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Reno 2013 – A Report from Race 99

By January 14, 2014March 14th, 2014News

Reno 2013 – A Report from Race 99
by Karen Morss

Me: What time are you leaving tomorrow, Dave?
Dave: Wheels up, 7am.
Me: Isn’t that a little early?
Dave: Are you kidding me? There are seven planes there already.

And so began our trip to Stead, Nevada for the 50th National Championship Air Races. This year had been fraught with challenges. But you know what they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. We were thrilled just to be going. And especially honored by the story in the program, ‘A Racer and his Wife’.

I arrived late Sunday afternoon. Dave had flown the course and scoped out the competition. As we drove to the hotel he told me, ‘Earl (Hibler) got a new engine and I can’t get past Tom (McNerney).’ It was going to be an interesting week.

Dave and Earl have been racing together for over 30 years starting in Formula One. They have flown some of the closest, most exciting races in the class. But Earl hasn’t been here for the past two years and we’ve missed him. Tom is a sophomore racer who has done an amazing job with Race 55, including some aerodynamic mods that have his 4-cylinder, Lancair 320 going faster than ever. Vicky Benzig and Colleen Keller are both racing Sport Class this year (a first to have two women in the class). I’m proud to call both friends.

Qualification takes place on Monday and Tuesday, with some last minute quals Wednesday morning. Tom qualified on Monday at 268.272 mph. Dave and Earl qualify on Tuesday in what was one of the most exciting and memorable qualifications ever. That morning Earl told me, ‘I’m coming for him’ and did he ever. Keep in mind they were up there to qualify, not race. But race they did, displaying their awesome formation and racing skills. Dave held him off for the first two laps but Earl caught him on the third lap and passed him just before the home pylon. Dave qualified at 271.280 and Earl at 270.894. Let the racing begin or continue in their case.

When the pairings came out we were a little disappointed. Earl and Tom would fly in the Bronze on Wednesday with Earl in the pole and Tom third. We would start at the bottom of the Silver on Thursday. You take what you get and do the best that you can.

Doug Matthews asked Dave to be the alternate pilot for Rebel, a P51 Mustang racing Unlimited. There was a lot of paperwork to get through but they made it happen and on Wednesday Dave got to fly the Mustang. He qualified at 325 mph (bettering previous qual by 10mph) but would have to wait and see how events unfolded if he was to fly again.

Earl won his first race with a speed of 276.279 faster than Baby Doll’s ever gone. Tom finished third at 268.300 and got the pole for the Medallion race. The Medallion race was for the bottom 8 planes. Tom won that race with a speed of 261.906. When I saw Earl after the race, I bowed in submission and said ’You’ve got him Earl. We can’t go that fast.’ He laughed and said, ‘We’ll see.’ I know and he knows that Race 99 can’t go that fast unless we get a race prop. But racing is racing and anything can happen (and usually does).

One of the really fun traditions at the Air Races is the antique Fire truck that loads up the winning crew and pilot of each race and parades them in front of the grandstands. It’s a lot of fun for everyone especially when you go past Section 3, the most awesome, avid air race fans in the world. They hold up scorecards for each team rating their performance from 1 to 10. Both Earl’s and Tom’s teams got to ride on the Fire truck that day. It was great to see for both teams.

On Thursday, we would start in the race in 8th position, tail end Charlie. As the form up unfolded, Vicky Benzig had to pull up to sort out some issues with her plane. When she rejoined, she was behind Dave. For the next six laps, she did everything she could to get past him. She’s quite a bit faster but it is very hard to pass in air racing. She told me after the race, she had learned more about passing in that race than any other.

During a race, my job is to give Dave his lap speed and the interval of the plane behind him. He was holding Vicky off between 4 and 7 seconds until the final turn around lap 8. With the straightaway in front of her, she opened it up and passed him at the finish. In the excitement of the moment, I neglected to tell him she was coming. She finished with a speed of 267.221 and Dave at 267.199, only .049 seconds separating them. I must admit, I was cheering for Vicky in the last few seconds. It was a great race but he did chide me with a smile for cheering for the competition.

The pairings came out for Friday. Pairings are set based on the previous race speed. Earl bumped up to the Silver and we bumped down to the Bronze starting third behind Tom with Vicky on the pole. There was no chance to get ahead of her this time. She took the lead at the start and held it the entire way. Dave tried everything he could to get around Tom but it just wasn’t working. He flew high, he flew low, he flew tight. He tried different RPM settings. But in the end, you need about 7 mph to pass in air racing and some luck too. He had neither that day. On the final straightaway, he tried to catch him but lost in another photo finish by .089 seconds. When we got back to the pits, he said, ‘I need six inches.’ And the crew went to work.

Our crew this year was Justin Fluegel and Kyle Roh. Justin works for a subsidiary of Boeing, Insitu, and supports the U.S. Military operations all over the world. This was his first year crewing at Reno (and we hope the first of many). This was Kyle’s second year so when he showed up Friday, he knew the drill. They started by cleaning and polishing every inch of the airplane before taping the wings. Once that was done, Kyle suggested winglets to cover the nav lights on the wing tips. Kyle works in the wind tunnel at NASA so he understood the advantage even a small change like this could have on the plane. He got to work constructing the winglets with the materials we had on hand, namely paper dinner plates and pink duct tape. I had brought the tape with me to hang up my signs but it suddenly had a new purpose. As Justin said, ‘Pink, the new color of air racing.’

