Unlimited Air Racing
by Dan Whitney
All Photos by the Author (Except as noted)

Welcome to Reno-2010! And another exciting year of high-powered Unlimited air racers around the storied desert course at Reno’s Stead Field. It was a good year: safe and filled with numerous stories of challenges and excitement. In this year’s report we will attempt to provide a flavor for the action and let you see some of the activities and efforts that go into making this such a Valhalla for airplane people.

Although the race program anticipated a full field of 27 Unlimited racers, the economy and mechanical gremlins conspired and only 24 racers were on the ramp. Most noticeably absent were the Wright R-3350 powered Sea Fury’s. None made the trip, primarily because for one reason or another their engines needed replacing. The old days of taking a Viet Nam era R-3350 out of a can and bolting it to the airframe are gone, and the people with the necessary new parts and capability to overhaul one of these precision machines are few. The engines were not available in time to get the racers to Reno. An example of the scope of the dilemma is that Argonaut is swapping its R-3350 for a Pratt & Whitney R-2800, and it is hoped that an original Centaurus powered Sea Fury will return next year. Even with the reduced field the racing was exciting, with a lot of close action and the racing challenge for the highly modified racer The Galloping Ghost, who missed out on qualifying, that resulted in Jimmy Leeward having to win his way into Sunday’s Breitling Gold Final by starting in Thursday’s Medallion Heat and then working his way up by winning every heat race. He did it; quite a performance, and quite an airplane.

Again this year the weather was wonderful, with comfortable temperatures and blue skies—that was until Sunday. It was still beautiful, however the winds picked up all day long, not unusual, but by the time of the final T-6 and Unlimited Gold races gusts were over 40 mph. The effect of the wind was emphasized during the final Super Sport race late Sunday afternoon when a Thunder Mustang, making an emergency landing, was caught by a gust and flipped, ripping off the engine and destroying the airplane. Miraculously, the pilot walked away from the wreckage with only cuts and bruises. But the incident was certainly an omen of the conditions. When it was time for the Unlimited Gold racers to start engines a pilot’s meeting was held and they determined to wait 30 minutes in the hope that conditions would improve. Things did not improve, and for the first time in Reno Air Race history the Gold final was canceled and the racers placed by their starting order: Strega, piloted again by Steven Hinton, was declared the winner and John Penney piloting Rare Bear, second.

For the public the Reno Air Races are a weeklong event: qualifying on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, followed by a full airshow and air-racing program filling the hours from 8 am to 5 pm each day Thursday through Sunday. While our focus is on the piston powered Unlimiteds there are six other classes racing each day as well. These include the Formula One, Biplane, T-6, Sport, Super-Sport and Jet classes. There is a lot of very good competition and each of the classes provides a different perspective on the spectacle that is air racing. Interspersed between heats are world-class airshow performers delighting the spectators with their skills in some unique and dynamic aircraft. This year the Canadian Snowbirds in their trademark Tudor jet trainers provided the thrills of military precision flying, while the USAF and Navy demonstrated the solo capability of their front-line high performance jet fighters. A special treat this year was the formation flying of two vintage P-38 fighters. All in all, every day provides fuel for air-race fans and anyone with an interest in aviation, past and present.

Stories of the Week

There is a lot of drama in the three days of qualifying start the week off. Everyone is focused on going as fast as possible, thereby determining the heat division in which they will race. Qualifying as one of the fastest six Unlimiteds puts the racers in the Gold Class and results in getting a bye day, meaning that their heats don’t start until Friday, and there is more time to prepare. Furthermore, it is rare for a race speed to be as fast as those achieved in qualifying. Consequently, it is not unusual for a racer to break during qualifying, usually resulting in a damaged engine and a Mayday landing. This year qualifying for the Unlimiteds went pretty well, with only minor issues, however such was not the case for NXT #42 Relentless, one of the Super Sport airplanes. The Super Sport class is for highly-modified kit-built and general aviation airplanes with engines under 1,000 in². They are as fast as Silver class Unlimiteds, and use the same 8.4333 mile Unlimited course. Their horsepower and aerodynamics are impressive.

