Story and photos by Beau Goff plus photos by Jared Black, first published in 2017
Editor’s note: The Air Races at Reno’s Stead Field will cease after this upcoming 2023 campaign. Here’s a look back from half a decade ago…
The all white Mustang descends rapidly towards the private runway near Challis, Idaho in the eastern part of the state. Her engine nearly at maximum power. Her heavily modified wing engineered specifically for these conditions and flight regimes producing a very specific amount of lift and, more importantly, a lot less drag. The first pass is over 550MPH, engine snarling angrily as her pilot Steven Hinton pushes his heavily modified P-51 Mustang to her limit. Three more passes are made that day and per official rules, a new world record is set as the fastest piston-engined propeller driven aircraft in the world. It is a feat of incredible determination, skill, luck and effort. This achievement is to have another effect though… to set the stage for the ultimate showdown between the two fastest P-51 Mustangs the world has ever known at the upcoming National Championship Air Races.
What does it mean to be a champion? Does it mean to be the best at something? Or the ability to win or lose gracefully? Unbridled success? How about unyielding effort and resolve? Can an aircraft be a champion? How about an entire class of racers? At the 2017 running of the National Championship Air Races, these questions, and more, have been answered.
The week got off to a rather spectacular start with some heavy weather during qualifying on Tuesday as a massive thunderstorm rocked Stead Field north of Reno, Nevada. Wind, torrential rain and some hellacious lightning pummeled the area. Indeed, a rather phenomenal screenshot from the camera onboard Strega of a nasty lightning bolt belied Mother Natures fury. However, as the days progressed, the weather improved steadily and the races were on. Perhaps this was to be an omen of the fury soon to come.
The IF-1 hanger was customarily full and this class always enjoys a strong turn-out. A total of 20 racers arrived and qualified this year. Lowell Slatter returned with his speedy “Fraed Naught” for another run at Formula One gold and did not disappoint with a speed of 242.104 MPH. Clearly this is an aircraft to beat. The crescent wing seems to work very well at Reno. Clawing at his tail Steve Senegal turned in a respectable second at 240.607 MPH. Vito Wypraechtiger from Pocking, Germany pulled up third in Scarlett Screamer at 228.650 MPH. Such close competition and effort is the nature of the Formula 1 class. This is by design, with the class rules restricting many aspects of the aircraft and engine. It is said the Unlimited Class is where one learns to make horsepower, but IF-1 is where one learns to make an aircraft slick. The greatest benefit of this arrangement is that most aerodynamic modifications cost much less and can be far more innovative than engine modifications. Most of the aircraft are Cassutt IIIM airframes with various types of aerodynamic wizardry. Fraed Naught, Endeavor, Knotty Girl, Hysteria and the Kraken are all custom designed airframes with an incredible amount of innovation and effort put into their design and construction. This is generally where a pilot begins their air racing career and the friendliest people at the races are to be found in this hanger. These might be the smallest aircraft attending, yet the competition here is fun, close and exciting every year, without exception.
Hangared next to the Formula 1 teams, the Biplane class enjoyed no fewer than thirteen qualifiers. Andrew Buehler once again returned with his amazing modified Mong Sport, “Phantom”. Racing around the biplane course, Phantom brought in the gold championship at 222.586 MPH while Jake Stewart in a Pitts S-1, “Bad Mojo” placed second at 218.324 MPH and Sam Swift in a Pitts S-LHN, “Smokin Hot” pulled third at 197.633 MPH. Except for the two Mong Sports every biplane in the biplane class is a Pitt airframe. Given this is essentially a standard design the racing gets very, very competitive. Piloting skills become the biggest advantage and every effort is made to find a cleaner, faster line around the pylons. For a special week in September, this small aerobatic biplane becomes a full-on racer in some of the most hotly contested racing there is. The speeds attained by these pilots in an aircraft not originally designed for racing is a reflection of their skills.
