February 28, 2005
Story and photos by - W J Pearce
Monday 9/13/2004 The Long Road
"Battle of the Champions" That's the thought that swirled around my mind as the miles crept by. It was an apt title, after all; between the three of them they had 22 championships.
I was somewhere into the 440-mile, 7-hour journey from my home on the central coast of California to Reno, Nevada. It is a trip I make, one way or another, every year. It's my annual pilgrimage to the "World's Fastest Motorsport" air racing.
Every September, pilots in their planes, supported by their crews and fans, do battle over the Reno Stead Airport, a former US Air Force base 20 miles outside of Reno. This event has taken place since 1964 and has roots back to 1909 the first air race.
Several types of aircraft participate in six different classes on four different courses. The courses are oval in nature, defined by 50-foot pylons. Most of the classes fly wingtip to wingtip into the course for the start of the race. Generally, six to eight planes race together for six to eight laps. Some racers hit speeds in excess of 500 mph, still 50 feet off the ground. The event is held over four days, but for the crews and die-hard fans it's more of a week-long festival of speed and camaraderie.
I am a crew member of the Sport Class racer Blue Thunder. Defining the Sport Class is somewhat complex; the planes are as different as the pilots. All Sport Class racers are kit-built aircraft. Blue Thunder is a ¾-scale WWII P-51 Mustang kit known as a Thunder Mustang. This year it is the only one of its kind competing, and it is flown by John Parker.
I first met Parker around 1990 at the airport in Torrance, CA. Both my dad and Parker had hangars on the same row. Once, while working on my 1954 GMC truck, we needed a lathe. We knew that Parker had a lathe, and the meeting that ensued was the start of a very long and close friendship.
Parker is a retired American Airlines Captain who began his air racing career in 1967. He has competed in three different classes, building his own aircraft for each class. He won his first championship in International Formula One in 1977. That victory was backed by two more in 1979 and 1980 in an aircraft he designed and built. That racer, American Special, currently resides in the EAA Museum in Oshkosh, WI.
Parker's passion for air racing quickly turned into a business he calls American Air Racing. Based out of the Reno Stead Airport, American Air Racing has evolved over the years, but the main focus is to offer complete builder support and to perform speed modifications for kit-built aircraft. Aided by his crew chief, former Jet Propulsion Laboratory Engineer Tom Taylor, Parker built his Thunder Mustang specifically for air racing.
This year I wanted Parker to win his fourth championship. However, two other Champions were going to try to stop him, and they had a good chance at it.
Of the 22 championship titles held by this year's three main competitors, Jon Sharp can claim nearly half of them. Sharp brings a certain degree of domination to any sport. Like Parker, Sharp began his career in Formula One where he became an 10-time Champion. He also designed and built his racer called Nemesis. That racer is proudly displayed in the Udvar Hazy branch of the National Air and Space Museum.
To call Nemesis dominate is an understatement. It won 47 of the 50 races it competed in, and 44 of those were consecutive victories. While piloting Nemesis, Sharp broke Parker's Formula One qualifying and race records. Its unmatched performance earned Team Nemesis 9 consecutive championships.
After retiring Nemesis in 1999, Sharp turned his attention to the Sport Class. He built his own composite kit plane named NemesisNXT. This would be its first year at Reno, making Sharp the wildcard. Without much time on NemesisNXT, Sharp would be acting as test pilot and race pilot. He definitely had the skills necessary to accomplish this, but unforeseen problems arise at the most inopportune time.
Next to Sharp's tiny Nemesis in the Air and Space Museum is a very large and very yellow Grumman Bearcat. The Bearcat was owned and flown by Darryl Greenamyer, one of the most skilled pilots in history.
Greenamyer started air racing in the first Reno Air Races in 1964. Piloting his modified Bearcat, Conquest 1, he crossed the finish line first but was disqualified. He had to wait until 1965 to become an official air racing Champion. Greenamyer went on to another six Unlimited Championships spanning 12 years.
