bill "Tiger" Destefani was returning to go for the gold, supremely confident that his six-time champion Mustang Strega would allow him to retire from air racing with a final victory. The highly modified Mustang trio was rounded out by Matt Jackson, flying Bob Button’s Voodoo. The racer had spent the last five years experiencing race modifications, growing pains and the worst luck imaginable. This year, the aircraft was well prepared, and featured a Jack Hovey race prepared Merlin.
The radial crowd at Reno 2000 was headed up by Brian Sanders and Dreadnought, the Super Sea Fury mated to a R-4360. Over the years Dreadnought has defined what a fast and reliable racer is; they have won more money coming in second than most racers ever will coming in first. Up to the start of Reno 2000, Dreadnought had experienced only one engine failure in 16 years of racing! Tom Dwelle brought his Critical Mass Super Sea Fury back to Reno after a great 1999 race. Dwelle and crew had rebuilt their R-3350 and really had the aircraft up to speed this year. Mike Brown, a former competitor in his R-3350 September Pops, had grown some fangs, and had another Sea Fury prepared for Reno 2000. September Fury also sports a R-3350 modification, but with several major changes - fuel injection and a boil-off oil cooling system.
Nipping at the heals of the front runners were a whole gaggle of Mustangs and Sea Furies. Bill Eberhardt bolted on some go-fast mods to his P-51 Merlin’s Magic, while veteran racer Bill "Rhino" Rheinschild returned with his Risky Business Mustang. Art Vance would fly the other R-4360 powered Sea Fury, Furias. To round out the field, Sherman Smoot would again race John Moore’s Czech Mate, the highly modified R-2800 powered Yak-11 that had blown an engine and caught fire at Reno 1998.
The action got started with the beginning of qualifying on Monday. Tiger strode out and strapped into Strega for his qualifying attempt; the racer appeared to be in top form and would probably be capable of a 500 mph lap. Unfortunately, the attrition card reared its head and struck at Tiger. With moderate power on the aircraft, Tiger was turning quick laps and flying conservatively. Suddenly, the radio crackled with a mayday call; it was Tiger - trailing a stream of white smoke. He pulled off the course and made an uneventful landing on runway 14. Talk in the Strega pit afterward centered on an ADI problem that lead to a torched piston. The uphill battle to get the aircraft ready to qualify - let alone race - had begun. The crew worked almost around the clock in order to get the necessary repairs made.
Attrition would also seep into the round engine ranks at Reno. Brian Sanders had flown Dreadnought rather conservatively on the course during qualifying, coming up with a speed of 438 mph. The huge racer seemed to be loafing around the course with ease, and race fans knew this beast could turn laps in the 460 mph range. Unfortunately, a post flight inspection of the engine’s screens revealed a very small amount of silver; the first signs of a main bearing failing. "We caught it early," Sanders said. "We’ll be able to rebuild this engine instead of having it blow up on us. We’re actually upbeat about it. It could have gone unnoticed, and we could have had a failure out on the race course. Then I’d have to do all that heroic pilot stuff," Sanders laughed. Although Dreadnought was now out of the competition, it was comforting to see such a professional and safe approach to racing. One racer down...
More problems were occurring with Sherman Smoot and Czech Mate. The highly modified R-2800 powered Yak-11 had been campaigned for years by Bob Yancey with a degree of success. Now owned by John Moore, Czech Mate had been rebuilt and tuned for Reno 2000. During Smoot’s practice sessions on the course, the R-2800 was producing some vibration at certain power settings. The crew worked on the engine early in the week, pulling jugs and checking pistons and exhaust valves. By Tuesday, everything had been put back together for a test flight. Smoot took to the course like a man possessed; his line was low, tight and consistent around the unlimited course pylons. The stubby racer sounded great as he turned the course somewhere in the low 400's. Unfortunately, an afternoon test flight on Tuesday ended with a dramatic mayday. Smoot was at altitude east of the airport when he radioed a mayday. Something within the engine had come apart, and the racer was trailing smoke.