Moving up the airspeed indicator, the jet class has continued to evolve. This year saw no less than sixteen aircraft, pilots and teams qualify. The majority of these aircraft are the Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatross. Originally this single engine jet was designed as a training aircraft and it still in use with various Air Forces around the world. However, the models that arrive every year to burn kerosene around the pylons are strictly for racing. Various modifications are made, but the class rules keep these within reason. Such modifications as afterburners are strictly off limits. A jet aircraft such as these can be tricky to fly at speeds approaching 500 MPH only fifty feet off the ground. Despite this, the class enjoys highly competitive flying. Adding to the complexity, the FAA has imposed a 515 MPH average speed “limit” on the race course. What this means is a pilot may exceed that speed at any point on the course, but must then slow down to preserve the average. The result is some close racing and a lot of strategy. Knowing when to pass is paramount as well as how much speed to use. This year the master of the race course was Rick Vandam in his L-39 “American Spirit” scorching the pylons at 494.210 MPH. Zach McNeill was hot on his tail in his deHaviland Vampire, “Stealth” at 471.511. For a barely post war jet, that is a very respectable speed to fly. The straight wing, twin-tailed British jet looks like nothing else on the airport and we could see some serious improvements in speed from this design in the future. David Culler in “American Patrol”, another L-39, brought in third. Hopefully the FAA and RARA can work out a plan to remove the speed restriction in the coming years to allow the Jet class to let loose around the Reno sticks.
The T-6 class provided a total of sixteen of these noisy aircraft to qualify. Thundering around the pylons, the racing was as close as ever, with pilots massaging the controls with ever more precise inputs looking for the advantage. Always noisy and always fun to watch, the rivalries are stout and always among friends. “Radial Velocity” took the gold at 225.470 MPH followed by “Six Cat” at 225.434 MPH, only .074 seconds between them. Trading positions the entire final race, Radial Velocity made one final push for home pylon at the very last second. The margin of victory was about the length of a cowling and the crowd loved every second of it. Such close racing is common in this class, just don’t attempt to have a phone conversation when they pass Home Pylon.
Between all of the exciting racing and interactions in the pits, race fans could enjoy an excellent military static display along with another form of racing, drones. For anyone who hasn’t seen drone racing, it is, in a word, madness. Using googles that allow a first person view from the drone itself, the pilots of these small quad copters zing through a race course of obstacles at incredible speeds. Turning, climbing and changing direction in the blink of an eye, the pilots jockey for position as well as avoid collisions that send the drone tumbling to the ground. The small size and ridiculous power to weight ratio make the drones nearly to quick to follow. Far from the store bought toys most would be familiar with, the advancement of technology is rapidly advancing along with the skill of the pilots. While still in it’s infancy, drone racing as a whole is quickly growing in popularity and sophistication.
Providing an epic aerial and pyrotechnic demonstration, the Texas Flying Legends flew in 6 vintage warbirds to the Air Races. Their performance is nothing short of awesome as each aircraft executes several maneuvers both solo and in formation to a carefully choreographed pyrotechnic display. To see that many warbirds, all of which are over 70 years old, flying together in such formations is a privileged for any aviation enthusiast. With the massive fireballs erupting behind and under the demonstration aircraft, black smoke filled the air, giving a sense of being transported nearly three-quarters of a century into history… to a time when these aircraft would be performing a far different mission. Without question, the performance of the Texas Flying Legends served as a reminder of freedom, sacrifice and the reason the aircraft were originally built.
Also on hand, the United States Marine Corps provided a Harrier demonstration team. Without a doubt, the best part of the whole routine was the hover. Slowing his aircraft and entering the hover mode, the pilot treated everyone to a truly unique sight. An aircraft thundering above a runway while stationary take a moment to process. And thunder it did. It takes a lot of thrust to keep an aircraft stationary above the ground. Thrust equals noise and if nothing else the Harrier makes some noise. As the aircraft continues to hold in the hover mode, the exhaust gasses threaten to melt critical nozzle components. The solution for this comes in the form of water injection. Effectively cooling the exhaust just enough, the result is streams of blackened exhaust hurtling at the ground. As if sitting atop it’s own pillars of power, the pilot performed several maneuvers before rising and transitioning back to conventional flight.
