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

The big story from Reno-2011 is one that no one ever wants to have to tell. During Friday’s Unlimited Gold Heat race Jimmy Leeward’s highly modified racer The Galloping Ghost, apparently hit severe wake turbulence coming off of the pylon at the entry to the home stretch, causing the aircraft to violently pitch-up, incapacitating the pilot and diving into the crowd in front of the main grandstand. Jimmy and ten spectators were killed while some 74 others were injured, many seriously. The racing and airshow program for all classes for the rest of the week was immediately canceled. Having witnessed this terrible accident and its aftermath I can only offer my sincere condolences to those who were lost or injured and to their families.


The Reno Air Races have been going for 48 years without a spectator injury, in fact there had not been an air show spectator fatality in the United States in over 60 years. This speaks well of the pilots and participants showing that they are not “dare devils” or “thrill seekers”, but rather dedicated professionals who enjoy performing with their rare and valuable aircraft for the delight of assembled spectators. The history of motor sports in general is that there have been participant and spectators casualties, however what is important to realize is that the dedicated sanctioning bodies, participants, insurance agencies and regulators have introduced innovations that have improved those events and venues so that safety of everyone has been enhanced. Examples include NASCAR and open-wheel racing and even at Reno, where they have continually improved safety through operational changes, training and physical changes to the courses while rigorously enforcing FAA specified crowd separation distances. In addition to the NTSB and FAA investigations, the Reno Air Race Association, the event sponsor, has announced a Blue Ribbon Review Panel that will review the entire event and provide recommendations for improvements by Spring 2012. The panel includes former NTSB and FAA administrators with wide experience in aviation safety, along with two highly respected and experienced Reno air racing pilots. While the future of air racing is still being assessed, we can be assured that much will be learned from this accident and that racing should be even safer in the future.

Stories of the Week

As the week started it looked as if we were off to a really good week of air racing. There were a lot of airplanes, in fact 30 seeking the 27 positions in the Unlimited division. Furthermore, the Sea Furys were back in force, and a growing number of racers were there with major changes and improvements. A couple of perennial favorites were also missing, specifically the Mustangs Dago Red and Ridgerunner IV. Dago Red’s future as a racer is uncertain due to changes in ownership, while long time racer Dan Martin has sold Ridgerunner IV in its original stock configuration so it is unlikely to return as a Gold class racer.

In the radial engine camp things are looking up, particularly for the Sea Furys. The R-4360 powered Furious was back, sporting a new internal boil-off oil cooling system, along with the Sanders brother’s Argonaut, which is now powered by an R-2800, a first for a Sea Fury. In total, for radial engines, there were five Sea Furys (two R-4360s, two R-3350s and one R-2800), two Bearcats (one R-3350 and one R-2800), two Yak’s (one R-2000 and one R-1830), two Corsairs (one R-4360 and one R-2800), one Tigercat (twin R-2800s), one Wildcat (R-1820), one T-28B (R-1820), and a R-2800 powered Focke-Wulf 190. That is ten Pratt & Whitney powered and five Wright powered racers.

The balance of the field was made up of fifteen in-line/liquid-cooled racers including the unique Rolls-Royce Griffon powered P-51XR Precious Metal, two Allison powered P-40s and a single Allison P-51A. The remainder were Rolls-Royce Merlin powered Mustangs.

The Unlimited Division spans three racing classes; Bronze, Silver and Gold. The class of any particular airplane is determined by qualifying speed, with up to nine airplanes assigned to each class. As an incentive to qualify fast the top six airplanes do not race until Friday, giving them an extra day of preparation while minimizing wear and tear on engines and crew.