With altitude, a bit of time, and options, Smoot glided back to the west and made a textbook deadstick landing in runway 8. Still smoking, Smoot touched down about 1,500 feet from the threshold and brought the Yak to a stop on the runway. When the aircraft was towed back to the pits, a teardown showed the piston in the number 7 cylinder had either torched or had simply broken. A psi test on that cylinder allowed air to blow back into the oil tank, and other parts of the engine were also suspect. Two racers down...
The practice and qualifying sessions also saw Bill Eberhardt call a mayday that went almost totally unnoticed, as it happened at the same time Tiger called his mayday. With all eyes on Tiger and Strega, Eberhardt was low on the course turning 400 mph laps when his power went from the neighborhood of 100 inches right back to 20 inches. With the power stuck there, Eberhardt maneuvered his Mustang to a hot landing on runway 8. As he pinned the mains on and applied braking, he had the presence of mind to shut off the mags and prevent the racer from going off the end of the runway. The culprit was a broken throttle attach bolt, and the problem was easily fixed. Merlin’s Magic posted a respectful qualifying speed of 413.842 mph.
Mike Brown had raced at Reno the previous few years, and has become in important participant in his R-3350 Sea Fury September Pops. With faster speeds in mind, he had another racing Sea Fury built up by the Sanders family. Named September Fury, the aircraft had been finished and test flown only days before departing for Reno. Brown flew the pylons like he’d been doing it for years: very low, tight and crisp lines around the course. There was little doubt that Brown had come to Reno this year to bring home a trophy and some prize money. He qualified at a stunning 433.173 mph; a fantastic speed for a brand new aircraft.
The rest of qualifying was relatively uneventful. With Strega struggling with engine problems, the odds-on favorites had to be Dago Red and Voodoo. The highly strung Mustangs would surely win - if they held together. They qualified at 498.681 mph and 435.518 mph respectively. Right behind them was September Fury, while Tiger limped around the course in the ailing Strega at 429.858 mph.
Dwelle’s Critical Mass had blown an exhaust valve in 1999's gold race, and was forced to mayday from the race. In the off season, the crew had torn down the damaged engine and rebuilt it to near perfect condition. Reno 2000 was shaping up to be a great year for Critical Mass, except that the team was experiencing ADI problems. Without enough ADI to cool the induction temperatures, Dwelle would be unable to pull full power from his engine. The crew would work on this problem throughout the week, but would never really get a handle on it. Dwelle initially qualified Critical Mass at a disappointing 429.610 mph, but vowed to fix the ADI problem and take a second attempt. On Wednesday, Dwelle said they had found their horsepower, and took off to re-qualify. It was obvious that Dwelle had the R-3350 wicked up a great deal more, as his lap speed was visibly faster. Unfortunately, his higher qualifying speed was disallowed due to a course deadline cut. His earlier, slower qualifying speed would stand.
In contrast to the normally reliable radial crowd, some of the Merlin racers were having an easy time of it. Skip Holm sauntered out to Dago Red, strapped in, and ripped off a 489.681 mph lap. Holm’s line around the shortened course was smooth and very tight; he’d lost nothing since racing Stiletto in 1984 and winning the Gold race. Afterwards, Holm said, "If I had know I was going that fast, I would have run another lap with some more power. I was pretty wide on pylon four; I’m sure I could have done a 500 mph lap."
Matt Jackson also had an excellent qualifying run in Voodoo. Along with the new Hovey roller cam Merlin, a new propeller comprising a P-63 Kingcobra hub and T-28A blades was also being used. A custom-made spinner with a pointed tip was also fabricated and topped off the new look. Jackson had spent 25 hours test flying Voodoo at Jack Hovey’s facility at Eagle’s Nest, California. With quite a bit of Mustang and racer time, Jackson appeared extremely comfortable at the stick and made the racing look easy. He went out and whipped a 435.518 mph lap to secure the second fastest qualifying spot. It was apparent that with all of the failures and bad fortune the Voodoo team had experienced in the past, they were not pushing the engine hard at all. They wanted to make it to the show come Sunday.
