Officially now known as the STIHL National Championship Air Races, this event is a multi-day affair that takes place each September at the Reno Stead Airport a few miles north of Reno, Nevada.
Air racing at Reno is one of the few remaining venues still around, and the event features six racing classes. Additionally, Reno offers a large display of static civil and military aircraft, vendors and various flight demonstrations.
Begun in 1964, the Reno Air Races feature multi-lap, multi-aircraft races among extremely high performance aircraft on closed oval courses which range between from around 3 miles (4.8 km) for Biplanes and Formula One classes, and about 8 miles (13 km) for Jet and Unlimited classes in length per lap. The chief organizer is the Reno Air Racing Association (RARA).
The first Reno air races were organized by World War II veteran Bill Stead in 1964 and 1965. They took place at Sky Ranch airfield, a dirt strip barely 2,000 feet long, which was located in present-day Spanish Springs. In 1966 nearby Stead Air Force Base closed (named in honour of Bill’s brother, Croston Stead), and situated 20 miles (32km) to the West, the airfield was turned over for public use, and the Reno races have been held there ever since.
In the past ten years, the event has attracted more than 200,000 spectators and generated in excess of $80 million a year for the region’s economy.
Aircraft in the Unlimited class, consists almost entirely of both modified and stock World War II fighters, which routinely reach speeds in excess of 400 miles per hour. In 2003, Skip Holm piloted Terry Blands’s modified P-51D Mustang, Dago Red and reached an all-time Unlimited class speed record of 507.105 mph in a six-lap race around the eight-and-a-half mile course. The recently added Sport Class racers, mostly homebuilt aircraft, are reaching speeds in excess of 400 mph. In 2009, Curt Brown set a record of 543.568 mph in his jet-engine L-29 Viper.
Run over a week, the Reno Air Races include two and a half days of qualifying, followed by four and a half days of multi-aircraft heat racing, culminating in the Unlimited Class Gold Race on Sunday afternoon.
Racing at Reno is divided into six main classes. This allows aircraft of similar design to compete competitively:
- Formula One.
SOME FAMOUS AIRCRAFT AT RENO
The favourite race amongst fans is the Unlimited Class. These aircraft are generally highly modified piston fighter aircraft from around World War II era, with the P-51 Mustang being the most popular. Here is a list of some of the racers:
- Dreadnought (Hawker Sea Fury, N20SF).
- September Fury (Hawker Sea Fury, N232J).
- Dago Red (P-51 Mustang, N5410V).
- The Galloping Ghost (P-51 Mustang, N79111. Destroyed 2011).
- Nemesis (Sharp DR 90 Formula-One Shoestring racer, on display in museum).
- Nemesis NXT (Sport Class kit built racer, N333XT).
- Precious Metal (P-51 Mustang, N6WJ. Damaged by fire, under repairs).
- Rare Bear (Grumman F8F Bearcat, N777L).
- Red Baron (P-51 Mustang, NX7715C. Destroyed 1979. The data plate and registration number live on in P-51 Mustang Wee Willy II).
- Tsunami (Scratch-built Unlimited racer. Destroyed 1991).
- Pond Racer (Scaled Composites twin engine racer, N221BP. Destroyed 1993).
- Voodoo (P-51 Mustang, N551VC. On display).
- Strega (P-51 Mustang, N71FT).
Air racing is not without any risks, and from 1964 through 2014, twenty one pilots lost their lives due to crashes; this excludes the ten spectators of 2011.
In 2007, three pilots died over the course of four days in separate incidents. Racing was suspended for one day after the last of the three incidents.
The most famous crash at Reno occurred on September 16, 2011. North American P-51D Mustang “The Galloping Ghost” flown by James K. “Jimmy” Leeward crashed into spectators, killing the pilot and ten spectators on the ground and injuring 69 others. It was the third-deadliest airshow disaster in U.S. history, following accidents in 1972 and 1951. Race organizers cancelled all remaining 2011 races after the accident. In 2012 the NTSB released seven safety recommendations to be applied to future air races. These included course design and layout, pre-race inspections, airworthiness of aircraft modifications, FAA guidance, pilot G-force awareness, and ramp safety.
The event was interrupted in September of 2001 when all aircraft in the United States were grounded following the terrorists attacks in New York and Washington.
Then in 2020, the 57th annual race was cancelled due to COVID-19 and deferred to 2021.
Reno 2022 is still a go, so get over to Nevada in September and experience the thrill of air racing.