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The Fright Stuff

You Don't Need a Death Wish to Compete in the Annual Reno Air Races--Just a Wing, a Prayer and $30,000 in Liability Insurance. For the Week.By Andy Meisler

January 05, 2003|Andy Meisler | Andy Meisler's last story for the magazine was a profile of sports agent-turned-educator Patrick McCabe.

Even for a layman, the concept is fairly easy to grasp: The lower a racing airplane flies, the better its pilot can see and the closer it can come to the spindly pylons that mark the inner edge of the racecourse.

Which is probably why Ramblin' Rose, a 2,000-pound, 310-horsepower two-seater was flying at an altitude of about 60 feet at 2:45 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 13. The black Questair Venture 20--an egg-shaped home-built craft that would look great inside a design museum but looks even better going 300 mph--was running last in an eight-plane field. It was circling a 6.3-mile course defined by 10 50-foot-tall pylons over the Nevada desert adjacent to Reno Stead Airport.

On lap two of six, as it flashed past the checkered "home pylon" in front of tens of thousands of spectators, the airplane's nose twitched down, its horizontal tail folded upward and it plowed straight into the desert floor, a tiny plane making a tiny crash and raising a small cloud of dust. There was no noise, no fire. Just a scattering of debris, mostly aluminum. One man in the crowd speed dialed his cell phone and said simply, to whomever he was calling, "This is a solemn moment."

The race was stopped and the other competitors landed. The crowd remained silent as the announcer enjoined spectators not to rush toward the wreck--though they gave no indication that they were about to--and risk interfering with emergency personnel. Although everyone was certain that the downed pilot, a middle-aged Mississippi businessman named Tommy Rose, was dead, no announcement was made. Improvising smoothly, the race organizers piped soothing music through the public-address system, then sent a jet-powered dragster down the runway for the crowd's enjoyment and authorized the announcers to proclaim that the day's final race would be held as scheduled.

The next morning there was a brief request over the public-address system to "keep the family of Tommy Rose in your thoughts, your prayers and your memories," but no further mention of the fatal accident. One observer, though, breached etiquette by asking one of the most successful airplane racers present whether the previous day's accident still lingered in his mind.

"Can't go there," said Bill "Tiger" Destefani of Bakersfield. "It don't work."

Wwhich is fair warning that this story isn't about "Survivor," "Fear Factor" or trendy "extreme" sports such as road luge or wakeboarding. It's about the National Championship Air Races--an official misnomer since it's the only regularly scheduled closed-course pylon airplane race in the world.

Most people who know about this annual event know it as the Reno Air Races, or simply Reno. What they also know, whether they profess to enjoy this knowledge or not, is that it poses real, not virtual, danger. Since its inception in 1964, 14 competitors have been killed.

Pilots at Reno compete in several different classes, including home-built passenger planes like Rose's, tiny one-seat Formula One planes, small biplanes, 1940s-era T-6 military trainers and even subsonic, Czech-built L-39 jet trainers. Its marquee races, the ones that attract the most spectators, are between so-called Unlimited class airplanes: aircraft whose only design requirement is that they be powered by piston engines. The fastest planes in this class fly more than twice as fast as any land- or water-based racing machine.

Which leads to an interesting anomaly. On the one hand, air racing at Reno is a semi-secret, under-publicized cult passion. On the other, it's a display of numerous mainstream American obsessions, including adventure for adventure's sake, competition for competition's sake, expensive thrills, pure speed, high-octane fuels, souped-up internal combustion engines, home-brewed technology, World War II worship and the God-given right to flirt with death, preferably instant, without interference from the government or anyone else.

Oh, yes--we almost forgot. Air racing is possibly the only sport in history where nearly all of the risks--financial and physical--are shouldered by rich, occasionally grumpy, old white men.

"This is my last year for goin,' " insists Tiger Destefani, a prosperous cotton and alfalfa farmer, on a typically blazing Central Valley afternoon. "I'm all through. It's gonna be 23 years of it. It's enough. And it gets tougher and tougher; everything costs more. The engines now are about 150,000 bucks. When I first started racing, you could get one done for 20. And sponsors are hard to come by, and I'm just tired of it. I wanna do other things in my life.

"I'm not exactly a kid anymore either," he adds. "I'm 57. You start noticing things happening. Eyesight starts goin'. I got to wear glasses now to see way out there. And the [G-forces] hurt more. And I've had enough blown engines and all that stuff, you know?"

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