Racing got underway on Thursday of race week, but the top five Gold class racers were excused from participating. Pylon action centered on Jim Michaels and the resurrected Miss Merced Sea Fury in the Bronze race. Miss Merced had seen quite a bit of action around the Reno pylons in the late ‘60's and early ‘70's, and she was now returning under the ownership of Michaels and Steve Bolander. Painted in a color scheme reminiscent of her 1970's flame paint job, Michaels ripped of lap after lap in the beautifully prepared yellow racer and battled the R-4360 powered Furias for second place. Rhino made an easy win out of the race in Risky Business at 412.514 mph.
While the days’ event were being played out in front of the crowd, news had come from the rented hangar where Strega was being worked on. "We’re out," Tiger said. The master of air racing deception, partial truths and Psychological Ops was being quite real; during the test flight and subsequent qualification flight, Strega’s oil temperature had skyrocketed, damaging the main bearing and sending some metal to the screens. Even though the engine wasn’t damaged beyond repair, another top runner was out.
(Tiger had announced that this would be his last year in the cockpit racing Strega, but as he pointed out, he never even got the chance to race. Will we see him back next year? It certainly seems that way!)
Friday’s racing saw Steve Bolander begin his takeoff in Miss Merced, get airborne, and lose power. He brought the throttle back and landed straight ahead. One of the R-3350's mags had soured, so he was forced out of the day’s Bronze race. Art Vance in Furias took the checkered flag at a rather sedate 385.359 mph.
The Silver race was full of action as Rheinschild sprinted to the lead and stayed there until he pulled up and out of the lead. He called a cool "Mayday" on the race frequency, had race control check that his gear was indeed down, and made an uneventful landing. Once again, a throttle linkage problem caused a Mustang to mayday. The real action came a few moments later as Hoot Gibson rounded pylon one in Riff Raff. Close in and close behind another racer, Gibson was extremely tight on the pylon and possibly inside it. He, as a response to wake turbulence or to avoid a pylon cut, went knife-edge and booted top rudder. As he recovered on the northwest portion of the course, the induction intake atop the cowling failed catastrophically, sending parts down the intake trunk and into the engine’s supercharger.
The ensuing backfire and engine destruction shook Gibson and Riff Raff as he called a mayday and brought the racer up off the course. He maneuvered the red and white racer towards runway 14, but came in high and a bit fast. Gibson aggressively S-turned the red and white Sea Fury, and low to the ground, was forced to point the nose at the sagebrush to maintain his airspeed. As the crowd held their collective breath, Gibson recovered his speed and pulled the nose up quickly as the tires chirped on the runway. An audible exhale came over the crowd as they realized they just witnessed one of the more hairy maneuvers of the week. Gibson had done an outstanding job of handling his aircraft and avoiding disaster, but now another racer was out of the competition...
During the lineup and start of Friday’s Gold heat, more racers experienced problems. Brent Hisey and Miss America taxied back in after experiencing mag problems, and Critical Mass never even made the start. As Dwelle cranked the engine, a crew member alerted the crew chief to a large stream of fluid coming from the bottom of the aircraft. Dwelle was immediately instructed to shut down, and he did so. The fluid turned out to be the extra-hot racing fuel coming from a broken fitting on a one-inch feed line. Although this problem was easily fixed and Dwelle raced the next day, it could have ended with total disaster for all.
The final problem of the day came when the four remaining racers came down the start chute; Mike Brown and September Fury called a mayday right before the racers were released to the course. Brown radioed his pit crew that he had a chip light, then engine roughness, then failure. He brought the prop back to extend the glide of the powerless Sea Fury and executed a well-flown deadstick approach. Another top contender was out for the year, and only three racers were left to fly this particular race.
Front runner Dago Red leaped onto the course and set the pace while Matt Jackson and Voodoo remained in his hip pocket. Neither racer was running full power, but speeds were still in the 440 mph neighborhood. In third place was Dan Martin in Ridge Runner; and he knew he couldn’t keep the pace. He throttled back and cruised the pylons, enjoying the view from third place. With only three Mustangs on the course, there was a moment for joking on the race frequency as Martin exclaimed, "You guys better not pass me. I’ll have to get mad!"
A few moments later, Holm keyed the mic in Dago Red and retorted, "I can’t help it, my throttle is stuck."