At the beginning of his qualifying run on Tuesday Kevin Eldredge was just rounding the final turn in his NXT and coming down the homestretch to the starting line, traveling at over 400 mph, when his turbosupercharged engine made the most unbelievable sound, its pitch going from a smooth 4,000+ rpm to a sudden very high pitch that could be likened to a violin player suddenly sliding a finger down the finger board. This happened in less than two seconds, followed by total silence. Kevin’s engine had broken an oil line fitting, the sudden loss of oil pressure allowed the propeller to go to flat pitch, and at 400+ mph the propeller over sped the engine to the point that a crankshaft counter-weight came off and jammed into the case, suddenly stopping the engine. At this point the inertia of the propeller sheared the propeller attaching flange from the propeller shaft flange and broke the three composite blades off, while the resulting torque effects broke the engine mount. Fortunately the restraining safety cables held the engine in place, maintaining a semblance of balance and allowing controlled flight. Kevin used his speed to advantage and was able to safely land on the runway below. Moral of the story, be sure to use steel fittings, not aluminum, when attaching lines to an engine.


Racing at Reno is an all-year commitment and endeavor. Engines have to be built and tested, airframes are inspected, modified, and pilots and ground crew trained and practiced. On the Saturday before Reno Dan Martin was in his racer Ridge Runner III and putting time on his race Merlin, the one that had run so well in 2009. When he took it up to race power, 100 inHgA, it rolled a main bearing, resulting in ending the flight and having to pull the engine. Mike Barrow of Air Sparrow went to work building a new engine, using the banks, wheelcase, rods and pistons from the race engine. Unfortunately the special reduction gears could not be quickly fitted so they had to give up some propeller efficiency, but the new engine was built, installed and slow-timed with the airplane arriving Tuesday evening, qualifying Wednesday. It is amazing the things that these Reno teams do! The winning teams show a lot of hard work and commitment to their airplanes and the sport.

Again this year Jimmy Leeward’s long awaited highly modified racer The Galloping Ghost was to be in the show. Gremlin’s again kept him from arriving until Tuesday. Unfortunately Jimmy missed the mandatory pilot’s briefing on Wednesday, the last day of qualifying, and was not allowed to qualify the airplane. This meant that he would have to start in last place in Thursday’s Medallion race, then win every heat and thereby work his way through the field to be able to start in Sunday’s Gold final. This actually resulted is some wonderful racing and had the unintended benefit of giving Jimmy more practice time on the course than any other racer.

The airplane is amazingly super slick; the result of eliminating the Mustang’s air-cooled radiator(s), replacing them with water “boilers”. This of course limits range, but is entirely adequate for the duration of a Gold heat.

Another unique airplane, and a first as a Reno racer, was the recently completed newly manufactured Focke Wulf FW 190, powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-2800, and flown by John Maloney. They had some landing gear issues and didn’t fly every day, but it was fun to see this beautiful aircraft on the pylons and be able to get a perspective as to size compared to the more common Mustangs.



Day by Day at The Races


#5-Voodoo has never looked better. Over the winter the crew has reworked the wing finish to a degree that appears flawless. Similar attention to detail throughout the airplane and engine by the Bill Kerchenfaut led crew, coupled with pilot Will Whiteside’s drive to win Reno, makes this a very potent team. Using Bill’s philosophy that you only have to be in front at the end of the final race to be a winner, they qualified the airplane at 479.180 mph, assuring a cede in the Gold. This was done using less than full race power. Bill, who was also the crewchief for perennial Reno winner Dago Red, says Voodoo is faster than Dago ever was.

#77-Rare Bear Qualified using less than takeoff power, just wanted to get into the show with a cede in the Gold. They were having “oil foaming” problems that resulted in replacing components, rebuilding the oil tank and other attempts to resolve. Finally on Thursday it was found that someone on this year’s new crew had connected the oil pressure gages incorrectly, there never had been any oil foaming. This year the airplane features a Dave Cornell-built R-3350 that incorporates the modifications needed to make it a true racer. This includes the higher capacity supercharger, and a lower ratio propeller reduction gear. This engine is capable of running at 3,200 rpm and up to 81 inHgA manifold pressure, delivering over 4,000 horsepower.

#20-Ridge Runner III, piloted by Dan Martin, showed up Tuesday evening. On Wednesday he went out and qualified at 412.953 mph, using only 3,300 rpm and 85 inHgA from the new Merlin. The afternoon was spent fixing a small leak from the prop seal.


The Medallion race was interesting in that there were no two aircraft alike. Most unique was the R-2800 powered FW 190 What Da Fockewulf, who finished last in the heat behind Brian Sanders in Tom Camp’s FM-2 Wildcat that he calls Air Biscuit. Dave Morss had taken over piloting duty in The Bear, a T-28B, and was following the F4U-4 Corsair of Doug Matthews. Dan Martin piloted a new and very stock P-51D, Grim Reaper and did well at 324 mph. In the lead was Jimmy Leeward in The Galloping Ghost, winning the heat at a speed of 339.424, nearly 200 mph below the speed this aircraft is capable of. It was the first win for the newly configured racer and a necessity for bumping his way into the Sunday Gold race.