Qualifying starts on Monday and ends at noon Wednesday, with a total of five 90-minute periods available to the racers. Typically the pilot will take off and warm up the airplane with a couple of high level turns of the course, then come down and start doing fast laps. When he feels everything is right he will call for the clock and turns his fast lap at pylon height. Then following a few minutes over the course to cool the engine they land and return to the pits. The ground crew then jumps into action and inspects the airplane and engine for condition and begins preparations for another qualifying attempt, or for the upcoming racing. This servicing can be quite involved, and most airplanes will quickly have the entire engine compartment cowling removed to assure a comprehensive inspection and to ease access. One of the mandatory checks is to inspect the engine oil screens for any signs of metal. Any metal found, more than the tinniest of flecks, is cause for great concern. With all of the heavy and high-speed parts thrashing around inside an engine the heavily loaded bearings, gear teeth, and supporting housings will rapidly create metal chips if they are not properly lubricated, fitted, or operated.

One of the Sea Furys, first time back since 2008 and now owned by Rod Lewis, was the previous Gold winner September Fury, sporting a brand new R-3350 and piloted by Astronaut “Hoot” Gibson. Following his Tuesday qualifying run at 467.054 mph metal was found in the screens. Inspection found that the #1 rear piston was burned, however the crew hoped that the amount of damage done by the relatively small quantity of metal found was minimal. They dove in and installed a new piston and cylinder pending inspection by the engine builder Ray Anderson. He checked it over the next morning and quickly determined that “we’re done.” While the engine had yet to be disassembled and fully inspected, the burned piston was likely due to the stuck exhaust valve they found, however it may also have been the result of the master connecting rod bearing going away. This causes the rod to run off-center and imposes extra loads on the piston skirts, as well as breaking the ring/cylinder-wall seal, which then allows hot combustion gasses to get past the rings, overheating the rings and lands, and resulting in a badly burned piston.


This year the highly modified P-51 racer Strega, set the standard of the week by qualifying at a new record of 499.160 mph. At this speed pilot Steven Hinton took only one minute to complete the 8.4333 mile course, and with Voodoo at 485.184 mph and Rare Bear at 479.430 mph it looked like the Gold final on Sunday was going to be both competitive and fast.


Limits to Going Fast(er) - Competing at Reno is often described as “Fly Low, Go Fast, Turn Left”. Whoever does all of this the best should come out the winner. As a result the crews try a lot of things to improve the overall result. During his practice laps, Will Whiteside, pilot of Voodoo, experimented with a shorter line around the course, one that sharpened the turns and increased the average “g” loads on the airplane. The result was that he was almost in a constant left turn, which slowed the airplane considerably compared to the more normal path that peaks at about 3g’s in the turns. A worthwhile option to checkout, but clearly the greater g load raised the induced drag on the airframe, slowing the lap time.

Another example of the barriers to going fast(er) was demonstrated by Dave Morss when he qualified the Allison powered P-51A Polar Bear. This engine has 8.1:1 supercharger gears that give a nominal takeoff power of 1,350 bhp at 51 inHgA and 3,000 rpm. Even though density altitude at Reno gives much less power, the ram air effect at over 300 mph almost exactly compensates for the altitude, so Dave was achieving sea-level rated power while on the course. During his qualifying run he increased the engine speed to 3,100 rpm and obtained 55 inHgA, and delivering another 100 bhp to the 3-bladed Curtiss Electric propeller. With this he was able to qualify on Monday 6 mph faster (at 343.741 mph) than he ever had before. When the first day of qualifying was completed Dave realized that if he could boost his speed a couple of mph he would be in line to race in the Silver bracket on Sunday. With this in mind he determined to re-qualify on Tuesday. One of the rules is that if you elect to re-qualify you loose your previous position. To this end Dave put Polar Bear back on the course, this time turning the engine at 3,200 rpm. Unfortunately it didn’t work out, the problem is that with the Allison’s 2:1 reduction gear the Curtiss prop was turning so fast that at race speed, and even with another 100 bhp, the propeller’s loss in efficiency resulted in going slower. Going back to 3,000 rpm for Thursday and Friday’s races resulted in a win on Thursday at 331.240 mph, while on Friday he ran the course at 337.104 mph. This points out some of the complexity that is racing. Flying a shorter course, or running the engine faster does not necessarily mean a better time. Everything has to be in harmony, more power is great, but how that power is produced is also important, as is the balance between components such as the propeller, and the drag of the airframe.


