Text and Photos by Dan Whitney
Published 09 Feb 2020
High-Resolution Images in the Members Section

Unlimited class air racing at the Annual STIHL National Championship Air Races completed its 56th continuous year, since being reintroduced in 1964. This annual event is held at Reno’s Stead Field, a site uniquely configured to host the World’s Fastest Motor Sport, with its two long runways within the course, in an open desert arena ringed by adjacent mountains that gives spectators an unobstructed view of the entire course. The races were held September 11th thru the 15th , and included seven classes of racing: Biplanes, Formula One, T-6s, Sport, Jets and Unlimiteds, as well as the introduction of a new class this year, which is STOL Drag Racing! Added attractions included some outstanding airshow performers filling in between races as well as demonstrations by the Commemorative Air Force, and the awesome USAF Thunderbirds.

All together there were 60 races in four and a half days of racing, with 115 air racers on the field. For a week, “Reno” is a busy place with a lot of excitement and action: just what you would expect of the World’s Fastest Motor Sport!

The Unlimited Division, WWII and Korean War warbirds comprised 12 racers, down a few from last year, but still more than the 11 racers in 2016. The racers were organized into “Silver” and “Gold” competitors, as determined by qualifying speeds, with the winner of the Silver Heats moving up to the Gold division. As a result there were two Unlimited races each day, Thursday through Sunday. The weather was again perfect for air racing, lots of sunshine, moderate winds, and no smoke from the California wildfires.

The emphasis on safety again paid off, with the only major incident being when two of the Formula One class racers had a mid-air, but fortunately both were able to land safely.

Unlimited Overview

This year’s Unlimited field included seven P-51 Mustangs, four Sea Furys, and an Allison V-1710 powered P-63A. There were two highly modified racers, Dennis Sanders Dreadnought, the R-4360 powered Sea Fury and Dr. Brent Hisey’s P-51D Miss America fitted with a special racing Merlin. One racer that had done a lot of preparation for this year’s competition is the Sea Fury Sawbones. Unfortunately, while practicing for its qualifying run, the airplane suffered an implosion of the canopy, rendering the racer unairworthy for the week. Fortunately, pilot Curt Brown was uninjured, the result of having a proper helmet and visor.

Please see the table at the end of this article for a complete listing of the racers, the airplane’s name, the names of the pilots, along with the speeds and finishing positions for qualifying and in each heat.


The Unlimited Races

With the exception of the Sunday Silver and Gold races, the races were of six laps duration, for a length of 46.99 miles. For Sunday’s finals, the Silver was seven laps, 54.90 miles, and the Unlimited Gold race was for eight laps, 62.81 miles.

All racers have to be on the field the Saturday before race week. Qualifying began on Monday and extended to noon Wednesday. That afternoon the airshow and non-Unlimited classes began racing, with the first Unlimited race occurring Thursday morning.

Mustangs and Speedball Alice finished in fifth and sixth respectively with speeds of 308.889 and 308.785 mph in Thursday’s Silver heat. They were close like this the whole 46.99 miles!Mustangs Blondie and Wee Willy II battling it out in the first Unlimited heat of the week. They finished in third and forth respectively with speeds of 306.857 and 306.749 mph in Thursday’s Silver heat.  They were close like this for the whole 46.99 miles, with Blondie finishing a quarter of a second ahead!

Thursday – Traditionally the four fastest Gold Class Unlimited racers get the day off; this meant that Dreadnought, Miss America, Argonaut and #924G could stay in the pits and continue preparations for the hard running to come. This left seven racers to compete in the Silver heat, a race that was dominated by Mike Brown in his highly polished P-51D Mustang Goldfinger, who won by 45 seconds, with a speed of 335.864 mph. He was followed by group of five more Mustangs who all finished within a span of five seconds, the fastest being Dan Vance in Speedball Alice at 308.407 mph! In last place was the P-63C Pretty Polly, more than a minute behind with a speed of 276.207 mph.

