Wingtip to Wingtip at 45O mph! 3O Feet Above the Ground! Sideways!
It's the world's fastest motor sport, and next month at Reno its two superstars will face off for the first time ever. Can they make air racing relevant again?
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.
Sharp and Greenamyer are the most successful pilots in Reno history. They’re both gifted race pilots with an intuitive sense of what it takes to make a plane go fast, and they both
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.
Then came World War II, which suspended the sport and accelerated the technological development of aviation in ways no one could have imagined. In 1939 America’s fastest fighters flew little more than 300 mph. Just five years later, Mustangs and Corsairs were hitting speeds nearly 150 mph faster; by war’s end they were the fastest machines on Earth and there were tens of thousands of them out there. Piston and propeller technology, it seemed, had reached its apex. When air racing resumed, its allure was on the wane; airplanes were as familiar as automobiles, and there were no technological boundaries left to be pushed. Then, at Cleveland in 1949, Bill Odom crashed into a house at the end of the course, killing a mother and her child. Air racing was over.
In 1964 a cattle rancher named Bill Stead resurrected the sport over a patch of desert outside Reno. Hardcore working pilots like Greenamyer, then flying for Lockheed, loved to fly fast and to tinker, and their planes of choice were warbirds–not because they were crowd-pleasing icons but because, as surplus World War II junk, they were the fastest and cheapest planes money could buy. Greenamyer’s Bearcat was valued at $8,000; new engines and aviation fuel could be had for next to nothing. He chopped off the wingtips, streamlined the cowling, added a huge prop and cooling system, and dramatically reduced the plane’s weight. Nobody could touch him. Reno grew slowly into an aviation cult, until the ritual packed in 150,000 fans a year. There is simply nothing like a pack of fighters roaring wingtip to wingtip 30 feet off the ground at 450 mph. But with every passing year, the Unlimited field becomes less competitive, with little wingtip-to-wingtip action anymore. The reason is the economics of scarcity.
Today only a handful of Bearcats and Mustangs remain. Of 50,000 Rolls Royce V-12 Merlin engines produced during the war, less than 1,000 are left. A stock Mustang is an antique worth $1 million; chopping it up to win at Reno the way Greenamyer did with his Bearcat could easily cost an extra $500,000, all to create a plane that would race one weekend a year and whose likelihood of crashing or blowing a rare $250,000 engine would increase exponentially the faster it went. And first place grosses you only $160,000.
The numbers tell the story. In 20 years, lap speeds have barely increased. Out of 26 planes in the Unlimited division in 2003, 197 mph separated the first and last place qualifying speeds. Even in the final heat, the speed differential between first and third place was 40 mph. “There are only two or three real Unlimited race planes now,” Sharp says. “The rest are just tweaked-up warbirds whose rich owners want to win trophies for competing. If you own a P-51 Mustang, you don’t want to really race it hard. And it’s all just about horsepower anyway. There hasn’t been any new technology in 40 years.”
“I call it gentlemen’s racing,” Greenamyer says.
Over the years, a few people have tried to create custom-made Unlimited racers to inject speed and excitement into the division. Greenamyer once pitched Cessna a wild idea: He’d fly a dowdy Cessna 210 with a massive 12-cylinder engine. Worried about liability, Cessna declined. A radically altered P-51 killed pilot John Sandberg in 1991. Two years later Burt Rutan’s $2 million custom-made Pond Racer crashed in qualifying, killing pilot Rick Brickert. Gary Levitz, the discount-
furniture magnate, cobbled together a Mustang fuselage and the wings of a Learjet; he died in a fiery crash at Reno in 1999. In Greenamyer’s own shop sits the most revolutionary Unlimited plane of all: Shockwave, sporting a custom fuselage, the stubby outer wing panels of a World War II-era Sea Fury, the tail of an F-86 jet and a massive 28-cylinder Pratt and Whitney R-4360 built to power long-distance bombers and capable of pouring out 5,000 hp. But Shockwave has been left unfinished for more than 15 years. Finding the million dollars necessary to put it all together has proved impossible, given that the plane would bring home just 15 percent of that figure if it won.
The Holy Grail in any type of racing is corporate sponsorship. But what kind of company would sponsor a Mustang or a Bearcat–or, for that matter, a T-6, a biplane or a one-off
Formula One the size of a telephone booth? Auto racing sells cars: “Race on Sunday, buy on Monday.” But no Joe Six-pack in the stands at Reno can go out and buy any of those planes.
Meanwhile, though, a quiet aviation revolution has taken place. Throughout the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, corporate giants such as Cessna and Beech built general aviation planes to rigorous FAA standards, and they all looked pretty much alike. There was one loophole to the FAA regulations, however: so-called homebuilt aircraft, at least 51 percent constructed by their owners for research or recreation. Into the early 1970s, homebuilts were sold mostly as time-consuming, complex plans for airplanes that were difficult to make and didn’t fly very well when finished.
Then along came aviation pioneer Burt Rutan. When he saw European soarers building fiberglass-covered foam-core gliders, he adopted the technology to build the VariEze in 1976. It was light and sleek and flew 180 mph–30 percent faster than a Cessna 172–yet was much simpler to build and safer to fly than previous kit planes. Within four years the Rutan Aircraft Company sold 4,500 kits; today a VariEze hangs in the Smithsonian, and the composite homebuilt movement is the single most vital piece of the general aviation market. Simply put, carbon fiber allows for an airframe that is light and strong, with nary a rivet, in an aerodynamically efficient shape that is relatively easy to build. “There have been more sports planes registered by far in the last decade than certified factory-built general aviation airplanes,” says Roger Pascoe, senior vice president of operations for Textron Systems, which makes Lycoming aircraft engines. Companies such as Lancair International, billing itself the “Ferrari of homebuilts,” are churning out kits for sophisticated, pressurized, four-seat kit planes capable of crossing the country with one stop at 300 mph, for half the price of a Cessna that delivers half the performance.
With kit planes selling like iPods, Reno ultimately sensed an opportunity it had found with no other class, the opportunity to get much closer to the “Race on Sunday, buy on Monday” paradigm–“a chance to bring current manufacturers
of airplanes and parts into racing,” as Michael Houghton, president and CEO of the Reno Air Racing Association, puts it. “It’s a model that works well for Nascar.” Lancair offered to sponsor the first Sport-class division race in 1998. It entered a
factory-built plane and won.
Darryl Greenamyer was there that year, watching. He was in the market for a new plane to just fly around in, so he wandered into Lancair’s display tent, where its newest plane, a fast two-seater called Legacy, was on display. “I’m interested in buying one,” he said. Sure, the saleswoman said, put your name on the waiting list. Never one to wait, Greenamyer offered another suggestion: “What if I race it?”
“Who are you?” asked the woman.
The rest is air-racing legend. Lancair allowed Greenamyer to buy kit number one in 2000, and today the plane sits in his San Clemente shop in the midst of yet another round of modifications to make it go faster. (So far, the only limiting factor in the Sport class is a maximum engine size of 650 cubic inches and a requirement that at least five kits be sold for each model entered.) Lancair had no idea what it was getting into when it started cavorting with Greenamyer. Back in his Unlimited days, the old Bearcat had been so radically modified that it could barely stay in the air; the cockpit temperatures reached 200
by Darryl Greenamyer; Jon Sharp