The racers finished as they started; Dago in first at 443.037 mph, Voodoo in second at 416.603 mph, and Ridge Runner in third at a comfortable 360.166 mph. For a few laps, Voodoo had run with Dago and showed the fans that they could keep the pace. The anticipation for Sunday’s final race was growing; it looked like Voodoo and Dago were going to make a show of it!
In Saturday’s racing action, Critical Mass had been bumped down to the Silver heat due to their Did Not Start (DNS) on Friday. Dwelle made an easy race out of it, starting at the back and easily passing everybody in the field. It was almost comical; it seemed like every 30 seconds Dwelle was calling another racer on the radio, letting them know he was driving by them. Dwelle took the race at 428.800 mph, bumping him back up to the Gold race on Sunday.
For the most part, the weather during race week had been favorable for the Mustang crowd. Clear skies and warm temperatures were dominating, which gave the edge to the inline engine racers. The radial racers had suffered tremendous attrition, and were a bit handicapped by the warm days; cooling and ADI flow rates were a factor. Nevertheless, Dwelle and Critical Mass were the only radial engine threat to the Dago Red and Voodoo Mustangs.
Sunday dawned clear, and surprise - just a bit cooler than normal. They day’s airshow had included the US Navy Blue Angels, Jimmy Franklin and his prop and jet powered Waco biplane, Sean Tucker and a full day of racing in other classes. Winds, normally gusting to 20 and 30 knots by the afternoon, were light and variable as the Gold unlimited racers were towed out in front of the grandstands. The record crowd was on their feet as each pilot was introduced and interviewed; cheers were going up for the favorites.
One by one, each racer cranked their engine and taxied out to the active. Steve Hinton, flying the TiVo sponsored T-33 pace plane, made sure each aircraft was ready and took off for the Gold race. The racers took off, joined on the T-33, and came back down the start chute.
Normally, Hinton would release the pack a mile or so behind the grandstands, but Voodoo had snuck ahead of the pace plane. Hinton gave several warnings to Jackson, and held the start until just north of the grandstands. At the last second, when everybody thought Hinton would bring them around for another start, he radioed, "Gentlemen, you have a race!"
Jackson, flying Voodoo, had backed way off the power in an attempt to come even with the start formation. Just as he had things under control, the start was called and Skip Holm had mashed Dago Red’s throttle. The race was on, and Dago was screaming past pylon three as Jackson got the power back on Voodoo and accelerated towards the leader. The rate of acceleration was simply fantastic, and it showed the fans that Voodoo can, indeed, run with the big dogs.
Holm was whipping Dago hard with a hot lap speed around 477 mph, with Jackson fighting back from a position four seconds behind the leader. Halfway through the eight lap race, Jackson whipped Voodoo a bit harder and began to close the distance; he came to within two seconds of Holm. Dago’s pit crew saw this, and had Holm bump Dago’s power a bit. Even though there was some distance between the two Mustangs, it always looked like Voodoo had the chance to take it.
Tom Dwelle and Critical Mass had started at the back of the pack due to their finish in Saturday’s Silver heat. Even though the ADI flow rate problem had not been solved on their R-3350, Critical Mass was still able to pass the whole pack except for Dago Red and Voodoo. Remaining between nine and 12 seconds behind Voodoo, Dwelle just couldn’t get enough ADI to keep his induction temperatures down. Without full power, he had to settle for crossing the finish line in third place. The poppy red racer, however, looked and sounded great, and Dwelle’s line around the course was consistent and smooth. For having so many top-contender radial engine aircraft out of the final race, Dwelle did them proud with his performance.
As lap six rolled around, Dan Martin had been keeping a decent pace in Ridge Runner until he also torched a piston and maydayed from the race. With white smoke pouring from the exhaust stacks, he made an excellent landing on runway eight. Shortly thereafter, the throttle linkage again failed on Bill Eberhardt in Merlin’s Magic, forcing him to also call a mayday on the seventh lap.
