Monday, August 5, 2013

Innovation at the Reno Air Races

With all the drama surrounding the transition from the old Unlimited Class to the new, the fans are forgetting about the other five classes of racing. I've decided to give focus this month’s column on the other classes, the innovators and racers who we don’t hear about on the forums. Who they are and what to look for this year – but let’s start with why the fans aren't as enamored with these classes, and why maybe they should be.

Air Racing through the years was always about technical advancements -- especially for civil aviation. Among the first races in the 1910’s, the draw was for inventors to show their wares and develop a name for themselves through their innovation. Thousands would flock to these events to watch the historic races and see how far aviation had changed since 1903 at Kitty Hawk.

Clearly the biggest draw to the National Championship Air Races each year is the Unlimited Class. But, when was the last time there was a technical advancement with far reaching implications in the Unlimited Class? I don’t think people are putting Allison rod engine parts in their Cessna or Cub.

The REAL innovation is in the other classes. These classes have full or nearly full fields – while the Unlimited Class is less than 2/3 of a full class.  They are developing new racers and focusing on innovation, technical advancements and winning.

But, why aren't the fans paying attention to them? Let’s review ..


Right now, the Jet Class has the course record for qualifying and fastest lap on the course. So, if it was only speed that attracts the fans – why aren't there more Jet Class fans?

In fact, the Sport Class winner would likely win the Unlimited Silver this year. So, the speeds aren’t really that much of determining factor these days.


NASCAR type paintjobs are always attractive, but we have seen classic paint schemes like Strega and Dreadnaught have their fan base. Wildly painted aircraft like Rare Bear, 232 and Voodoo also draw the fans.

But again, all of the other classes have their spectacular paint schemes also. Alan Crawford has one of my favorites in the Sport Class. So, that’s probably not the deciding factor.  

Alan Crawford and his beautifully painted Lancair Legacy
Thanks to Rob “Phred” Miller


Well, there you have it. The Unlimited Class does have loud airplanes – but so does the T6 Class. In fact, it’s easier to have a conversation during the Unlimited Gold (as if you would want to) than it is to chat amongst your seat mates during a T6 Bronze!


Of course Nostalgia for War World II aircraft may play a large role in the fan base. These planes bring so much emotion to a large number of people. Many pilots talk about the first time they saw a P-51 Mustang or a Corsair as one of the reasons they became a pilot. Yes, the drama, nostalgia and history around these aircraft does have its place in the hearts of fans.

More on Innovation

In the Sport Class, Jeff LaVelle has brought his Glasair III to amazing speeds. Andy Chiavetta has made great strides in Daryl Greenamyer’s Legacy. This year, Number 33 will be raced by Will Whiteside – an interesting detour for this Unlimited Class Race Pilot. What would make Will move to the Sport Class? I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but he has expressed that “Fun and Innovation” are a large part of the attraction. Apparently, it’s more fun to live on the cusp of great things than trying to keep 70 year old technology from imploding on a race course.

At this time, I’d say more Private Pilots are watching Andy and Jeff for innovation than the entire Unlimited Class!  They are watching because they are interested in what these new innovations can do FOR THEM.
In talking with Setrige Crawford, an Aerospace Engineer and builder/pilot/owner, he is drawn to the Sport Class. Having recently finished building a very fast, and very sweet Lancair Legacy, he is interested in what is happening and is trying to figure out how to translate it to his aircraft and potentially other Experimentals.   

Knowledgeable racing fans like Setrige, are watching the Thunder Mustangs to see what the Falconer V12 will do. When will that engine be available to the average homebuilder and what will the reliability be? What can be done with Andy’s geared engine in Race #33? How about the V8 development program that Lee Behel is working on with the GP-5? What ever became of Dave Morss’ Suburu powered racer?

Lee Behel’s GP-5: beautiful and innovative
Thanks to Rob “Phred” Miller

And in the IF1 and Biplane Classes, the unusual prop designs they are using have peaked his interest. Will these ever translate to the Experimental market?

More IF1

Years ago, David Hoover’s Endeavor was the New New thing in IF1. Later sold to Steve Senegal where the winning ways have continued.  We have recently seen Brian Reberry throw his hat into the ring with his September Fate. This year, we expect Elliot Sequin, a Jon Sharp protégé, to bring something pretty exciting. He has cloaked his project in secrecy so nothing is known yet, but we will see how he does in September.


Biplanes have seen moderate interest in building new designs. Tom Aberle and the Phantom are at the top of the Biplane list for several years. His Modified Mong could actually win the T6 Gold and place pretty well in the Unlimited Bronze. But, he still doesn’t have the accolades he deserves, in my opinion.

Jeff Lo and Cris Ferguson have the Miss Gianna project which raced one year and is undergoing changes currently. We do hope they will be back.


This brings me to Karl Grove. Karl was bitten by the racing bug when he purchased Dennis Vest’s Drag Racer a few years back. A very fast biplane to begin with – he has only increased the innovation and speeds. Dennis then brought up a design he was thinking about for years. Together they moved forward and the Boomerang was born.

Currently a project between Dennis Vest, Karl Grove, Bobby Graham, Craig Catto and a Professor at UFMG University in Brazil, Paulo Iscold, the Boomerang is an interesting project – not just because of its radical design (see rendering below) but because it is being used as an educational project for the students at UFMG!

Karl Grove’s new radical Biplane design
Team Boomerang

When I asked Karl, “WHY?” he said, “Why not!?” and went on to tell me about his quest for speed and innovation. There it is again, the thirst for innovation.


While we wait for the dust to settle in the Unlimited Class, think about the Racers further west on the ramp and come down to see where the real excitement is in Air Racing!

Next month, we’ll look closer at who, what and how fast while we get ready for the 50th Anniversary of the National Championship Air Races. Until then, fly low, fast and turn left.. but keep it under 250’, you know the rules.

And if you’re interested in helping to sponsor Ruby this year, get in touch with me. We can always use the help of our fans to make our little racer faster!

Marilyn Dash
Ruby Red Racing
Pylon Place 

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