Images of Reno
The position lights of the Southwest Airlines 737 wink as she climbs steeply o the south past the red light on the nearby mountain. From the 21st floor window the runway lights of the parallels vanish into the darkness. We're in a bowl. Reno city lights dim at four-thirty. I can't sleep. It's Sunday. The Gold race is today.
Traffic on 395 is mostly heading north even this early. We'll be in it soon, heading to Stead and the participants' lot, the yellow vest waving us cheerfully in for one last day. Only a faint back lighting of mountains and hills surround the town. Nearer to view, one of the two UPS Airbuses, who seem to live at Reno-Tahoe International, waddles toward 7R for takeoff. A FedEx rival usually leaves during daylight. The United shuttle to Denver we'll be on Monday morning pops its nose into the horseshoe lighted ramp after nine-fifteen.
My Rockports are covered with gray dust from the gravel lot where the rental car mopes while we work in the pits each race day. I drove the silver Hyundai into the pits Saturday to drop off luggage that will go on the Sawbones' support semi so we can travel light tomorrow on the United flight. It rather wanted to stay for the action, but the pits are already full of too many cars and only 14 Unlimiteds. From Denver, it'll be on to MSP and ransom the VW hiding in the Park and Fly ramp. We're down to one carry on, my camera bag and Sue's business like zipper bag.
I shuffle to the marble decorated bathroom to wake up my eyes and as much of the rest of me as I can. Sue's still half asleep. After a week, you'd think I'd be able to adjust from Central time to Pacific time. Yeah, sure. Run on adrenalin and Gatorade. Pulse only picking up with the first engine start and take off for the biplanes, like a scene from Dawn Patrol or Howard Hughes' Hell's Angels.
The Grand Sierra never sleeps. Clang, whiz, whirr, slot machines and wheeled suitcases thumping over the marble tiles, white jacketed bell boys pushing carts, flashing maniac lights, tuxedos and shorts, mini skirts and high heels, waiters and waitresses with trays and fists full of glasses, racing jerseys at Starbucks or the deli for a quick bite, all under the watch of the black clad security men with wires in their ears and hooded eyes scanning the floor. On the way out one of them smiles and wishes us "Good Luck." I thank him and ask if he'll be glad to see the last of the air race crazies. "No," he says. "I'd rather have the polite racing people than the angry bikers who'll be here next week." Another time it will be the balloon races and the bowling tournament.
I'm wearing my crew shirt, two-tone blue with the Sea Fury embroidered on the back. It's a bit wrinkled from the suitcase, but me and irons don't get along. It's Sunday. My camera bag hangs on my shoulder and Sue carries her "business" bag. A quick morning "Hello" to Steve Hinton, the pace plane pilot and an old acquaintance form the Planes of Fame days, then out the revolving door that sighs as if it's tired of being polite to those who call the Grand Sierra home for racing week.
It's cool. Well, comparatively speaking for Minnesotans. Fifty-four degrees according to the Hyundai's thermometer. We're in short sleeves, others in hoodies and jackets. The car, mud spattered from three unusual evenings of rain and thunder, but brightened by a couple pretty cool double rainbows, waits for us under the 5J light pole. Key, seat belt, lights, action.
I pick the Mill Street entry rather than Glendale since it'll give the Elantra a longer run to get from the right lane to the far left sixth lane on the 395 run past the merging traffic from I-80 on the trip north to Stead Boulevard. No fan of automatic transmissions, my left foot feels left out of the morning action. I've always had a car with a clutch. Sunday. No school busses. Traffic is lighter than the weekdays. Go little car.
Up the hills and around the corner, duck under a couple of overpasses, sneak past a belching garbage truck, then taper to two lanes. Dark gray hills going from shadows to parched brown with billboard decorations. The stream of rental cars, racing trucks and shuttles with license plates from all over converges on the double turn off for Stead. No school today, I slide left one lane behind the black and white cruiser and follow his speed through the stop lights past the fenced in trailer courts and warehouses, bearing left, always left, toward the airport.
The window sticker is magic. Lot 3. Salute and grin from the vests, through the gate and banter with the parking volunteers as we climb out with other participants and media types, cameras a lot more expensive then my black Nikon, wrist bands our entry. A brisk walk past the Anderson Aeromotive tent, who do Sawbones' and other round engines, dodging the street sweeper spraying the road and ramp with water that runs into the seams glistening oil, sunward, low and harsh, past the pink and blue outhouse rows being tended by an elephant like tanker with a massive suction hose, the T-6's, canopy covers and nose mittens still on, and finally, past a Spitfire XIV, like the one I once worked on, to the pit.
Sue has the key. Doors open, I crank the generator, straighten the stanchions and ropes, set up the aircraft sign and trophies of past successes, and stop. It's Sunday. The 50th Anniversary of Reno. The last day of the races for this year. Sawbones is in the Gold again, the last race of the day. Curt ran 426 qualifying, took Friday's Silver at 422, notched a comfortable 420 in Saturday's excellent Gold, and here the racer sits, sun glinting off her gray wings, polished prop, the red and white spinner, waiting for the afternoon duck walk, introductions and race. Life is good.