Friday – The Unlimited Silver heat was an all “In-Line” engine race with five Merlin-powered Mustangs and the single Allison-powered P-63C, Pretty Polly.

There was some very good racing between Mustangs Speedball Allice, Blondie and Wee Willy II. They finished with a span of less than two seconds after nearly 47 miles of racing, posting speeds of 315.562, 314.701 and 314.469 mph respectively. They were followed by Mustangs Lady B, 300.419 mph, and Bunny, 296.638 mph, and Pat Nightingale in the P-63C at 293.177 mph. Pat Nightingale and “JD” Dale were trading piloting duties in the P-63.

Finally on Friday we got to see all of the “Gold” Unlimiteds racing for the first time. The race was won by Dennis Sanders in the Sea Fury Dreadnought, 420.785 mph, and followed by some 38 seconds, the P-51D Miss America at 384.368 mph. They in turn were followed by the Sanders Sea Fury stablemates Argonaut (R-2800 powered) and 924G (Bristol Centaurus powered), with speeds of 365.730 and 364.348 mph respectively. Bringing up the rear, in 5th place, was Mike Brown in his P-51D Mustang Goldfinger, 325.593 mph. Clearly, no one was pushing their “stuff,” particularly Miss America who had had engine problems on Wednesday and nearly pulled the engine.

At the start of the last lap of Saturday’s six lap Unlimited Gold Dreadnought laps the Mustang Goldfinger at Pylon #2, so it just ‘looks’ like Goldfinger is ahead!

Saturday The Silver heat was to again be an all “in-line, liquid-cooled” event of five racers, however when it became time to start-up Pretty Polly’s electric starter would not engage, with the result that the P-63C was a DNS —— Did Not Start. This left four Merlin-powered Mustangs, Blondie, Wee Willy II, Lady B and Bunny. They started in this order, the consequence of having finished Friday’s heat in this order, and again finished as they had started. Their speeds were much better than on Friday, finishing with speeds of 321.644, 318.368, 316.439 and 315.101 mph respectively. Actually some pretty close racing as the stock airplanes were very well matched and it came down to piloting to get position.

Unsurprisingly, Dennis Sanders in Dreadnought won the afternoon’s Gold heat with a speed of 418.770 mph, bettering his qualifying speed of 417.868 mph. He was followed by Brent Hisey in P-51D Miss America, 395.765 mph, who stayed ahead of the two Sea Furys Argonaut, 363.554 mph and 924G, 360.415 mph. They were followed by Mustangs Goldfinger, 334.863 mph, and Speedball Alice at 397.478 mph. Not too exciting of a race, but then, everyone wanted to be in the show for Sunday’s Gold.

Sunday – The week’s good luck on weather continued into Sunday, bringing out the crowds and raising the excitement as each racing class was “going for the gold!”

The day’s first Unlimited heat was for the Silver, and included the same four Mustangs from Saturday’s race, though they were joined by Pat Nightingale in the P-63C Pretty Polly. Although from start to finish the order didn’t change, there was some serious challenging going on up front, with Wee Willy II only 0.3 second behind Blondie at the finish of the seven lap 54.9 mile race, posting speeds of 330.056 and 330.231 mph respectively. For the four Silver races, beginning Thursday, Blondie posted speeds of 306.857, 314.701, 321.344 and 330.231 mph, showing improvement each day.

The last race of the week is the Unlimited Gold Final, an eight lap race extending for 62.81 miles. The field only contained six racers, but the crowd was anticipating some heated action between the R-4360 powered Dreadnought and the racing Merlin-powered P-51D racer Miss America.

Though the weather appeared good, there were wind gusts that made for some rough rides for the pilots late in the afternoon. Soon after the start Sherm Smoot in Argonaut hit some turbulence and lost his ADI (Water Injection), hence he Mayday’d out, leaving five on the course. As expected Dreadnought and Miss America were hard at it when on lap 3 the Merlin in Miss America began to go away and Brent Hisey pulled out and made a safe landing. With only the Centaurus powered 924G and two stock Mustangs following Dennis Sanders throttled back to save Dreadnought’s R-4360 for another day/year.