The Bronze heat was an all inline engine race: three stock Merlin-powered P-51Ds, and three Allison powered racers, a P-51A, a P-40N, and a Yak 3. The race was won by Bob Patterson in the TF-51D Lady Jo at 344.000 mph, followed by Dave Morss in the “A” model Polar Bear at 334.425 mph.

Three Mustangs made the lineup for Silver, competed with three round-engined aircraft, two twin-engined Grumman F7F Tigercats, and the other the R-2000 powered Yak-3U Steadfast. This was a fun heat to watch as the big radials were up front, with Stu Eberhardt mixing it up with them in P-51D Merlin’s Magic. The four airplanes were within 14.5 seconds of each other at the finish, a spread of only 10.6 mph below John Maloney’s winning speed of 369.134 mph in Steadfast. P-51Ds Sparky and Geraldine followed them at 317 and 312 mph respectively.




Seven Bronze racers started the day’s Unlimited racing. Four were Rolls-Royce Merlin powered Mustangs, the Jim McKinstry’s Yak-3 Shiska Su’Ka and John-Curtiss Paul’s P-40N Parrothead powered by Allison V-1710s, and Doug Mathews in the P&W R-2800 powered Corsair. The Galloping Ghost, at 364.505 mph, won the race by 20 seconds over second place Dan Vance in P-51D Speedball Alice who was closely followed by Dan Martin in Grim Reaper. This win qualified Jimmy Leeward to advance to Saturday’s Silver heat, continuing on the path that he hoped would win The Galloping Ghost Sunday’s Gold. At the end of the race Jimmy quickly put the airplane back on the runway and immediately shut down. Seems his water quantity instrument for the boiler was showing he was out of water. Fortunately it was an instrument problem and quickly resolved. Reviewing photos after the race The Galloping Ghost crew noticed that during hi-G turns the main landing gear was coming out into the slipstream. They then re-rigged the gear locks and that evening performed a series of hi-G maneuvers to confirm that the problem had been fixed.

Seven racers also constituted the days Silver heat. Five Mustangs and the two Tigercats. The two Tigercats mixed it up with Stu Eberhardt in P-51D Merlin’s Magic, with Stu sandwiched in between them at the finish and less than two seconds ahead of the third place Big Bossman, piloted by owner Rod Lewis. Stewart Dawson in the Here Kitty Kitty Tigercat, at 371.116 mph, won the heat. Being out on the pylons photographing this race was exciting every time this trio thundered past! The other four Mustangs had their own race, with Brant Seghetti in the colorful Sparky leading the pack and finishing fourth at 337.303 mph, followed closely by Dave Morss in P-51A Polar Bear, C.J. Stephens in Lady Jo and Mark Watt piloting Geraldine.

Finally! It’s time for the Gold racers to show their stuff! The heat had seven racers who took off into a beautiful blue sky for what promised to be an exciting race. All of these racers incorporate extensive modification to make them very fast. This is most apparent in P-51s Strega and Voodoo which contrast with “stock” appearing P-51Ds Ridge Runner III and Miss America, both incorporating cleaned up airframes and special racing Merlins. Rare Bear is the sleekest F8F Bearcat ever, featuring a specially built Wright R-3350 by Dave Cornell and a ADI boiler for cooling the oil. In its 2010 version, Rare Bear is demonstrating lower drag than ever before. Everyone was looking on with great anticipation for the coming Gold Final match-up with the finely tuned Merlin P-51s. Also in this heat was the highly modified Hawker Sea Fury Dreadnought, powered by a P&W R-4360. The engine on the airframe was the same one that had powered it the year before, and prior to that, had been the engine for the similarly modified Sea Fury Furious. Unfortunately, following takeoff and prior to joining up with the racer formation Matt Jackson had the “chip light” come on. As a precaution he decided to immediately return to the field. Post flight inspection found quantities of non-magnetic metal in the screens, so Dreadnought was out for the year, and as a consequence, no Sea Furys raced at Reno in 2010.

At the start Steven Hinton in #7 Strega took a commanding lead and maintained it for the first couple of laps. He then backed his power down to 75 inHgA, which allowed the rest of the field to slowly gain on him. At the finish it was Strega, at 465.664 mph, Voodoo then Rare Bear, however it turned out that Will Whiteside had cut a pylon, and with the resulting twelve second penalty Rare Bear was scored second and Voodoo dropped to third. Ridge Runner III was a creditable fourth at 425.104 mph, followed by Miss America and Steadfast at 362 and 359 mph respectively. Unfortunately for Ridge Runner III, post flight inspection found lots of metal in the screens, so she was out for the rest of the week.