Greenamyer did more than just air race. In 1969, Greenamyer set the absolute world speed record for propeller-driven aircraft in his Bearcat clocked at 483.041 mph, breaking the pre-WWII record set in Germany. Eight years later, flying a "homebuilt" F-104 Starfighter, Greenamyer set the low-altitude world speed record of 988.009 mph which still stands to this day.
The former Lockheed test pilot now races in Reno's Sport Class and has added two championships to his list of qualifications. He flies a modified Lancair Legacy, built by his crew chief, Andy Chiavetta. Chiavetta and Greenamyer have rebuilt just about every system on the Legacy, resulting in a 100+ mph speed increase over the stock configuration. But that speed has come at the price of engine reliability.
I continued to speculate on just how it would all play out this week. I wanted Parker to win, but I was aware of the incredible competition. I knew the week ahead of me would be unlike any other, but I could never have imagined just what would happen.
Tuesday 9/14/2004 Qualifying
It was the first qualifying session and as luck would have it, Parker, Sharp, and Greenamyer were side-by-side on the ramp as they prepared to go out. One could feel the excitement in the air. This was the race; in a few days one of these three men would be at the top of the podium with the other two looking on.
There was nervous tension, as all the pilots focused on the task at hand, each found their own way to deal with the pressure. That pressure soon faded away as it came time to start the engines.
A short time later Parker and Greenamyer were both in the air and on the course. Fred Roscher, Team Blue Thunder's Chief Technologist and all around nice guy, had the duty to time the laps. He sat with a stopwatch and a printout of elapsed lap times converted to speed around the course.
I watched as Parker rocketed by, causing a confused look on Roscher's face and some fumbling through the printouts. I approached Roscher to see what the times were and why the look of confusion.
"Either I screwed up, or he's off the chart!" Roscher said with a smile. He continued: "Nearest I can tell, it was about 350 mph, but the chart only goes up to 347."
Not only would 350 mph be the fastest that Blue Thunder had ever gone, it would also be officially the fastest any sport racer had ever gone and the fastest any normally aspirated (not turbo or supercharged) plane had ever flown. But Roscher hadnt screwed up. Parker posted a qualifying time of 349.507 mph.
Parker and Greenamyer landed and taxied back to where the crews were waiting. Although we didn't yet know the official times, we did know there were no pylon cuts; we were the fastest.
As further testament to Roscher's abilities with the stopwatch, he correctly timed Greenamyer's speed of 343.656 mph and Sharp's at 324.755 mph. We all knew both planes had more in them. The question was: would they go out to re-qualify in the afternoon session?
After all the planes qualify, the pilots are given the option to re-qualify as time permits. This could happen either Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday, and it would be the only chance the others teams had to bump us from our fastest qualifying spot.
I walked back to the crowd line to tell a friend the good news. As we talked, I watched Sharp bring in the slick little NXT. Both main tires firmly touched the runway when suddenly the left main collapsed. Sharp began to fight to keep the wingtip up and the plane on the runway. I ran towards the runway, keeping a close eye on NXT. Right as another plane obscured my view, a huge cloud of dust rose up.
I regained my clear line of sight, and there was NXT sitting off the runway. The plane had come to rest on its belly in the dirt, after both main landing gear collapsed. I felt sick. All the race crews stood there silent until Sharp emerged from NXT. He was physically okay, but one can only imagine how he felt emotionally after seeing his "baby" scratched up and sitting in a place and position that it should never be.
Although I was glad to see Sharp okay, I still felt sick. I wanted Parker to win, but not like this. I knew Parker felt the same way; the race should be won in the air on Sunday, not on the ground. The battle of the champions had just lost 10 championships and one champion.
Once qualifying was over for all the race classes, a crane was brought in to lift NemesisNXT from it's the desert floor. Airborne again, this time in a far less dignified fashion, both main gear dropped down and were secured. NXT was wheeled to a hangar where the damage could be assessed and the cause investigated.
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