Boilers for Cooling - In opposition to going fast the airplane confronts drag. One look at the Gold class racers and it is apparent that everything possible is, or has been done, to minimize aerodynamic drag. The wings and fuselage have been waxed, polished and seams taped, all to make a slick airplane. Another, and not so obvious source of drag is the air taken onboard for cooling, this creates drag because its speed must be slowed down to function in onboard services such as carburetor air, oil coolers, cylinder cooling and radiators. To minimize the onboard losses due to cooling and ventilation air most Gold teams go to elaborate lengths to fit and seal their cowlings so that every pound of air performs its intended function, then is ducted through a properly controlled exit. Even so, there are real benefits in minimizing the amount of cooling air. One way this can be done is to seal off the oil cooler inlets and reconfigure the oil coolers for evaporative cooling. Below is a diagram showing a system AEHS member Pete Law designed for this. It was flown on the one-time world speed record holder (piston driven propeller), Conquest I, when it broke the 1939 German record with a speed of 483.041 mph. Different physical arrangements have been utilized over the years, but the concept is that the oil cooler functions as a boiler, with ADI fluid (Anti-Detonation-Injection fluid, a 50:50 mixture of methyl alcohol and water) serving as the boiling medium. This mixture has the advantage that it boils at about 158oF (75oC) (at Reno’s 5,000 foot elevation), which results in the oil returning to the engine at near its optimum temperature of about 185oF (85oC). Since all of the equipment is internal to the airframe and no air is required, the result is a very clean airframe and low drag installation. The one downside is that range is severely restricted, that is, the aircraft must have sufficient quantities of ADI fluid to sustain it for the duration of the flight.



Racing Merlins The V-1650 Merlin has long been a favorite of both the racers and race fans. It is a beautiful example of the engineer’s art, and demands the best of the builder and pilot. Over the years a lot of things have been done to get more power from what in its stock form delivers 1,490 bhp at takeoff. Some racers claim 3,500 bhp, but at this level the life expectancy is often less than one heat race. There is becoming a serious parts shortage for these engines and several individuals in the Warbird industry are providing new and improved parts. Furthermore, while the dataplate may say that a given engine is a –7, or –9, in fact most are now hybrids in that they may contain some original parts, as well as parts from later Merlin series such as the transport models used in commercial air service. At the same time engine builders are refining their engines to resolve previously identified weaknesses. A good example is the Mike Nixon Merlin powering Strega. This engine has been very successful in the airplane for a number of years, and after each racing campaign is completely torn down, inspected and renewed. The crankcase in the engine is one that has the Jack Roush steel main bearing caps, a modification that many thought would not work, but the engine’s success shows that it can. This engine also features Allison G6 connecting rods, an enhancement developed by the legendary Dwight Thorn that has allowed a number of record setting Merlins to sustain operation at racing rpm and power. Mike has also removed the second oil pump typically added to Gold class Merlins, saying that if stock bearing clearances are properly adhered to the standard Merlin oil pump is sufficient for racing. He continues to run his special race pistons and has not had issues with them at race power. The engine also features new cams with increased overlap. When Strega set the new course qualifying record on Monday the engine was running at 3,400 rpm and 117 inHgA, well short of its 140 inHgA capability. The Merlin Gold racers are finding that at 140 inches most of the extra power is being used to drive the superchargers, and very little of the extra is going to the propeller. It’s faster to ease up on the engine and let the propeller run a little more efficiently.



The Merlin in The Galloping Ghost, by builder Rick Shanholtzer, shows another approach. Dave Zeuschel originally built this engine for the Gold racer Jeannie many years ago. It used original Rolls-Royce connecting rods, not the Allison rods, mounted in a Packard V-1650-9A crankcase with Transport banks. Jack Roush provided the modified pistons, which use modern ductile iron rings. This engine had proved to be quite reliable.



