STEAD, Nev. (KOLO) In its 54-year history, the Reno Air Races has seen many changes. Some not always for the better, especially when it comes to the Unlimited Class.
Known as the Warbirds, the old World War II planes are the highlight of the races for many people.
“For me just the fact that they are still flying,” Bernie Vasques, Director of Maintenance for the Texas Flying Legends, said. “They're all over 70 years old.”
But over the past ten years, the Unlimited Class has seen its numbers dwindle.
“The first year I was here racing here in '97 there was [sic] 32 airplanes to compete with,” Brant Seghetti, the pilot for “Blondie’, said.
But flash forward to 2016, and only a dozen planes participated in the Unlimited Class. That makes the event less of a race for pilots who aren’t going to take unnecessary risks with their valuable planes.
“We work all year on these airplanes to make them go faster, and unfortunately, when you don't have any competition, you kind of have to outweigh the odds of going really fast versus being smart and not running really fast,” Steve Hinton, pilot for ‘Voodoo’ and reigning champion of the Unlimited Class, said.
“The numbers have been suffering,” Vasquez said. “Ten years ago it was a spike of ‘Are we all going to race cause there's too many airplanes?’ They came from east coast, west coast, in the middle, and now it seems like it's kind of the same ten airplanes and the Unlimited division has been struggling.”
There are several reasons for the declining numbers, one being cost.
“It's getting really expensive to maintain theses airplanes,” Vasquez said. “What used to cost $500 now costs $1,500, and I mean just look at the price of fuel. To get an airplane out here from the east coast and back, there's not enough money in prize to do it.”
Another reason is the rarity of the planes. It’s a risk for the pilots to race these planes. If something breaks, the cost to repair it can be astronomical.
“There's only a handful of Corsairs, and a handful of Spitfires, and 100 Mustangs, and a couple hundred of all of them combined,” Vasquez said.
And the pilots at the Reno Air Races know all too well the cost of losing a warbird. The 2011 crash of ‘Galloping Ghost’ proved just how dangerous this sport can be.
“After what we don't like to talk about in 2011, it really changed the sport for a lot of us,” Seghetti said. “So it's just really hard to recover from that. The Air Race Association and the event itself has struggled. But they've done all they could to make this happen, and really trying to help us get this sport back to what it was in the heyday.”
One way the Air Races is trying to do this is with the Texas Flying Legends, an aviation group dedicated to preserving history.
“We fly our airplanes all around the country, and mostly help out museums that don't have flying airplanes or don't have quite the ability to keep the airplanes flying,” Vasquez said.
The Texas Flying Legends brought six warbirds to the races this year
“All of our airplanes are either authentic WWII airplanes, or painted up to represent something that would have been authentic airplane,” Vasquez said. “Out of the group we have here now, there's only two airplanes that didn't see combat.”
All six will perform in an airshow, but four of the planes will compete in the Unlimited Class.
“We're not air races, but we have four fighters that qualify for the Unlimiteds,” Vaquez said. “We saw it as an opportunity to try and fill the field. So we decided to say, ‘Hey if you hire us for the airshow, we'll race the airplanes to bring back the Unlimited numbers.”
“Having the Legends here as the headlining airshow act also racing their airplanes is probably one of the best things [the Air Races] could have ever done,” Seghetti said. “It might not sell as many tickets as say the Blue Angels do because they don't have the name out there. But for this type of event a lot of people come out here to see the warbird stuff and they put on a first class act.”
More planes means more competition.
“There's so many airplanes that are going to be so closely matched, it's going to be some pretty competitive racing,” Seghetti said. “So it's going to be really fun to see how it all shakes out in the first couple of days.”
More planes in the race means more of a challenge for planes like ‘Voodoo’ and ‘Strega’ which are purpose built for air racing.
“It presents more of an obstacle around the race course,” Hinton said. “There's traffic we're overtaking by 100 miles an hour, so it's different versus ‘Strega’ which is more of a chess match and a strategic kind of game. So it's nice to have the competition back to where we are going to run hard and see what the airplane is capable of.”
Veteran pilots of the air races say if all goes well this year, they are cautiously optimistic for what’s to come.
“It's the first year in several years, I think, we have 8 rookies in the class, which is great,” Seghetti said. “Hopefully it's a sign of things to come and the Unlimited Class will continue to grow.”
The Unlimiteds and the Texas Flying Legends take flight Thursday through Sunday. For a full schedule of events, click here.