As it stood, Skip Holm polished the pylons with tight, low, and consistent lines during the Gold race. He kept the power where it had to be to keep ahead of Matt Jackson and Voodoo. Holm blistered across the finish line at an average speed of 462.007 mph, with Jackson behind him at 459.793 mph. Dwelle took the checkered flag a few moments later with an average speed of 434.962 mph. Bill Rheinschild had forfeited his win in the Silver race to run in the Gold, and he crossed the finish line fourth with a speed of 415.771 mph.
With Jackson jumping the start, fans, officials and competitors knew that when the dust cleared, there would be some jockeying of the final results. When word came down, Jackson and Voodoo were penalized one lap for their transgression, which bumped them to a fifth place finish. As it stood, Dago Red was the winner, Critical Mass was second, and Bill Rheinschild took third in Risky Business. Voodoo’s adjusted speed was 406.225 mph.
After the Gold race, it is customary for the winner and first two runners up to park in front of the grandstand to receive their accolades and trophy. But Reno 2000 had two more events in store for the fans. When Skip Holm had made his remarks about a 500 mph lap earlier in the race week, he apparently wasn’t kidding. Owner Terry Bland and Holm made a decision to turn Dago Red immediately after the Gold race, and take the course in an official attempt to record a 500 mph lap.
As Dago was hurriedly pulled into its pit, several MiGs, an L-39 and a T-33 put on an exhibition jet race; something that the Reno Air Race Association has been pondering for a few years. As the jets took the course, the MiG-17's made great spectacle by turning the pylons with afterburners aglow, while the T-33 and L-39 flashed by. Although having one jet race in the schedule might be interesting, if this is any indication, it will be far from mesmerizing.
As the sun sank towards Peavine Mountain, the Dago Red crew had serviced the racer with minimum fuel, water and ADI. Holm strapped in for his record attempt; in many ways, this was the high drama event of Reno 2000. Many knew that the Dago Red / Skip Holm combination would be as close to unbeatable as one could get. But the Merlin in Dago had been beaten up all week, and had burned off a large amount of its wick. How much of it was left? Would it last the 59.6 seconds it would take to run a 500 mph lap?
Holm, a former Air Force combat pilot, Lockheed test pilot and unlimited champion, had made remarks about flying a 500 mph lap some found to be cocky. In fact, it is Holm’s expert opinion of the ability of his aircraft and the conditions in which he would be able to break the lap barrier. It came down to simple knowledge and a belief in his abilities, and those of his crew chief Bill Kerchenfaut, engine builder Dwight Thorne, and the rest of the Dago Red crew.
Holm again strapped in to Dago’s cockpit and fired the Merlin off. As hundreds of photographers burned off the Kodak, Holm taxied out for his record attempt. On takeoff, the Merlin sounded normal as the landing gear folded into the wings, and Holm banked left to enter the course. No dilly-dallying here; he was getting right to business.
"Race 4 is a mayday..."
The Dago Red crew may have known it even before Holm did, as the telemetry showed a drop in oil pressure within the spent Merlin. As Holm turned crosswind, the Merlin gave up whatever it had left in it and threw a connecting rod through both sides of the bottom engine’s case. Holm guided the powerless Mustang to a landing on runway 14, ending his hopes of being the man to set the bar higher than anybody had set it before. For now, at least...
Reno 2000 came to a close and left many wishing for a different outcome. In the most simple cases, each team with a broken aircraft probably wished they hadn’t broke. For many of the fans, Reno once again had way too many repetitive airshow acts and too little focus on air racing. Even the advertising and billboards around town toted the slogan "Racing With Legends" with a picture of a Blue Angel FA-18 jet.
For the Dago Red team, they had won the Gold, but at the cost of their engine. Granted, the engine was pretty much used up after the race, but it would have been a more gratifying victory if Dago had been able to hold it together for another lap and a half.
For team Voodoo, they were just a short step away from an upset victory. Even though Jackson jumped the start, he has a "Whip it" attitude and will be an important competitor in the years to come. For owner Bob Button, Reno 2000 was a huge victory in the sense that Voodoo held together and provided the only competition for Dago Red. Next year, look for Voodoo to arrive at Reno as a front runner; a refined racer able to meet or beat anything Dago Red or Strega can throw at it.
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