As the week progressed, some sad news permeated the event; this will be the last year Bob Buttons fantastically fast, and new world record holder, Voodoo would compete in the Air Races. A concern about the future of the Races was validated by other Unlimited class aircraft such as 232 and Rare Bear once again sitting out the competition. Also not present and dearly missed, La Patrona, Dago Red, September Pops, Miss America, Czech Mate and others reduced the number of aircraft in what is the most popular class for most of the spectators. What would be the future of the most unique aviation event in the world?
Enter the Sport Class. Can an entire class of racing aircraft, pilots and teams be a champion? In a word, yes. It is without question, this rapidly growing group of dedicated racing professionals is the future of this event. With a whopping 39 qualifying entries, this single collection of small experimental aircraft and their pilots/builders provided the majority of the competition, drama and excitement. Far more affordable than the warbirds commonly found in the Unlimited Class, each of these aircraft is an experimental category airframe and thus, the modifications are endless. Alan Crawford returned to his passion with a Lancair Super Legacy, “Beast”, sporting an absolutely bonkers IO-780 8 cylinder engine, the only one ever made and good for a qualifying speed of 298.208 MPH. Peter Balmer also returned with is Thunder Mustang and Andrew Findlay with his Stihl Super Legacy “One Moment”. Also in the massive number of entries several Glasair III’s, Vans RV-series and an F-1 Rocket rounded out the collection of experimental fiberglass and aluminum speed machines. In the end though, it was once again, Jeff LaVelle in his bulletproof reliable and equally rapid Glasair III that was completely untouchable, roasting the cans at 388.313 MPH. Make note, that is in Unlimited Class speed territory. Maybe one day the secret of absolute reliability and crazy power can be gleaned from this otherwise unassuming looking aircraft, but at the moment, it remains hidden under the cowling. Vicky Benzing expertly piloted her Super Legacy, “Lucky too” to a second place finish, with Dave Sterling in another Super Legacy pulling third. With such an exceptional turnout the Sport Class was the champion of the Air Races in 2017 and will continue to usher in a new generation of racing aircraft and technology.
However, despite the incredible Sport Class turnout and all of the other amazing competition occurring, the focus was between two incredible pilots and their equally incredible aircraft. In 2016 newcomer Jay Consalvi had proven himself a formidable pilot at the controls of Czech Mate. Upon completion of the 2016 gold race, in which he placed second, everyone knew the next step for the former F-14 driver was a faster steed. With the involvement of personality d-jour and air racing veteran Tiger DeStefani in the Czech Mate team for the 2016 season, it seemed a cinch Jay would find himself behind the controls of “The Witch”. Almost on cue, the posts began to show up on social media; Jay was practicing in Tigers furious red and white P-51. Then the entries came in and it was official; Reno 2017 would feature a showdown between the two fastest North American Aviation horses currently racing. Then, mere weeks before the races, Steven Hinton reveals Voodoo, painted in white and heavily modified, again, for the speed record attempt. The collective gasp was palpable. Not only was the team of Steven and Voodoo nearly unstoppable at Reno, the Purple Princess was now sporting a highly modified wing designed specifically for going faster than a P-51, or any other piston powered aircraft for that matter, has ever gone before. And go faster he did. Arriving at the races fresh off setting a world record, the speculation was rampant if the modifications would still allow Voodoo to perform in the turns around the pylons. It was also no secret Jay and Strega were not going to make it easy for Team Voodoo in their final race. Qualification speeds were stunning. Running out to an exceptional speed of 484.724 MPH, Team Strega put everyone on notice. It was on! Voodoo qualified at 479.364 MPH, considered conservative given this aircraft had recently screamed to over 530 MPH. The showdown was set, there was no stopping it. Provided each aircraft remained healthy, Sunday would see one of the most anticipated air races in recent memory.