The other racers also backed off; with the result that Dreadnought lapped the field, passing 924G just before the checkered flag and having already passed Goldfinger and Speedball Alice. Dreadnought completed the eight laps, followed by 924G with seven laps, Goldfinger with six laps and Speedball Alice five laps. Although the final speeds were not over 500 mph as has occurred in prior years, with Dennis passing everyone there was a lot of action on the course and it was a fun feature event to see.

The 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.

#8 Dreadnought, a Sea Fury T.Mk.20, re-powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-4360, and piloted by Dennis Sanders. This big and heavy airplane takes the approach to racing of being pretty, and very dependable: likely to finish in the money when one or more of the highly modified racers has problem, which was the case this year as the likely competition was to be from Miss America and Sawbones. Back in 1986 Dreadnought set a new qualifying record at 452.737 mph, but this year qualified at a very conservative 417.868 mph. Prior to its first qualifying attempt on Tuesday, it was found that the ADI water regulator was not functioning. To insure it was “in the show,” Dennis took the big racer out and posted a speed of 381.009 mph, running without ADI/Water Injection. Pete Law then stepped in and installed a spare water regulator and that afternoon Dennis was the last one to qualify, this time with ADI and upped his qualifying speed to 417.868 mph. This year Dreadnought ran 403 to 420 in the Gold Heats and was in front at the finish on Sunday with a speed of 403.274 mph, and was more than a lap ahead of second place. The original concept for Dreadnought was to have a really big engine and not have to run it to dangerous levels, thereby being able to be there at the finish. It sure worked this time.

#11 Miss America, a clipped wing P-51D flown by Dr. Brent Hisey, was back at Reno powered by a Rick Shanholtzer racing Merlin. This engine uses the supercharger section from a Packard-Merlin V-1650-9, transport cylinder heads, Merlin rods and makes 110 inHgA at 3,600 rpm utilizing the stock Merlin aftercooler. A potent race engine!

Brent qualified at 414.131 mph, while running the engine at 100 inHgA and 3,400 rpm. This locked him into the Gold Heats for the week, where he finished in second place in both the Friday and Saturday heats. Saving the “good” stuff for Sunday’s Gold!

After Tuesday’s qualifying run the crew found metal in the engine’s oil screens and elected to replace the race engine with a stock Merlin. During preparations for removing the engine the cam covers were pulled and it was found that one of the hardened pads on the cam rocker fingers had been lost. This was determined to be the source of the offending metal. The decision then was to not remove the engine, but flush it well, replace the rocker, and get back to racing!

This approach did let them race for the rest of the week, however on the 3rd lap, with the engine at 115 inHgA, in the Sunday Gold Final a piston was burned, a piece came though the cylinder bank and a small fire occurred under the cowling. Brent quickly pulled out and landed safely. Rumors are that some significant airframe changes are coming for next year!

#114 Argonaut, a Pratt & Whitney R-2800-CB3 powered single seat Sea Fury FB Mk.11 was flown again by Sherm Smoot, qualifying at 372.497 mph and earning a “Bye” from racing on Thursday. Sherm finished in 3rd place during both the Friday and Saturday Gold races. While on the first lap of the Sunday Gold Final there was considerable gusty wind and turbulence out on the course, with the result that the ADI was lost. With no time to troubleshoot the issue Sherm elected to Mayday and drop out of the race. It was then determined that his elbow had inadvertently hit the ADI switch!

#924G is a two-seat Sea Fury T.Mk.20, powered by a rare Bristol Centaurus 18-cylinder sleeve valve engine. This year it was flown by Joel Swager, who qualified the racer at 372.341 mph. This speed put him 4th on the qualifying list and resulted in a “Bye” from racing on Thursday. During the Friday and Saturday Gold heats he finished 4th as well, placing him in the 4th position for the start of the Sunday Gold. As a result of Miss America and Argonaut both dropping out of the final Joel finished 2nd, though lapped by Dreadnought during lap seven of the scheduled eight laps.