Racing Radials – For the most part the radial engines used on the racers are stock, however those running at higher than stock manifold pressures, achieved by running at greater than rated rpm, have fitted ADI to cool the mixture and prevent engine damaging detonation. Many of the R-2800s, R-3350s and R-4360s were originally fitted with ADI to allow War Emergency Power, so the hardware needed is readily available. Still the racer’s art is needed to get the proper ADI mixture as the changing weather at Reno often necessitates a change of metering jets.

Steadfast is unique in that it is powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-2000-7M2 engine, as used on the Douglas DC-4 and C-7A Caribou, but modified to use a slower turning R-1830 propeller reduction gear. As the engine is run at above rated rpm a Pete Law ADI system is fitted to cool the mixture, allowing power to be increased from 1,450 hp at 2,700 rpm to about 1,800 bhp (55 inHgA and 2,800 rpm). The aircraft is relatively light for a Reno Unlimited, 5,300 pounds empty and 6,500 pounds wet. After this year’s races Will Whiteside took his airplane to Wendover, Utah (near the Bonneville Salt Flats) and set a new world record (preliminary) for Class 1C1D (5,000 to 6,600 pounds) at 416.12 mph for the three kilometer straight-line course; this improved the previous record set in 2002 by the replica Howard Hughes H1 racer by 112 mph.



The big advantage the radial racers have is in cubic inches; when it comes to power there is simply no substitute for displacement. The theory behind the R-4360 racers is that they can run the whole race at takeoff power, not really stressing the engine, and thereby be in front after everyone else breaks; however even they will run slower propeller reduction gears and speed up their engines to beat the Merlins. This also applies to the Silver class R-3350s, but for them to win in the Gold class they have to really “turn up the wick,” which means running at War Emergency Power, or higher, and increasing engine speed. Doing this, for the duration of an 8 – 10 minute heat, and doing about four of those during the week, puts enormous stress on the engine and definitely effects reliability.

Most of the R-3350 powered racers are using the –26WD version (2,700 bhp at 2,900 rpm, 0.4375:1 propeller reduction gear) as originally fitted to the Douglas A-1E Skyraider, however because they will run at higher rpm when racing, they use ADI to keep the engine cool and safe from detonation. Gold class racers such as Rare Bear and September Fury have modified their R-3350s to incorporate slower turning propeller reduction gears (0.355:1, from the R-3350-EA2, of which only 287 were built and are now rare) used on the Lockheed 1649 Starliner as well as a much stronger supercharger drive (from the military R-3350-93 Turbo-Compound; it has three planetary stages instead of two) needed to transmit the approximate 800 hp consumed by the drive when the supercharger is in low gear and the engine is turning 3,200 rpm. The result is manifold pressures as high as 80 inHgA, compared to a standard –26W that will use about 350 hp to drive the supercharger when running at 58 inHgA and 2,900 rpm. With the induction ram recovery at 500 mph some 4,280 bhp is available from the special Dave Cornell Rare Bear engine, 4480 bhp if nitrous is on.

Drama in the Pits – This year there were several unlimited racers with paperwork issues, such as not getting entry applications filed on time. The airplanes were on the ramp, but would only get a chance to fly if any of the full field of qualified racers dropped out. In addition there were the usual propeller removals to replace leaking seals, detailed engine inspections, the occasional cylinder replacement, and lots of talk about who had the best strategy and strongest airplane.

The Races – Thursday Three unlimited races were held on Thursday, the Medallion, Bronze and Silver heats. Only five racers were in the Medallion as two dropped out; Jim Thomas was not able to race the #17 P-40 Parrothead due to a problem with a leaking coolant pump, and Dave Morss was not able to race the #66 T-28 because he was piloting the #4 P-51A Polar Bear in the same heat. Dave won the race even though he could only get 50 inHgA manifold pressure rather than the 55 inHgA he qualified with. After the race a big leak was found in the ram air intake duct. John Currenti in the #24 Corsair came in second, even after a 12-second penalty for cutting a pylon. The last three airplanes in the race provided the fans with a good look at unique airplanes on the course. Jim McKinstry was third in his new radial powered Yak-3 Rossiya Su’Ka, then John Maloney in the Fw 190 What Da Fockewulf, followed by Brian Sanders in last place with the FM-2 Wildcat Air Biscuit.