Before we could find out who was going to win Unlimited Gold, several heats had to be flown. The start of each of these heats presented what could be considered nothing short of a straight up drag race between Strega and Voodoo. It was clear the wing and airframe modifications on Voodoo allowed for greater acceleration and it was all that Jay could do to keep Strega in front during the week. Steven had no intention of letting Jay forget who he was dealing with. Each heat Steven flew his usual perfect, smooth, controlled and fast line, always right behind Strega. But each heat Strega held her own. Was Steven holding back, staying just close enough but playing it safe to preserve his engine? Was Jay running Strega as hard as she would go, or was there more room left on his manifold pressure gauge. How much could each of the Merlin engines, expertly prepared by the magnificent Vintage V12 engine shop withstand. We would find out Sunday afternoon.
The stage was set……
The Duck Walk proceeds slowly down the ramp from the pits. Strega with her team walking in front is first, followed by Voodoo. There is a nervous excitement in the air. This is going to be a race for the ages. These are the two fastest, most heavily modified racing Mustangs to grace the sky above Stead Field. And they are about to go head to head in a take-no-prisoners battle for absolute air racing glory. Some even speculated the seemingly untouchable records of fastest lap and fastest race held by Dago Red could fall to either of the thoroughbreds being slowly towed down the flight line. Joining them, fan favorites Dreadnaught, Sawbones, Argonaut, 924, and Full Noise line up, ready for the engine start order. Anticipation builds. The race announcers introduce each aircraft, pilot and team. Climbing into the cockpits, each pilot becomes one with his aircraft. The start order is given. Propellers begin to slowly turn. Voodoo snarls to life first, popping, crackling, a wisp of smoke, ready. There is no denying the Rolls Royce powerplant bolted to the front of the white Mustang is tuned to perfection. Strega fires, wispy smoke puffing from her exhaust… and then quits. The propeller begins to turn again and another coughing snort, but no ignition. Jay continues to crank the heavily modified Merlin. Another rough, choking cough of smoke and then flames from the exhaust stacks. The engine has been over-primed before cranking. With too much fuel in the intake system, the engine cannot start and there is a danger of a hydro-lock. The crowd grows hushed. All eyes are on the current pole position holder. The propeller turns again, more puffs of flame, then, with a powerful bark Strega’s engine finally announces herself, visibly shaking the airframe and rocking the wings. Popping and crackling the idle settles, sounding healthy and ready. The cheer from the crowd is almost as loud. Dreadnaught smokes her way to life, then 924, Sawbones and Full Noise. The little Yak from Auckland, New Zealand rumbles with the similar, but unique sound of the Allison V-1710 as she warms up for her and the teams inaugural gold Air Race. With all seven Unlimited aircraft now snorting, growling and crackling, its time to race.
