By Wednesday the "old" Merlin engine had been dismounted and disassembled into hundreds of parts, not one of them even remotely electronic. That day, too, a Mustang named Miss America (which was being qualified by its owner, an Oklahoma City brain surgeon named Brent Hisey) threw a rod through its engine block, starting a small fire and necessitating a too-hasty return to the ground.
Landing hard, Miss America bounced onto and off Runway 32, ran through a ditch, wiped out its landing gear and performed a 180-degree pirouette that nearly tossed the plane onto its back, which would have been catastrophic. After the Strega team learned that Hisey was unhurt, its members began making inquiries about borrowing some of Miss America's undamaged parts.
On Thursday the Strega team began building the "new" Merlin engine. This was also the first day of heat races for all classes and the first day that paying spectators were admitted. The meet's opening ceremonies--heavily 9/11-influenced, with four T-6s flying in "missing man" formation--were sandwiched at noon between the opening races. An unscientific survey of the crowd indicated that (a) almost everyone except the many Japanese photographers present was older than 40, and (b) about half were private pilots. Most of the rest were radio-control fliers, model airplane hobbyists or unlicensed all-around aviation freaks.
At any one time, a dozen or more were gathered around the open doors of the Strega hangar, watching a seemingly infinite number of nuts, bolts, gaskets, valves, hoses and wires being painstakingly examined, installed, removed, adjusted, reinstalled, safety-wired and inspected. Some, documenting the process with their still and video cameras, watched for hours.
On Friday morning a rented crane lifted the reassembled engine up to Strega's nose. Bolting it onto the engine mount and connecting the dozens of hoses and wires of the ignition, fuel, oil, air injection and cooling systems took until late afternoon. The process did not stop after Tommy Rose's fatal crash.
As the sun slipped behind the surrounding hills and the sky turned from cobalt to black, Strega was towed to a taxiway. A mechanic climbed into the cockpit, turned his baseball cap backward and hit the starter switch. The Merlin caught on the first try, shooting short blue flames from its exhaust pipes. A good sign, shouted another crew member above the roar.
An unlimited air race starts in the air. The pace plane is a 40-plus-year-old civilian-owned ex-Air Force T-33 jet trainer. It takes off to the east, climbs to about 12,000 feet, and makes a wide, lazy 270-degree circle of the airport. The Unlimiteds take off one by one in the order they qualified, cut across the circle to form up closely behind the jet in qualifying order, and are led downward, faster and faster until they hit the starting point close to racing speed and altitude. The jet peels off a few seconds before the first pylon.
A few hours before Saturday morning's race, Strega's engine cowling was covered by several aluminum panels, including one salvaged from Miss America. "To Tiger from Miss A," was scrawled on the plane's newly polished nose.
Due to missing the qualifying heats, Strega started the Silver race eighth and last, but, thrillingly, passed one opponent on each lap--four Sea Furys, two Mustangs and one Russian Yak 11. By the eighth and final lap, Destefani was comfortably ahead, winning at an average speed of 414 mph. The inside word from the crew was that he had nearly half of the engine's power in reserve.
"When you got a whole bunch of ducks in formation, you get the back ones first because the next ones don't know it," said Destefani, grinning, back at his pit. "Next thing you know you got the whole flock. If you get the front one first, they all scatter."
Then Destefani spent about an hour signing T-shirts ("Fly Fast, Fly Low, Turn Left" and "Speed Limit 500 MPH"), hats, visors, teddy bears, women's arms and upper breasts, and Revell airplane models.
Sunday morning dawned partly cloudy, with a forecast for gusty afternoon winds. A former space shuttle astronaut won the jet race, but it aroused surprisingly little excitement, probably because the planes were identical; none had been modified, much less dangerously so, and they sounded a lot like vacuum cleaners.
The Sport class was a different matter. The fastest qualifier was 66-year-old Daryl Greenamyer, who had won seven Unlimited championships, the last one in 1977. He had become bored during his long retirement and had built his own plane, called a Lancair Legacy, from a kit (it took 15 months). After Greenamyer crossed the finish line, beating his closest competitor by a lap, he flew an "honorary victory lap" in memory of Tommy Rose.