Unlimited Air Racing - Reno 2016
Text and Photos by Dan Whitney

Reno 2016 was a fun event. Great weather, good crowds, lots of airplanes even though the Unlimited field was far from full, with only eleven racers. Even so, there was a lot of good racing in the other divisions, speed records being broken and a lot of action. It was also a safe week, although several aircraft were damaged in runway collisions, and a Vampire jet and a Thunder Mustang were damaged when engine failure resulted in desert landings.

The reduced field of Unlimiteds was organized into two groups, the “Silver” and “Gold,” and the schedule arranged so that each group raced every day, Friday through Sunday.

The Big Picture

This year’s field included five P-51 Mustangs, four Sea Furys, and two Yaks. The only highly modified P-51 this year was Voodoo, as the perennial favorite and last year’s winner Strega was unable to raise funds needed for its annual engine overhaul. Rod Lewis’s Rare Bear and #232 Sea Fury were on static display only, as the issues in the oil fields took priority. Six time Unlimited Champion Steven Hinton again piloted Voodoo. The major competition for Voodoowas #86 Czech Mate, who returned with a new pilot, James Consalvi, after having skipped last year’s races.

Two organizations provided the bulk of the remaining racers. The Sanders Brothers with their stable of three Sea Furys (each with a different type of engine), and the Planes of Fame Museum at Chino who brought their T-33 pace plane and two Mustangs, one being a “real” Allison powered P-51A. Two other P-51Ds, an R-3350 powered Sea Fury, and the R-1830 powered Yak-11 of “Dusty” Dowd completed the field.

Although there was not much “head-to-head” challenging among the top racers, they still put on a good show, had some good lap times, and there was a fair amount of passing as the highly modified racers passed slower airplanes in the same heat. Again, there were no major engine issues among the Unlimiteds, suggesting that they will be working to bring the airplanes back next year.

The Races

The Unlimited course is 8.0851 miles in length. Most of the races are of six laps duration, for a length of 48.01 miles, except on Sunday’s finals, where the Silver is seven laps and the Unlimited Gold race is for eight laps, 64.18 miles. Note that all qualifying and race speeds are tabulated at the end of the article.

While the air racing, and the airshow, begin Wednesday noon, following the final Unlimited qualifying session, the Unlimiteds did not begin to race until Friday. The racing that did go on was among the other classes, particularly those in the “Sport” class, which had a record 41 entries this year.

Friday Unlimited racing finally got started with the first Silver heat, a matchup of four stock P-51s, Dusty Dowd’s modified Yak-11 and rookie pilot Joel Swager piloting the R-2800 powered Sea Fury Argonaut. Swager won at 381.024 mph, some 17 seconds ahead of the Yak, which finished at 367.385 mph.

The racers started in their qualifying order, and finished the same except that the Allison powered P-51A Mrs. Virginia was in third place, at 344.996 mph, just 0.236 seconds ahead of stable mate P-51D Wee Willy, who clocked 344.834 mph in the six lap race. The last two places were held by P-51Ds Sparky/Blondie and The Rebel, who had a close race, finishing less than a half second apart with speeds of 316.322 and 315.994 mph respectively.

As usual, qualifying order set the lineup for the Gold heat, and this lineup was maintained throughout the race, with Steven Hinton in Voodoo finishing the six lap race in first at 471.703 mph followed by first time Unlimited racer James Consalvi in the R-2800 powered Yak-11 Czech Mate in second at 454.368 mph followed in order by Brian Sanders in the R-4360 powered Sea Fury Dreadnought at 432.821 mph, then Curt Brown in the Sea Fury Sawbones at 419.982 mph and finally Dennis Sanders in the Centaurus powered Sea Fury #924 at 359.295 mph.

Saturday – As a result of his Friday win in Argonaut, Joel Swager moved up to the Gold class for the rest of the week. This left five racers for Saturday’s Silver heat, arranged in the order they had finished the day before, with Dusty Doud in the Yak on the pole. He stayed in front for the win at 372.770 mph, followed by P-51D Wee Willy, then the Mrs. Virginia P-51A at 352.307 and 349.562 mph respectively. Bringing up the rear were the P-51Ds The Rebel and Sparky/Blondie at 334.574 and 306.049 mph respectively. While there were two passes between the P-51s, it appeared to be part of a friendly game, but it did make for some good photos from the pylons. With the exception of Sparky, all of the racers improved on their Friday speeds.

The Gold racers finished as they had on Friday, with the exception of the insertion of Joel Swager in Argonaut, who just finished 0.066 seconds ahead of Dennis Sanders in #924, with a speed of 359.845 mph. Steven Hinton put Voodoo in front at the start and was never challenged, in fact reducing power through the race. He still finished at 453.148 mph, a speed that is within the capability of the second place Czech Mate Yak, but there was no point to overtake Voodoo as Hinton could have easily increased his speed. Czech Mate finished at 447.835 mph.

The Sanders brothers, Dennis and Brian, alternate years piloting Dreadnought; this year it was Brian’s turn. Brian did his usual good job and brought the big Sea Fury in at third with a speed of 425.022 mph. He was followed by three more Sea Fury’s, Sawbones (418.545 mph), and the closely spaced Argonaut and #924 in the rear.

Sunday – Again we were blessed with excellent weather for this final day of racing in 2016. The Silver race got off to a good start with Dusty Dowd in the R-1830 powered Yak-11 Lylia starting on the pole and staying way out in front for the whole race, finishing with a speed of 376.174 mph. This was 14 mph faster than he qualified this year and much faster than his qualifying speed of 305.133 mph in 2015. Clearly, his modifications to the airframe, engine and propeller have produced a winner. John Maloney in the P-51A Mrs. Virginia got in front of P-51D stable mate Wee Willy, piloted by Robert Patterson, taking second and third respectively at speeds of 351.602 and 351.182 mph. They were closely followed by P-51D The Rebel, piloted by Doug Matthews, with a speed of 350.342 mph. The final position was taken by Brant Seghetti in Sparky/Blondie, who finished at 321.309 mph.