Circling around Peavine mountain to the south and approaching over the right shoulder of the crowd, veteran pace pilot Steve Hinton in the T-33 pace jet brings all of the aircraft into a line abreast. The now famous call of, “gentlemen, you have a race” comes over the radio, Steve pulling Pacemaker into a steep climb. In an instant both Strega and Voodoo are in an all-out, 10,000horsepower aerial drag race for the guide pylon, accelerating with breathtaking speed. The faster wing on Voodoo benefits Steven and, for the first time, he pulls ahead of Strega. Rolling into the race course, Voodoo pulls away and it seems the wing can corner after all and her engine is definitely making plenty of manifold pressure. But Jay is not to be left behind and he pours the power into his Mustang. Looking cool, calm and collected, Steven is holding his nearly perfect line around the course. Behind him Strega looks for a line a little wildly, first high, then low as Jay wrestles The Witch onto a smooth course. The first laps have Voodoo blasting past Home Pylon at over 475 MPH, Strega howling behind her. Along the back stretch, rounding pylon 4 Strega begins to gain on Voodoo. Jay is pushing Tigers Mustang harder, hunting down his prey with the cold efficiency of a fighter pilot. Steven responds in kind, adding power and holding his speed demon in the lead. Strega settles in behind Voodoo through the Valley of Speed. Rounding into Home Pylon once more the speeds are approaching 480 MPH. The bellow of horsepower echoes across the race course. All eyes are locked on the two dueling thoroughbreds, looking for any hint of smoke or indication of a problem. A slight climb by Strega at pylon 4 and Jay buries the throttle into the instrument panel. With the manifold pressure spiking, oil thrusting through his engine, propeller blade pitch increasing and RPM at redline, somehow the Rolls Royce V12 pulls harder and Strega just edges past Voodoo high and on the outside. Voodoo accelerates again as both aircraft roar into the valley of speed once more, but Strega has the lead. Screaming past home pylon, Strega begins to increase her lead over Voodoo. Steven keeps his line and chases after Jay around pylons 2, 3 and 4. Holding up his power setting, Jay screams around the race course and past home pylon again, Voodoo just moments behind. The furious, animalistic, thunderous, awesomely intoxicating scream of a Rolls Royce Merlin at race power fills the air as the aircraft enter their final lap. This is it. Can Voodoo, the current world record holder and Air Race Champion chase down the blazingly fast pilot and aircraft in front of her? Will the engines, making over three times their designed output, hold together? We know a Mustang can hold over 500 MPH on this race course, but that is rare and exceedingly hard to achieve. Engine components stress against incredible internal pressures of making nearly 5,000 horsepower. Propeller blade tips flirt with the speed of sound. Airframes flex against the G-loads. Both Strega and Voodoo tear their way into the Valley of Speed. The cheers from the crowd grows. Strega holds the lead into pylon 7, then 8, with Voodoo less than a second behind. Leveling at pylon 9, the shrill Merlin wail piercing the sky, everyone holds a collective breath as Strega shrieks past Home pylon for victory, checkered flag waving, Voodoo .582 seconds behind in second place. Jay Consalvi and Strega have become champions of Air Racing at 481.340 MPH. Pulling the aircraft into a climb, each race pilot eases the power down, trading airspeed for altitude and cooling their tortured engines. Dreadnaught thunders her way to third at an average speed of 419.760 MPH. Entering the pattern, Strega touches down first. The crews and the crowds are on their feet. Next is Voodoo, and for a moment, all seems normal. However, as the celebration of Jay Consalvi’s first Unlimited Gold victory begins, Voodoo is not to be found. As Steven had coaxed his machine back to earth, her engine had held on as long as it could. After touchdown and during roll-out, the powerful Merlin had finally had enough and gave out twice, only to restart long enough to clear the runway safely. Some would say this was intentional. They would be gravely mistaken. After attempting to restart his beloved Mustang several times, the risk of a lethal stack fire with no fire suppression equipment close by was just too great and he chose to let her rest.
There exists a bond, a connection between Man and Machine when both are pushed to their limits, wholly dependent upon the other. Both Voodoo and her pilot were exhausted. September 18, 2017 was the final National Championship Unlimited Gold Air Race of the quintessential and nearly unbeatable team of Voodoo and her pilot Steven Hinton. While not victorious on this day, he had once again asked Voodoo for everything she could give, and she had responded with more than she could survive, the last full measure. She was hurt, but she brought him back. He was exhausted and disappointed, but he took care of her to the end. They had relied on each other to secure 3 Unlimited Gold Championships. But in the end, even chocking Voodoo’s wheels with rocks, Steven reminded us what it is to be a champion just as much as Jay Consalvi.
PhotoRecon and the author both thanks and salutes Steven, Bob Button, the entire Voodoo crew and the aircraft herself for 23 amazing years of courage and sacrifice at the Altar of Airspeed.