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Wins Beneath His Wings : Lifelong Love of Flying Propels Pilot, Home-Built Racer to Victory

November 08, 1994|SHARON MOESER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LANCASTER — As a child, Jon Sharp used to "fly" a plane that was attached to a short wire. As an adolescent, it was remote-controlled airplanes. As an adult, he's still playing with aircraft.

Only now, the planes are not toys.

These days, Sharp, 44, pilots an aircraft he helped build. Aptly named Nemesis, the plane is an air racer that has set a host of speed records and dominated the Formula One racing class since it appeared on the circuit in 1991.

"It's a great airplane," said Ray Cote, a 26-year veteran of air racing and holder of more Formula One national titles than anyone else. "It's way out in front, way ahead of all the others."

Sharp credits the success of the plane to the team approach that went into its creation and maintenance. "If you want to be competitive and win, you have to develop the expertise and truly exploit the team concept."

On Friday, Sharp and his accomplishments with Nemesis will be recognized by the National Aeronautic Assn. Sharp will receive the Pulitzer Trophy, air racing's most prestigious award, said Art Greenfield, secretary of the NAA's Contest and Records Board.

The Pulitzer Trophy, which has been in the possession of the National Air and Space Museum for four decades and was deeded to the museum last year, was first handed out in 1920 and for the next five years was given to the winner of the National Air Races.

"It was very famous during the 1920s, the heyday of airplane racing," Greenfield said of the trophy. Although it has been more than 60 years since the trophy was awarded to anyone, Greenfield said the NAA intends to reactivate it as an annual award.

"It's really a beautiful trophy with a rich history," he said.

Sharp will receive the sterling-silver trophy, which will actually remain in the possession of the National Air and Space Museum, for his performance during the 1993 race season, Greenfield said. Top pilots in the four other air race classes will also be honored with the Pulitzer.

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Air racing is similar to auto racing except that it is done about 50 feet off the ground, said Sharp. The planes speed along a three-mile oval course at about 250 m.p.h. The 24-mile races take only about 6 1/2 minutes to complete.

Unlike the other Pulitzer recipients, Sharp on Friday will receive another recognition--the Louis Bleriot Medal. It is an international award named for a French aircraft builder and designer who won the first air race in 1912 against the likes of the Wright brothers and other aviation pioneers.

The Council of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale awards a maximum of just three of the medals each year to holders of speed, altitude and distance records in planes weighing less than 2,204 pounds.

Sharp set a speed record on Aug. 1, 1993, at the Aeroshell Speed Dash in Wisconsin, where he piloted the long, smooth and slender Nemesis at an amazing 277.26 m.p.h.

"I would think he would be highly honored to receive both (awards) in one year," said Greenfield. "It speaks for itself."

Of his plane and the Nemesis Air Racing Team, Sharp said, "Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think it would be this successful. Most of this is pretty numbing to us."

Like his love of things that fly, Sharp's desire to race also dates back to his childhood. "I raced everything from pedal cars to tricycles to slot cars," he said. "I've raced a lot of people from stoplights."

Shortly after Sharp earned his pilot's license in the early 1970s, a co-worker told him about a home-built racing plane that was for sale. Sharp bought it.

"That one single event led to all these others," Sharp said of his first plane, a Cassutt Racer.

"I didn't race it for a long, long time," he said. "I just flew it around to air shows and terrorized airports and that kind of stuff. It was a little, itty-bitty, tiny airplane."

In 1977, Sharp got a call from a friend who invited him to bring his Cassutt to a race in Mexico. "We came in last by a real long way."

But the next year, Sharp did a little better in that race. And then he ran into a friend who used to build engines, and in the 1978 Cleveland Air Races, Sharp and his plane actually "got past a couple people." From that point, he said, "I was hooked."

A few years later, Sharp joined up with a pair of Orange County engine builders who through their company, Aero Mag, began building engines specifically for racing.

"We're still flying Aero Mag engines to this very day," said Sharp, who earns his living as a composites research engineer with Lockheed Advanced Development Co. Sharp won his first national title at the Reno National Championship Air Races in 1982 with such an engine in the little Cassutt.

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In 1990, Sharp and his team began building Nemesis. The name was selected based on what they hoped to do with the plane. "We thought of all the typical names--Eliminator, Annihilator. We didn't want to eliminate anybody. We just wanted to be the thorn in their side."

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