The Bronze heat had seven racers; five Mustangs, a P-40E and the twin-engined F7F-3 Tigercat. Rod Lewis in his Tigercat was doing very well in the large racer until he started streaming smoke. He immediately pulled out and landed, where it was found that a filler cap on an oil tank had come loose and the “smoke” was actually an oil steam. Otherwise the racing was quite close, the Mustangs really mixing it up. However, John-Curtiss Paul was showing them the way around the course in his newly restored P-51C Boise Bee. He won the race with a margin of 44 seconds over the first of the trailing Mustangs and P-40, who as a group finished within 25 seconds of each other.

The Silver heat was another interesting collection of racers that paired up out on the course and provided some exciting racing. Dan Vance won the race in the Sea Fury Sawbones at 395.255 mph, followed closely by the beautiful P-51D Miss America. They were followed by two interesting racers, the Sanders brothers R-2800 powered Argonaut and Bob Odegaard’s newly restored R-4360 powered original Cleveland racer, the #74 Super Corsair. They ran a close race and finished only a little more than a second apart. Close behind them was another pair of interesting racers, the Griffon powered P-51XR Precious Metal, owned and flown by Thom Richard, and Will Whiteside in his R-2000 powered Yak-3U Steadfast. These guys were close, with Precious Metal edging out Steadfast by only a quarter of a second. Bringing up the rear was the P-51D Merlin’s Magic.



The Races – Friday Again three Unlimited heats were scheduled. The morning’s Bronze Heat was mostly an all-Mustang affair, excepting the ultimate winner, who was Rod Lewis in his F7F-3P La Patrona, and fourth place finisher John-Curtiss Paul in his P-40E Sneak Attack. Rod appeared to be running away from the field, which was fairly tightly grouped, making for some exciting racing for the pilots and spectators alike.

Brent Hisey won the Silver heat in Miss America at 402.797 mph, although he was closely followed by Korey Wells in the R-2800 powered Sea Fury Argonaut and Bob Odegaard in his #74 Super Corsair. The fourth place finisher was Steadfast, piloted by John Maloney, and followed by two Mustangs. Thom Richard did not finish the heat in Precious Metal because he could not get his radiator cooling spray bar to work. Post flight investigations found that the cockpit switch was defective and no damage was done to the racer or the engine.



The final race of the day was the Gold Heat, which started well and became a fast chase as the racers strung out over the long course. This race was canceled when The Galloping Ghost accident happened, as were all of the following races scheduled for the rest of the week.

With the tragic accident on everyone’s mind, and with the sudden cancellation of racing action, there was a real sense of uncertainty within the pits. The Reno Air Race Association, who puts on the event, needs to be credited for the professional manner with which they dealt with the emergency and its aftermath. Almost immediately they had emergency medical and security people in place. These people, most of who were volunteers, provided direction and services to untold thousands of people, aiding them in departing the venue as well as those who needed to stay. The RARA staff worked closely with the FAA and other responding agencies and worked hard to insure that the media was kept informed and properly involved in the response.

One consequence of the accident was that the FAA/NTSB mostly kept the airport closed to air traffic for about two days. This was a frustration to the crews in the pits, as they needed to close up shop and prepare for returning their planes home. Even so there were some light moments.

AEHS member Pete Law, long involved with Reno air racing, was asked by several friends to stop by one of the pits on Saturday morning. When he arrived he found over 200 Unlimited Division members giving him a standing ovation as they presented him with a large trophy identifying him as Lifetime Achievement Award #1 from the Unlimited Division. Pete has shared is considerable engineering skills and dedication to the safety of everyone in the racing community since 1965. Quite an honor.