With his win in the Silver Dowd had an opportunity to “bump” up and compete in the Gold final. However, he elected to take his Silver winnings and let the opportunity pass. As such, there were six racers in the Sunday Gold, the same aircraft as had raced in the Gold the day before.

Finally it was time for the final Gold race of the week, with all of its pageant and ceremony in front of the giant grandstands. The racers took off and formed up on the pace jet and headed for the “chute,” and entry onto the course, led by Steven Hinton Jr. in Voodoo. He clearly started at very high power, but once firmly in the lead did back off, improving the likelihood that he would be in the race at the finish.

The Gold racers finished in the order in which they started, with Voodoo in first at 460.306 mph, followed by Czech Mate, some eleven seconds back, at 450.582 mph. Dreadnought again captured third place, with a speed of 430.137 mph, and was followed by the Sea Furys Sawbones, Argonaut and #924 at speeds of 417.071, 365.061 and 353.025 mph respectively. These last two provided some excitement as they were lapped by Voodoo before they completed lap seven of the eight lap race. An extra hundred miles per hour makes a difference!

The Unlimited Racers

The following descriptions of each airplane are given in the order in which they qualified. See the table at the end of this article for speeds and placement in all of the Unlimited Heats.


The Airshow

This year the Reno race fans were treated to an accompanying air show that featured the U.S. Navy Blue Angels Aerial Demonstration Team. They put on their usual quality performance, though on Thursday and Friday not all of the team members were able to fly due to food poisoning. Still the rest of the team put on their usual outstanding demonstration of precision close formation flying. Fans truly enjoyed the after-burning high performance jets and their gravity defying aerial maneuvers.


The Other Classes

There is more going on than just the Unlimited class racing at Reno. In fact there are six racing divisions: Unlimited, Jets, Sport, T-6, Formula and Biplane. In total 132 airplanes this year, up from 119 last year. Air racing is not just popular with the fans, but with the pilots and owners too. With each division typically offering at least two and up to four races each day, there are a lot of airplanes in the sky, and a lot of good racing going on.



Racing Technology

Racers are always looking for an edge over the competition. Bill Kerchenfaut, crew chief on a long list of the most successful Unlimited racers, had worked for a number of years to develop an instrumented propeller shaft for the Merlin. His goal was to take much of the uncertainty out of airframe and engine enhancements by actually knowing the horsepower being delivered to the propeller. This was an expensive and technically challenging endeavor, however he had built prototypes.

Walking around the Sport plane pits this year your author found that a solution to this question has been developed, and Tecat Performance Systems was there to support and demonstrate their approach. Their technology uses classic strain gauges bonded to the crankshaft-reduction gear coupling shaft. The secret is that the developed signal is wirelessly transmitted to a receiver mounted in the engine compartment. This eliminates the troublesome “slip rings” previously attempted. The entire package is actually flying in some of the Thunder Mustangs where it and its batteries, are installed inside the coupling shaft. The device is also mounted on Kevin Eldredge’s Relentless NXT. Because the system measures torque 1,000 times per second it is able to see and track the transmitted loads from a single cylinder’s combustion event. Kevin was able to identify instances where a single spark plug was malfunctioning on a seemingly smooth running engine by just observing the erratic stress patterns it caused. This technology has yet to be adapted to the Unlimited racers, but the Merlin and Allison engines are prime candidates due to their configurations. Exciting days ahead.



The 53nd year of Reno Air Racing was a great show, with lots of new racers in several classes, wonderful weather, and growing numbers of fans. Although the Unlimited racer field was smaller than ever, there is hope that 2017 will see a resurgence of participants in the fastest motor sport of all. The interest is there, what is needed is for the racer’s owners to be in a position to support participation, and with the economy picking up, there’s hope.


See you at Reno 2017


Reno 2016 Unlimited Qualifying and Finishing Speeds
Race No. Name Aircraft Type Pilot 2016
5VoodooP-51D Mustang-ModifiedSteven Jr.475.027464.246471.703-G1453.148-G1460.306-G1
86Czech MateYak-11/R-2800Consalvi, James444.121NA454.368-G2447.835-G2450.582-G2
8DreadnoughtHawker Sea Fury/R-4360Sanders, Brian440.432432.860432.821-G3425.022-G3430.137-G3
71SawbonesHawker Sea Fury/R-3350Brown, Curt421.318417.949419.982-G4418.545-G4417.071-G4
924#924GHawker Sea Fury/CentaurusSanders, Dennis386.154373.503359.295-G5359.786-G6353.025-G6
114ArgonautHawker Sea Fury/R-2800Swager, Joel383.488377.284381.024-S1359.845-G5365.061-G5
92LyliaYak-11/R-1830Dowd, John “Dusty”, Jr.362.723305.133367.385-S2372.770-S1376.174-S1
0Wee WillyP-51D MustangPatterson, Robert357.594NA344.834-S4352.307-S2351.182-S3
14Mrs. VirginiaP-51A MustangMaloney, John356.032350.400²344.996-S3349.562-S3351.602-S2
44Sparky/BlondieP-51D MustangSeghetti, Brant343.195310.362316.322-S5306.049-S5321.309-S5
12The RebelP-51D MustangMatthews, Doug342.397303.723315.994-S6¹334.574-S4¹350.342-S4
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, Number following Heat letter is finishing position
 ¹ Piloted by John Currenti
 ² Qualifying speed the last time this airplane competed at Reno, back in 1981.


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