#2 Goldfinger is a stock Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered P-51D owned and piloted by Michael Brown. He qualified Goldfinger at 353.864 mph and won the Thursday Silver Heat at 335.864 mph, qualifying him to move into the Gold field for the rest of the week. There he finished 5th during the Friday and Saturday heats, and with the attrition in the Sunday Gold Final, made the podium with a 3rd place finish of 300.640 mph.

#31 Speedball Alice is a stock Merlin-powered P-51D qualified and raced by Dan Vance. His qualifying speed was 348.012 mph, 30 mph faster than his 2017 qualifying speed. Starting in the Thursday Silver heat, he came in second at 308.407 mph, and then won the Friday Silver heat with a speed of 315.562 mph, which allowed him to bump up into the Gold races for Saturday and Sunday. There he finished in last place each day, clearly not pushing the airplane to the point that he completed only five of the eight laps and was lapped three times by Dreadnought in the Final, their speeds being 239.332 versus 403.274 mph.

#44 Sparky/Blondie is stock Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered P-51D, and flown by Brant Seghetti. Brant has been flying the aircraft at Reno since 1997, and qualified his racer this year at 342.772 mph. Brant finished 3rd, behind Speedball Alice in the Thursday Silver race, and then 2nd on Friday. With the bumping of the racers ahead of him into the Gold class, he finished 1st in the Saturday and Sunday Silver heats with speeds of 321.344 and 330.231 mph respectively.

#0 Wee Willy II, a stock P-51D flown by Robbie Patterson, qualified at 322.886 mph. In the Thursday Bronze Heat Wee Willy II came in 4th with a speed of 306.469 mph, then on Friday finishing 3rd and on Saturday 2nd in the Silver heats. In the Sunday Silver final Wee Willy II was again 2nd, nearly catching Blondie for the win, while marking a week in which every day was a faster speed.


#63 Pretty Polly, was the forth Bell P-63A Kingcobra built and after spending the war doing test work for the NACA was surplused. The Palm Springs Air Museum restored the aircraft as a P-63C and it was flown alternately by Jim “JD” Dale and Pat Nightingale. Originally the aircraft had a two-stage Allison V-1710-93 engine; however the auxiliary supercharger has been removed in its current configuration. This was the aircraft’s second outing as a racer, and both pilots qualified it separately: “JD” at 309.364 mph and Pat at 291.305 mph. Pretty Polly missed the Saturday Silver heat as the starter gear had worn and would not engage to start the engine. This was quickly repaired and the racer was in the Sunday final, flown by Pat Nightingale, finishing with a speed of 296.668 mph.

#41 Lady B, a stock Merlin-powered P-51D, was racing for the third year with Michael Pfleger as the pilot who qualified at 306.336 mph. The airplane had an earlier racing career in the hands of E.D. Weiner, who took 1st place with it at the Los Angeles Air Races in 1966, and 2nd place at Reno in 1967 (373.71 mph), when the airplane was painted in his distinctive yellow and black checkerboard pattern. Lady B was involved in the Silver heat close racing on Saturday, finishing 3rd at 316.439 mph, just ahead of Bunny at 315.101 mph.

#62 Bunny, another stock Merlin-powered P-51D came to Reno courtesy of the Palm Springs Air Museum. The airplane was qualified by Mark Moodie on Monday at 291.087 mph, and then on Tuesday by Tom Nightingale at 299.638 mph. Moodie finished 5th in the Bronze Heat on Thursday, then Tom finished 5th in the Friday Silver with Moodie flying to 4th in the Saturday Silver heat. Tom flew the racer in the Sunday Silver, finishing 4th with a speed of 302.268 mph. The airplane was only restored to fly in 2015, and is marked as the Tuskegee P-51D, Bunny.