Reno 2011 Unlimited Qualifying and Finishing Speeds
Race No. Name Aircraft Type Pilot Qualifying
7 Strega P-51D Mustang
Hinton, Steven Jr. 499.160 Bye G-Canx G-Canx G-Canx
5 Voodoo P-51D Mustang
Whiteside, Will 485.184 Bye G-Canx G-Canx G-Canx
77 Rare Bear F8F-2 Bearcat
Dawson, Stewart 479.430 Bye G-Canx G-Canx G-Canx
232 September Fury Hawker Sea Fury
Gibson, Robert “Hoot” 467.054 Bye G-Canx G-Canx G-Canx
177 The Galloping Ghost P-51D Mustang
Leeward, Jimmy 465.807 Bye G-Canx G-Canx G-Canx
15 Furias Hawker Sea Fury
Jackson, Matt 462.190 Bye G-Canx G-Canx G-Canx
8 Dreadnought Hawker Sea Fury
Sanders, Dennis 443.210 Bye G-Canx G-Canx G-Canx
71 Sawbones Hawker Sea Fury
Vance, Dan 423.796 395.255S G-Canx G-Canx G-Canx
11 Miss America P-51D Mustang Hisey, Brent 414.923 390.690S 402.797S G-Canx G-Canx
114 Argonaut Hawker Sea Fury
Watt, Mark/Wells, Korey 402.774 381.038S 398.761S G-Canx G-Canx
33 Steadfast Yak-3U
Whiteside, Will/Maloney, John 400.452 377.297S 382.178S G-Canx G-Canx
38 Precious Metal P-51XR
Richard, Thom 399.178 377.466S S-DNF G-Canx G-Canx
22 Merlin's Magic P-51D Mustang Eberhardt, Bill 383.385 336.412S 367.417S G-Canx G-Canx
74 Super Corsair F2G
Odegard, Robert 380.664 380.091S 398.654S G-Canx G-Canx
1 La Patrona F7F-3 Tigercat Lewis, Rod 377.639 B-DNF 369.374B G-Canx G-Canx
19 Bosie Bee P-51C Mustang Paul, John-Curtiss 375.096 351.354B 362.414S G-Canx G-Canx
44 Sparky P-51D Mustang Seghetti, Brant/Martin, Dan 367.491 323.644B 345.448B G-Canx G-Canx
12 The Rebel P-51D Mustang Matthews, Doug 353.293 321.304B 352.503B G-Canx G-Canx
31 Speedball Alice P-51D Mustang Gordon, Rob 348.268 312.758B 327.784B G-Canx G-Canx
18 Sneak Attack P-40E Maloney, John 345.714 310.057B 340.504B G-Canx G-Canx
81 Lady Jo TF-51D Mustang Patterson, Robert 344.916 312.762B 333.260B G-Canx G-Canx
4 Polar Bear P-51A Mustang Morss, Dave 343.741 331.240M 337.104B G-Canx G-Canx
14 What Da Fockewulf Fw 190
Maloney, John 332.620 285.443M   G-Canx G-Canx
17 Parrothead P-40N Thomas, Jim 330.689 M-DNS   G-Canx G-Canx
24 Corsair F4U-4 Corsair Currenti, John 322.799 312.176M*   G-Canx G-Canx
66 The Bear T-28B Morss, Dave 307.187 M-DNS   G-Canx G-Canx
0 Rossiya Su’Ka Yak-3
McKinstry, Jim 306.855 294.159M   G-Canx G-Canx
2 Air Biscuit FM-2 Wildcat Sanders, Brian 304.146 280.695M   G-Canx G-Canx
16 Lou IV P-51D Mustang Greenhill, Chuck DNQ        
52 Blue Angel #1 F8F-2 Bearcat
Ezell, Nelson DNQ        
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, Canx = race canceled
* Cut Pylon #4 on Lap 3, 12 sec penalty