The Reno Air Races spring back to life

Avatar for Annie VogelBy Annie Vogel | September 23, 2021

Estimated reading time 8 minutes, 56 seconds.

Surrounded by the Sierra Nevada mountains and their sagebrush-covered foothills sits the legendary Reno Stead Airport. Every true aviation enthusiast must travel here at least once in their lifetime. As you walk onto the grounds of the the National Championship Air Races, there are a lot of feelings that linger in the air. The home of the world’s fastest motorsport has seen many triumphs and disasters since its inception in 1964. Thousands of air racers have battled overhead the pylons of this flying Mecca, and as you take a look around, you realize that great dreams began and ended in this place.

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Excitement, anxiety, and adrenaline are just a few words to describe some of the emotions that the Reno Air Races draw out of its spectators and participants. The pits are buzzing all day long with racers and their crew, making changes to the aircraft, talking race strategy, and monitoring the weather. “Show center” is lined with people in awe of the speed and agility of the aircraft. School children run up and down the grandstands trying to get a closer look at their favorite airshow performers. The spirit of aviation and sportsmanship is alive and well in the great state of Nevada.

Airshows across North America were seeing a decrease in attendance for several years before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Even crowd-drawing favorites like the Red Bull Air Races had noticed record low numbers. What happened next, no one could have anticipated, as the world was turned on its head and aviators had more time on their hands to do what they loved most: fly.

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After all the major airshows and aviation events had been cancelled in 2020, the general aviation community came screaming back to life in 2021. Airplanes are selling faster than ever before, and airshows across the country are experiencing record high numbers in attendance. We are seeing enthusiasm like never before, and the Reno Air Races are no exception.

This year, the Reno Air Races had roughly 115,000 spectators in attendance. Some highlights included Joel Swager, flying “Dreadnaught” — a modified T-20 Hawker Sea Fury — who won first place in the Unlimited Class. Toby Ashley took home gold in the inaugural year of the STOL Drag Races in his highly modified Carbon Cub, and Justin Meaders, a Formula One racer who is paralyzed from the waist down, took home gold in his class. This year’s races also featured a record five female pilots, three of which are Canadian.

One of the best things about the Reno Air Races is how accessible the pilots are. Spectators are able to purchase pit passes where they can get close to these stock and modified machines, as well as their pilots.

The Reno Air Races traditionally feature six classes: Unlimited, Jet, T-6, Sport, Bi-plane, and Formula One. This year, a seventh class was added to the event called “STOL Drag.” STOL Drag is a race between high performing backcountry airplanes where two aircraft fly down a 2,000-foot course with 1,000-foot overruns on each side. You start on a line, take off, and fly 1,000 feet before putting the plane into a slip to slow it down. The pilot has to land on or beyond the line on the opposite side of the course. Once they get on the ground, they dissipate the airspeed using mechanical breaking, come to a full stop on heading, turn 180 degrees, take off, and fly back down the course. The first aircraft to fly past the starting line and come to a stop, wins. This new class has been welcomed with open arms by the Reno Air Racing Association (RARA), and has become one of the race’s top attractions.

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Like with all airshows, Mother Nature plays a role. Despite a great start to the week, windy conditions over the weekend prevented several classes from racing. Although slightly disappointing, the schedule was adjusted and the crowd was entertained with performances by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, F-35 Demonstration Team, Tucker’s Air Patrol, and Jim Peitz in his Beechcraft F33C Bonanza. Despite the schedule changes, the event went off without a hitch and, most importantly, every pilot competed safely.

Jokingly dubbed “a pilot’s marathon,” the Reno Air Races are very intense on the racers — both mentally and physically. Qualifiers start early in the week with 6 a.m. pilot briefings, back-to-back races, and late nights working on their aircraft.

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Congratulations to RARA for putting together an exceptional event where pilots have the opportunity to race against each other in a format like no other. A lot of challenges present themselves when putting together an event of this magnitude. A few years ago, we were at risk of losing the Reno Air Races. But thanks to the fundraising efforts of many, the volunteers who take time out of their own schedules, and the people behind the scenes, we were able to enjoy another year at Reno Stead Airport.

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With new life being breathed into the lungs of GA, one can’t help but wonder if the global pandemic gave people the time to realign themselves with their passions and prioritize aviation again. Looking forward to many more years of the Reno Air Races.

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