Saturday’s Bronze heat was a race with no two aircraft alike, but still some good close racing, particularly between the heat winner Doug Matthews in the R-2800 powered Corsair and Jim McKinstry in his V-1710 powered Yak-3 Shiska Su’Ka. They kept trading positions during the race, with Corsair taking the checkered flag at a speed of 329.993 mph and the Yak seven seconds behind. They were followed by Chuck Greenhill in P-51D Lou IV at 306 mph, Dave Morss in the T-28B The Bear at 294, and Brian Sanders in the FM-2 Air Biscuit at 274 mph.

Jimmy Leeward won the day’s Silver heat in a convincing manner with The Galloping Ghost at 373.284 mph, and achieving his goal of winning a place in the Sunday Gold heat! Second place went to Brant Seghetti in Sparky at 337.292 mph, closely followed by P-51Ds Lady Jo (336.5) and Geraldine (333.6). They were followed by Dave Morss in the P-51A Polar Bear (324 mph), P-51D Speedball Alice (318 mph), P-40N Parrothead (317 mph) and Dan Martin in the “D” model Grim Reaper at (310 mph).

The Gold heat quickly became two races, with P-51s Strega and Voodoo leading the highly modified Bearcat Rare Bear at speeds near those that they qualified at. They were followed at a considerable distance by P-51Ds Miss America (380 mph) and Merlin’s Magic, the R-2000 powered Steadfast, a Yak 3U, and the two twin-engined Tigercats, Here Kitty Kitty and Big Bossman (354 and 342 mph respectively). Things got exciting for Will Whiteside when Voodoo’s Merlin suddenly stopped! Fortunately Will executed a perfect emergency landing. Post flight inspection found what happened, the ignition switch had failed, killing both magnetos! Who ever heard of such a thing? He was running at 100 inHgA and 3,400 rpm when this happened and was very fortunate that there was not a terrific backfire or other serious damage done to the engine. Even so, the stresses of the incident resulted in an intake valve breaking off near the top of the stem. Fortunately the valve did not drop into the cylinder and ruin a piston. Also, the high-speed ram air pressure ruptured the carbon fiber intake trunk leading to the carburetor! In the best tradition of the sport Dan Martin offered the trunk from the grounded Ridge Runner III. Bill Kerchenfought and his crew worked though the night and installed a spare cylinder bank that had previously run to 100 inches. They were successful, got Voodoo repaired, flight tested, and declared ready for Sunday’s Gold race. Rare Bear finished the race in second at 448 mph, running only 65 inches and 3,100 rpm. Pilot John Penney had not pushed the power up because one of the landing gear doors was partially open, a problem that was corrected overnight. Steve Hinton won the race in Strega at a speed of 473.437 mph, a little faster than he had run on Friday and again showing that as the week progresses the competition gets tighter. Strega has now had three straight years of outstanding engine performance and reliability. Engine builder Mike Nixon related that for this year’s engine all that had really been done was an IRAN (Inspect and Repair As Necessary). Interestingly, before Saturdays race there were rumors in the pits that Strega was having “problems”. The race proved their Merlin to be in tip-top shape, and ready for Sunday Gold. Close racing between the big Tigercats and Merlin’s Magic was exciting, as the three airplanes finished the 50.12 mile course separated only by 15 seconds.




The final Bronze heat again proved to be interesting and good. The five racers gave the crowd a good look at some well-matched and unique airplanes. The race was won by Jim McKinstry in his Allison powered Yak 3 Shiska Su’Ka at 317 mph. Jim was a very happy man! Dave Morss finished second at 299.859 mph in The Bear, a racing T-28B, only a quarter of a second ahead of Brian Sanders in the FM-2 Wildcat, Air Biscuit, at 299.731 mph. Bringing up the rear were Chuck Greenhill in the P-51D Lou IV and John Maloney in the beautiful FW 190 What Da Fockewulf, running 289 and 283 mph respectively.