I turn as the biplanes snarl. Taking off in pairs, the day's races begin, the bipes are climbing into the calm early morning sky. The wind will come up later. The crowd is better than last year. Bryan and the Section 3 troops have stopped every day. We signed more autographs for them. Our trailer sports their orange racing flag. Miki Matsuda, the Japanese artist I'd met last year, gave me a copy of his latest Speedgirls book, this time featuring Sawbones as a lady doctor. His racer personifications are outstanding and his love of air racing intense. Mike Rawson, my old restoration buddy, the two of us looking like a pair of bearded prospectors without cowboy hats, has stopped to hangar fly as has Jim Dale, whose charge, Sea Fury 232 is out of action after a "backfire" during Saturday's Gold race. The Australians were back, escorted by a golf cart with an inflatable yellow and green kangaroo strapped to its roof. Or is it a wallaby? The aircraft insurance blonde, Marianna, was back luring us in her Southern drawl to visit their chalet.
The last day goes fast, too fast. And it's hot. That's hot, as in very hot. By mid afternoon, Doug has Sawbones prepped. Screens checked, water and ADI filled, fueled with 145, systems go. Eddie and Wayne have Race 71 cleaned and polished, the chrome prop and exhaust shield sparkling in the sun. The canopy has been specially cleaned inside and out. Brent's air race camera is in place behind Curt's seat and Eddie has tested its remote control. The camera obeys.
Curt has already flown the L.39C Robin I to victory in the Jet Silver race at 412.689 mph. The yellow tow bar attached, we await the silver pickup that will tow us out for the duck walk and presentation to the crowd, Sawbones one of nine ships in the 2013 Unlimited Breitling Gold Race.
I'm carrying my Nikon. Fresh sun block, a bottle of water in my pocket. Like me, Sue has a hat on. It's freakin' hot out there, the mountain sun intense. The pickup arrives. We climb aboard, over a short tow bar and loose wooden chocks. Curt and Mary ride on the starboard wing facing the crowd, others on the port side, the rest of us, including Dr. Crandall, the owner, in the truck's bed. Doug walks along side, shepherd to his flock. Brent roams with his camera and GoPro. We wait while the Patriot Team streaks the sky with colored smoke. Tight, precise formations and solo passes. Impressive. Then we move. Slowly, stately, the nine finalists, airplanes and crews, in order of place, Sawbones number seven, moves to the ramp. Race 71 and her crew. The fastest piston racers in the world.
The intros are made by an announcer who walks with the dignitaries followed by a single golf cart bearing a man in a suit and tie wearing a straw hat. They stop at each aircraft, pilot, and team starting with Voodoo. When they are close to us Curt says, "Line up guys." We do and the cart comes before us with the greatest stick and rudder man ever. Sawbones' team gathers around and Bob Hoover's soft voice encompasses us all, "Thanks for taking care of your pilot."
Intros complete, we retreat behind the concrete barriers with the other teams and photographers. My Nikon is ready with the 300mm. The honor of making the initial call is Hoover's. He's handed the microphone. There are thousands of people in the grandstands, more than last year. The most powerful racers in the world, the nine finalists are waiting eagerly in line with pilots at ready and crew chiefs at attention. "Gentlemen, start your engines!"
Back in the pit, I stand on the yellow work stand with my Nikon, balancing on two steps. Most of the crew and guests are atop the trailer. The racers making the turn around the mountain lining up on Steve in the T-33 pace plane. Merlin has tapped into the airshow commentary, speakers in and on the trailer. As they come around behind the mountain and the grandstand, Steve's authoritative voice rings clear with the words Bob Hoover pioneered, "Gentlemen, you have a race."
A pack at first, then the field spreads out. The duel between Steven Hinton, now in Bob Button's Voodoo and Matt Jackson in Steven's old mount Strega begins. Czech Mate makes a game of it. She's fast, but not enough to truly challenge the Mustangs. Precious Metal's Griffon keeps up with the silvery blue Yak and old favorite Rare Bear. Dreadnaught and Sawbones settle into a groove, with Argonaut and Miss America tagging along behind. It's really a two ship race. I watch, camera held in one hand, shading my eyes with the other. Someone in the front row said the first lap by Voodoo was 504. Could be. Above the symphony of the engines and the crowd noise, you really can't hear the commentary. Don't need to. The engines say it all.
From start down the chute to checkered flag, Voodoo runs the course in less than eight minutes and wins at 482.074 mph, bringing owner Bob Button his first Unlimited win. Curt and Sawbones finish seventh at 407.140 mph. Each racer pulls high and to the left for cool down. The crowd begins to head toward the gates. Suddenly, it's over.
Monday morning. United Gate C1 at Reno-Tahoe International Airport. Plastic waiting room seats, no jet visible outside yet. We sit with a handful of sunburned racing fans. Indiana, New Jersey, Colorado, Minnesota and a young woman from DC who'd been injured in the 2011 race crash. She'd arrived at the gate in a wheel chair. She works at the Pentagon, has flown in the back seat of an F-16, but wants in the worst way to ride in a T-6, her favorite. It had been the first race for two of them. Only the fourth for Sue and me, yet we're treated as veterans because we are with a racing team. Trading stories, dissecting strategy, sharing – always the sharing. It wasn't Jet Man or the aerobatics. Not at all. It was the racing. It happens nowhere else in the world. The perky biplanes, tiny Formula I's, the snarling T-6s, the whistling straight wing jets, the 390+mph Sport racers and the thundering Unlimiteds.
When we deplane at Denver, I give the young woman from DC a Sawbones sticker I've found in my camera bag.
"For your desk," I tell her.
"Thank you! Thank you!" Her eyes light up. "I'm having back surgery soon," she confides. "I'm going to walk at the races next year, not be pushed in a chair."
That's the spirit of air racing.