As Darryl Greenamyer approached the last turn in the final Sport-class race of the 2003 National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada, he heard a sound. It was a roar, really—so loud it seemed to come from inside his plane, just behind his head. Greenamyer was flying 40 feet above the ground at something faster than 320 mph. But Rick Vandam was passing him.
Over the course of 38 years, Greenamyer has won nine championships at Reno. There is nothing he hates more than second place.
This was air racing, not auto racing, and so the incursion was happening in an ever-changing three-dimensional space, Vandam coming from slightly below and to the right, on the "outside" of the track. "I couldn't see him, but I could hear that he was really close," Greenamyer says. He had blown out his souped-up racing engine in a heat race the day before and had stayed up all night replacing the cylinders with stock parts. And now here he was, hobbled, underpowered, getting passed. The two planes hit the turn. Greenamyer banked hard to the left around a pylon—his plane was almost sideways—looked down, and saw Vandam's shadow pulling ahead on the outside. "Here goes my second engine," Greenamyer thought, driving the throttle forward and praying that Vandam wouldn't be able to turn as tightly (or fly right into him), and that his stock engine would hold. It did. Greenamyer won the Sport class by 1.9 seconds.
"It was actually an exciting race," Greenamyer says, somewhat incredulously, six months later, standing next to his shiny red plane—minus wings and engine—in his San Clemente, California, workshop. "And I don't intend to let it happen again." He is 67 years old, a compact man with white hair, dimples and twinkling blue eyes. He looks harmless. But Greenamyer is a former Lockheed Martin test pilot who, back in the 1960s and '70s, flew the CIA's A-12 spyplane and its successor, the SR-71. When many of us were listening to Grand Funk Railroad on our eight tracks, Greenamyer flew from California to Florida in 58 minutes. He broke the piston-engine speed record in 1969 and the low-altitude jet speed record in 1977. He once tried to take wing from a frozen lake in northern Greenland in a World
War II-era B-29 that hadn't been flown in 48 years. He is notorious for doing things in and with airplanes that ordinary people wouldn't even think of, and he has won the fastest division of the world's fastest motor sport more times than anyone.
Over four days every September in Reno, pilots race wingtip to wingtip around 40-foot-high pylons, a throwback to the golden age of aviation in the 1930s. Traditionally, there were four classes of planes in competition: T-6s—World
War II-era trainers whose speed reaches 230 mph; biplanes—small, single-seat machines that reach 200 mph; Formula One—tiny, custom-made planes powered by 200-cubic-inch engines that reach lap speeds of 250 mph; and the Unlimiteds —planes whose engine horsepower is unrestricted. The Unlimited division is what Reno is famous for—the speed, noise and danger of former top-of-the-line World War II
fighters such as P-51 Mustangs flying lap speeds of 450 mph within shouting distance of the ground.
And it's the Unlimited division that Greenamyer has won seven times, the first in 1965 and the last in 1977. His winning plane, a highly modified Grumman F8F-2 Bearcat named Conquest I, weighs 6,000 pounds, has eight feet clipped off its wings, the oversize prop of a Douglas Skyraider and a massive 3,200-hp engine. It now sits enshrined in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Right beside it, dwarfed in its shadow, rests a 520-pound Formula One plane called Nemesis. There is only one pilot whose legend at Reno rivals that of Greenamyer, and that's Jon Sharp, an advanced-composite engineer at Lockheed Skunkworks who flew this tiny plane to nine consecutive Formula One-class wins. Before its retirement in 2000, Nemesis broke every record in its division; the plane was so successful that competitors
routinely tried to sabotage it.
hate to lose. Now, in shops 150 miles apart—Greenamyer's in San Clemente, Sharp's in Mojave —the two legends are putting the finishing touches on their
latest creations. In September they will go head to head for the first time ever, each flying small, light, high-tech machines in a division that didn't exist at Reno until five years ago, a division that threatens to dethrone the mighty Unlimited warbirds in excitement, technology and maybe even speed, and in the process might make the sport of air racing relevant for the first time since the 1930s.
There's a reason Greenamyer was so incredulous at finding himself in a contested race last year at Reno—and it goes beyond mere hubris. But to understand it requires a bit of history.
In the 1920s and '30s, air racing was wildly popular, its pilots household names like Jimmie Doolittle who drew hundreds
of thousands of spectators to venues such as the National
Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio. As in auto racing today, the machines they flew pushed the boundaries of technology and design and broke records annually. Pylon air racing was
cutting-edge sport and technology, and watching it was hip.