The race for the Silver Trophy was really close too. TF-51D Lady Jo finished first at 342.886 mph and elected to bump up into the Gold heat, thereby passing credit for the win to Brant Seghetti in Sparky (338.561mph). The six P-51s in this race were really pretty well matched, and ran close through all seven laps (58.56 miles). Midway through the race P-51A Polar Bear pilot Dave Morss had another plane come underneath him, and not being able to see clearly, pulled high above the course. Once able to clear the congestion he dove back into the fray, the height advantage enabling him to pass two P-51s and put him firmly in position to be awarded third place in the heat (335.435 mph), 10 mph faster than his qualifying speed! The last two racers in the heat were Parrothead and Doug Matthews in the Chance Vought Corsair. They finished just 0.2 seconds apart after a lot of close racing, with John-Curtiss Paul leading in the P-40N at 324.544 mph.

So now the stage was set for the Brietling Gold Final. But the high winds conspired to say—Not today! So we will have to wait another year to see sleek The Galloping Ghost with its boilers run against the perennial Strega and the very competitive Voodoo, to say nothing of the slick Rare Bear with its new Dave Cornell R-3350. There are also promises of several more very competitive racers being prepared, as well as the return of the big Sea Furys. All in all, 2010 had a lot of very good racing by a lot of very well prepared and beautiful airplanes. The future looks bright for even more of the same next year.



See you at RENO-2011!


Reno 2010 Unlimited Qualifying and Finishing Speeds
Name Aircraft Type Pilot Qualifying
7 Strega P-51D Mustang-Modified Hinton, Steven Jr. 484.255 Bye 465.664G 473.437G 1st-G
5 Voodoo P-51D Mustang-Modified Whiteside, Will 479.180 Bye 450.879G DNF-#G 8th-G
77 Rare Bear F8F-2 Bearcat/R-3350 Penney, John 445.728 Bye 457.831G 447.755G 2nd-G
8 Dreadnought Hawker Sea Fury/R-4360 Matt Jackson 445.062 Bye DNS-G DNS DNS
11 Miss America P-51D Mustang Hisey, Brent 413.296 Bye 361.987G 380.426G 3rd-G
20 Ridge Runner III P-51D Mustang-Modified Martin, Dan 412.953 Bye 425.104G DNS DNS
33 Steadfast Yak-3U/R-2000 Whiteside, Will-Qual/
Maloney, John
383.361 369.134S 358.841G 365.047G 4th-G
55 Here Kitty Kitty F7F-3 Tigercat Dawson, Stewart 375.212 366.353S 371.116S 354.521G 5th-G
22 Merlin's Magic P-51D Mustang Eberhardt, Bill 367.428 361.992S 363.591S 342.923G 6th-G
1 Big Bossman F7F-3 Tigercat Lewis, Rod 364.981 358.497S 362.252S 342.085G 7th-G
44 Sparky P-51D Mustang Seghetti, Brant 354.812 317.828S 337.303S 337.292S 338.561S
15 Geraldine P-51D Mustang Watt, Mark/
Sanders, Dennis-Sat
351.363 312.177S 317.423S 333.575S 338.186S
81 Lady Jo TF-51D Mustang Patterson, Robert/
Stephens, CJ-Fri
349.527 344.000B 318.679S 336.564S 342.886S & 10th-G
31 Speedball Alice P-51D Mustang Gordon, Rob 343.936 322.327B 337.259B 317.944S 329.643S
16 Lou IV P-51D Mustang Greenhill, Chuck 338.702 303.224B 302.250B 306.059B 288.973B
4 Polar Bear P-51A Mustang Morss, Dave 325.722 334.425B 324.160S 324.071S 35.435S
17 Parrothead P-40N Paul, John-Curtiss 323.894 328.914B 324.635B 317.111S 324.544S
0 Shiska Su’Ka Yak-3 McKinstry, Jim 321.231 314.105B 307.115B 325.483B 317.315B
24 Corsair F4U-4 Corsair Matthews, Doug 313.202 323.637M 317.620B 329.993B 24.460S
2 Air Biscuit FM-2 Wildcat Sanders, Brian 312.605 281.903M   273.931B 299.731B
66 The Bear T-28B Wallace, Bruce-Qual/
Morss, Dave
309.533 301.387M   294.323B 299.859B
145 What Da Fockewulf FW 190/R-2800 Maloney, John 302.209 279.092M   DNS-B 283.043B
18 Grim Reaper P-51D Mustang Martin, Dan DNQ 324.104M 330.830B 309.865S 324.968S
177 The Galloping Ghost P-51D Mustang-Modified Leeward, Jimmy DNQ 339.424M 364.505B 373.284S 9th-G
M = Medallion, B = Bronze Heat Race, S = Silver Heat Race, G = Gold Heat Race, DNS = Did Not Start, DNF-# = Did Not Finish-lap out,
DNQ = Did Not Qualify, DQ = Disqualified, BOLD = 1st Place Heat Winners