I live in Sacramento, California and am much blessed to be only two and half hours from Reno, Nevada. I am blessed because it is a short (and beautiful) trip from where I live to reach the Reno Air Races. I don’t go every year, I try to pace myself, but for me it is a day completely dedicated to enjoying all things aviation. Part of the enjoyment is knowing that when I am there I am surrounded by people with the same interest.
The first air race in the United States was held in Dominguez Field in Los Angeles, California in 1910. Pilots Roy Knabenshue and Charles Willard, picked Southern California for their winter aerial demonstrations base and persuaded railroad magnate Henry Huntington to pledge $50,000 for the event. 43 planes entered , 16 showed up. My grandfather lived in Los Angeles at that time and was 12 years old. When I was growing up he told me that he used to sell ice cream at airshows. I am pretty sure he was there.
In 1921 the United States instituted National Air Meets which eventually became the National Air Races. These races lasted until 1949. The Cleveland Air Races were considered the marquee event in the circuit.
In 1964, Bill Stead, a Nevada rancher and pilot organized the first Reno Air Races at a small dirt strip called the Sky Ranch located between Sparks, Nevada and Pyramid Lake. It eventually moved to the Reno Stead Airport and has been there ever since.
If you want to get a sense of how simple this early event was take a look at the opening few minutes of this video.
For me the Reno Air show started with a two hour drive in the dark over the top of Donner Summit in the dark. Considering Sacramento is at 0 Elevation and Donner Summit is at 7,000 feet, it is a long drive up the hill and a hurtling coast down the hill into the town of Truckee. In daytime the summit is majestic.
I usually get there about a half hour before the gate opens ( around 6:30 am) but I am never first in line. There are twenty or thirty people already in line when I got there with their folding chairs, blankets and packed lunches, stomping their feet trying to stay warm. It’s about 45 degrees and I am wondering why I only brought a light jacket. Most of them know each other and they make small talk (all aviation) while they wait for the sun to come up and the gates to open. The gentleman next to me drove in from Colorado and attends every day of the event. He has a matching Reno Air Show hat, jacket, shirt and wristwatch. Another women brags about being the first women in the line and greets friends and strangers alike as they arrive. The gates open and the small talk stops, everyone walks in quickly to set up their chairs, smiling from ear to ear.
The sights and sounds are always entertaining. Combustion engines sputter and pop in the background while vendors set up their merchandise. There are plenty of handsome aircraft on display. This year they had a number of restored Japanese planes because of a Pearl Harbor commemorative flight. There was also an immaculately restored B-25 with Russian markings because in its history it was sold to Russia and eventually brought back to the states and restored.
To be honest it is the little things that catch my eye. The stuffed bear in a planes cowling, the leather jacket and pilots goggles sitting on a planes wings, the beautiful leather interiors of some of the classic restored aircraft (and some interesting decorations on a few of the planes).
The heart and soul of the Reno Air Races are the races themselves. If you buy a pit pass you can wander through the pit areas. Families and sponsors have set up large tents and shade structures anchored by large trailers. They decorate their pit areas with t-shirts and caps with logos for their planes. As heats come up, planes are towed out to the airfield to form up and are returned after their heat. You can hear the CB radios broadcasting the comms between the pace planes and race controllers as the heats are launched. Mechanics make final adjustments to the engines to get them ready for their races. Sometimes the pace is frantic if they need to make last minute repairs. Most of them are more than happy to talk about their planes and what they are doing. When race time approaches the tents are bustling with people. The picture below with folding chairs under the blue tarp is from the “Sawbones” website. During races the roof of their trailer was full of people cheering their pilot on.
The races themselves are fascinating. There are a number of classes of aircraft that race from ultralight biplanes to heavily modified classic aircraft. After the planes have taken off, a pace plane takes the flyers outside the course and gets them lined up for the race. Once released they come roaring in from the south over the bleachers and the race starts. Each class runs a slightly different course ( see below) and do a series of laps around pylons depending on the size and class of plane. My brother-in-law came along this year since he lives near Reno. He has a reputation for being willing to ask strangers questions about what they do and today was no exception. We had had worked our way over to the pit area and were watching the last heat of the day for the Unlimited Class in front of the “Sawbones” pit area. He turned around in the middle of the race and asked some folks in the pit a number of questions to understand what was at stake for these racing teams.
What is your strategy?…..To survive until Sunday! Other planes are faster than ours, head to head we would get beat every time, so you just try to hold your position in each qualifying heat. You push hard on Saturday to try and get the best field position you can. On Sunday you do your best and keep your fingers crossed in hopes that the bigger more customized planes have a bad day or engine problems so you can move up in the standings when they fall back.
How many events do your race a year?….Only one, this is it. It is the only remaining Air Race event in the country.
What are the rules in the Unlimited Class?….Simple, there are only three rules. First, the plane can weigh no more than 6,000 pounds. Second it must have a propeller. Third it must have a combustion engine with pistons. That’s it!
Is this a money making venture?….On a good year it is a break-even venture, most years it loses money. You have to have sponsors who are passionate about aviation and a large group of volunteers who work all year ( for free) to get to this one event.
After the final heat, we went back to pick up our gear and head to the car. The chatter among the people on the sidewalk was all about planes and engines and things they saw during the event. I suppose what drew people to the air races in Los Angeles in 1910, Cleveland in 1929 and Reno in 2015 have not changed too much. The fascination with flight has been with us since the Wright Brothers proved it could be done back in 1903.
I take a slightly different route home that takes me right by the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, making for some pretty stunning views. I pull out to take a few more pictures of the scenery before I head home.
I can tell I am already looking forward to attending next time!