Dave inspected the first mockup and gave him the go ahead to do a final installation. Kyle made a trip to the hardware store for some additional parts and got to work. Kyle had driven from San Jose to Reno after school on Thursday night, arriving about 3am, so this first day was a Herculean effort and much appreciated by the team. We hoped it would be enough to give Dave the advantage at the start on Saturday.

When the pairings came out, we were second behind Tom. Vicky had bumped up and Tim Cone had bumped down to third due to an unexplained power loss in the previous race. As we wait on the ramp before engine start, the Fire Truck passes with a winning Formula One crew. Dave mentions wistfully, ‘It’s been awhile since we rode that truck.’

Kim McNerney turns to him with a saucy reply, ‘You can ride with us today.’ Dave laughed, ‘Ohhhhhhh, challenge on!’

At the start, Tim got past Dave. So not only did he not get Tom, now he was in third. Tim passed Tom and Dave and Tom battled it out for five more laps. It was so close at the end but once again Dave lost by a nose; .364 seconds.

Saturday afternoon was spent cleaning off the bugs and removing the antennas from the belly of the plane. They taped the air inlets. He needed more speed and a better start to have any chance on Sunday. We would just have to wait for the rest of the races to finish and the pairings to be released to know the lineup. Dave got the word he would not be flying the Mustang. He was disappointed but happy that he had requalified his Unlimited license.

Saturday was also a great day to catch up with friends. Stu and Marilyn Eberhardt stopped by and both looked fabulous. They’re having fun touring with the Collings Foundation but I miss them. This was followed by a surprise visit from Patricia and Jon Sharp. They were being honored at the Legend’s dinner Saturday night. Both look well and happy and it was good to see them back in the pits.

As we drove to the airport 6:30 Sunday morning, the sun was just rising and lit up the Golden Valley. Dave said, ‘The week has gone really fast.’ This time, I agree. We figure based on Saturday’s finishes, that Earl will have the pole, followed by Tom, then Dave. It should be a really great race. Good for Earl, we thought. He had worked hard to get the plane back here and his investment was paying off. When we got to the field, the pairings were up. One plane has withdrawn so everyone moves up one position. This means Earl moves to Silver, Tom has the Bronze pole and Dave is second. If he can get Tom at the start, he can win the race. Will this be the day that Justin and Kyle’s hard work pays off?

Everyone on the ramp is smiling before the final pre-race briefing. These magnificent, wonderful, ten days a year were quickly coming to an end. The weather had been great, the flying exceptional, not too many broken airplanes and some good crowds on hand to see the racing. We only see our September family once a year and it was sinking in that it was almost over.

The flight takes off and forms up flying behind Peavine Mountain. Race Control clears them on to the course. I heard Lee say, ‘Gentlemen, you have a race.’ Time slows. I can hear my heart pounding. Both planes are red and white and I can’t tell who is in the lead as they come down the chute onto the course. Kyle has the binoculars and tells me, ‘He’s got it, Karen’. I hear Rob Monaghan, the Sport Class announcer, say ‘It looks like Dave finally got him this time.’ I start breathing again and watch Dave fly a great race bringing home the Bronze championship with a lead of almost ten seconds at the home pylon.

Dave finishes with a race speed of 271.699. Earl’s speed in the Silver was 269.740. Tom finished with a speed of 266.944. Dave shook hands with Kyle and Justin. Their hard work had paid off. We finally got a ride in the Fire Truck and enjoyed every minute of it.

We bowed down in front of the Section 3 fans paying tribute to the best fans in air racing. Sport Class had more entries this year (by far) than any of the other racing classes, 34 total. This was the 15th year of racing (not counting 2001). During this time Dave has won the Gold Championship three times, the Silver Championship twice and the Bronze twice. In a testament to the ever-increasing speeds of Sport Class, in 2003, he won the Silver with a speed of 272. Ten years later, same plane, he won the Bronze at 271. At the Awards Banquet Dave says, ‘I think we’re going backwards but I’m still having fun.’

By the time we finish eating, I can barely keep my eyes open. Adrenaline overload is taking over. He asks me if I want to go, ‘Let Kyle and Justin pick up the trophy. They deserve it.’ Amen. Thanks guys!! It was a great week of racing and we hope we’ll see you out there next year.

PS Colleen Keller had an outstanding week of racing and finished 4th in the Silver with a race speed of 286.813. She flew some of the best races of the week in epic three way battles. Congratulations to Team Poncho for an outstanding event!

PPS Vicky Benzig finished 7th in the Silver with a race speed of 276.376. She also raced in the Jet Class and finished 6th in the Gold with a race speed of 425.547. Vicky was selected Rookie of the Year in Jet Class. Way to go Vicky!