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Freshly Minted Racer

By June 26, 2013March 14th, 2014News

2013 Sport Class “Rookie” School – Thrills Without the Spills

After nine years of crewing for friends in the Sport Class and watching racers circle the course at Stead field in front of adoring fans (many in Orange), I finally bit the bullet and signed up for the 2013 Pylon Racing Seminar and FAST formation clinic. I arrived in Race 52, a borrowed Lancair Legacy named “Poncho” (built and owned by Jim “JT” Thomas), on Sunday afternoon ahead of some impressive afternoon thunderstorms and was quickly tucked away into the cavernous Sport Class hangar on the west end of the ramp.

If you are looking for the ultimate flight training experience, look no farther than FAST and PRS. You will experience professional, almost military-precise briefings and debriefings from world-class pilots in a non-stop setting designed to hone your racing skills while never letting you forget your responsibility for being safe and predictable. The two-day FAST clinic, led by RV guru Bob “Nasty” Mills, combined classroom-style lectures, slick reading materials, and plenty of flight time to practice your skills with other formation rookies. Of course, the emphasis was on the pre-race left-hand join-up and the line-abreast formation that precedes that famous phrase “Gentlemen, you have a race!”, but other formation rules and etiquette were also presented. After two days of trying to coax myself to tuck closer to the Legacy on my left and identifying my “out” should the situation get ugly, I was rewarded with a FAST Wingman certification and a big jump in confidence. Oh, and my flying skills got a boost as well!

The Sport Class is the only class at Reno that offers the FAST training. From my rookie perspective, I cannot imagine diving into the racecourse without a recent overview of these essential skills.

Tuesday afternoon saw the arrival of other classes, with a corresponding increase in excitement. It felt like a mini version of the actual races, especially with the appearance of several unlimited racers, which I often found myself parked near on the ramp. Wednesday started with an excellent RARA introduction on how the races are conducted, and we heard several safety-oriented briefings by subject matter experts. We then broke out into individual classes and got even more details on the specific procedures for our class.

Thursday morning was our first opportunity to see the course. My biggest fear was missing the pylons due to the low altitude and high speeds; while I am not saying I will never cut a pylon in an actual race, I have to admit they were a lot easier to spot than I’d imagined. Our first trip around was in a loose trail in groups of 4-5, at reasonably low speeds. “That’s easy!” I thought as I shut down following this flight. For my next opportunity, later that afternoon, we dialed up the RPM and adjusted mixture, and I was shocked at the acceleration and power generated by the big Continental six in front of me. All of a sudden I had my hands full…. and was loving every second of it.

Friday’s morning sortie was spent demonstrating emergency pull-ups and dead-stick landings to a runway. Converting all that speed to altitude gives you plenty of options with three long runways arranged below you, but as I was going through the maneuver I couldn’t help but remember watching these “Maydays” from the ground with anxiety. Mentally I filed away the need to “armchair-fly” these procedures in the coming months.

The afternoon’s flight took us away from the airport to demonstrate upset recovery (“flip-flops”) and high-G turns. While the Legacy is not an aerobatic airplane with inverted systems, it rolls as sweetly as an Extra and these maneuvers were a simple technicality for my fellow classmates and me. The demonstrations were followed by a game of “pursuit-trail” which invariably led to barrel rolls and a healthy dose of Vitamin “g” on the pull-outs. My fun-meter was definitely pegged by now.

Friday’s flights met the final PRS requirements, and all the Sport Class rookies were rewarded with multiple toasts around the keg in the Sport Class ready room prior to the RARA volunteer banquet. The beer was flowing and the jokes were racy; it was as close to being a member of a military squadron as I’d ever come and I loved every minute of it.

Saturday was a “free” day with some choosing to leave early and others sticking around for the last chance to fly the course. We practiced full race starts and passing. I realized I’d not yet tried the RAM air option on the Legacy, and was rewarded with an even greater kick in the pants in return (okay, this is REALLY fun now). I also got to see situations on the course where it was critical to remain predictable and steady due to the close proximity of other racers. These were invaluable lessons that I know will pay dividends come September.

The toughest part of the week was the flight home. Suddenly I was on my own, with no briefing, no formation to be part of, radio frequencies up to me, and no TFR to keep me safe from intruders. It was difficult to flip the switch in my brain to normal flying, and made me appreciate the protective cocoon so conducive to focusing on learning provided by RARA and the Sport Class when PRS is in session.

For this amazing experience I owe a world of thanks to Lee Behel, Rick Vandam, Bob Jeffries, Bob Mills, Craig Sherman, and Vince Walker for organizing and leading the Sport Class rookie school. It is hands-down the best training available at Stead and makes us all safer racers. I am personally grateful to Craig and to Will Whiteside for flying right-seat with me for part of the week, until I got my confidence. Learning from pros like these gentlemen is a special treat. And I’d like to personally thank David Sterling for giving me instruction in the Legacy, and Jim Thomas for allowing me to fly his wonderful machine at Reno.

The Race 52 application is in; see you in September!

Article by: Colleen Keller