#71 Sawbones, again flown by Shuttle Astronaut Curt Brown, was the only Wright R-3350-26WA-powered Sea Fury at the races this year. This year was quite a disappointment for the hard working team as on Sunday, prior to qualifying at the beginning of the week, the canopy imploded while on a test flight. Fortunately Curt was not hurt and he successfully landed the airplane. The damaged canopy frame was recovered from the desert but was not repairable onsite and a replacement for the custom made racing canopy was not available.


The Airshow

This year the Reno Race Committee was able to schedule the USAF Thunderbirds military jet demonstration team, who put on their usual gripping and exciting, airshow performance.

STOL Drag Racing

This STOL (Short Take-Off & Landing) event was considered as part of the Airshow this year as it previewed to become a part of the annual racing schedule. It is a rather unique event that entirely takes place in about 2,000 feet, fully in front of the grandstands and crowd. Two “bush” type airplanes pair up on the taxiway adjacent to the main runway, the flag is dropped and both quickly accelerate, become airborne and fly to a midcourse pylon where they cut power and immediately land and must come to a complete stop. This is followed by a quick “U” turn and then each accelerates for another takeoff, but in the opposite direction. Again, passing the midcourse pylon they cut power and “slip” in for a quick landing. The event is timed and the “winners” face-off in follow-on elimination drags. It’s very quick, demonstrates amazing airmanship and the STOL capabilities of these “bush” configured airplanes. This year there were 18 entries and the event proved to be quite popular. It should be a really exciting addition to the racing program for 2020.

The airplanes are largely Kitfoxes, Highlanders, Carbon Cubs, Cessnas and Wilgas. Modified engines are allowed and range from 100 horsepower Rotax to 680 horsepower Pratt & Whitney PT6As. Exciting!


The Other Racing Classes

While this Aircraft Engine Historical Society article focuses on the big racers in the Unlimited Class at Reno, there is a lot of other racing going on as well. The Jet Class, Sports Class, T-6 Class, Biplanes and Formula One classes all have a full race schedule, with racing starting at eight in the morning and continuing until about five in the afternoon. In total, there were 60 heat races during the four days of racing, with 115 qualifying racers, up from 108 last year. There is a LOT of racing going on at Reno! A brief description of the classes and some of the aircraft follows.







While the “heavy metal” in the Unlimited Class this year was just Dreadnaught and Miss America, there are some good rumors that Voodoo and maybe Strega will be back in 2020, which would bring some real excitement and drama to the event! So next year could be some real fun!

See you all at Reno 2020!


Reno 2019 Unlimited Qualifying and Finishing Speeds
Race No. Name Aircraft Type Pilot Qualifying
8 Dreadnought Hawker TMK20 Sea Fury/R-4360 Sanders, Dennis 417.868 BYE 420.785G1 418.770G1 403.274G1
11 Miss America P-51D Mustang Hisey, Brent 414.131 BYE 384.368G2 395.765G2 DNF6
114 Argonaut Hawker Mk 11 Sea Fury/R-2800 Smoot, Sherman 372.497 BYE 365.730G3 362.554G3 DNF7
924 #924G Hawker TMK20 Sea Fury/Centaurus Swager, Joel 372.341 BYE 364.348G4 360.415G4 348.818G23
2 Goldfinger F-51D Mustang Brown, Mike 353.661 335.864B1 325.593G5 334.863G5 300.640G34
31 Speedball Alice P-51D Mustang Vance, Dan 348.012 308.407B2 315.562S1 297.478G6 239.332G45
44 Sparky/Blondie P-51D Mustang Seghetti, Brant 342.772 306.857B3 314.701S2 321.344S1 330.231S1
0 Wee Willy II P-51D Mustang Patterson, Robbie 322.886 306.749B4 314.469S3 318.368S2 330.056S2
63 Pretty Polly P-63C Kingcobra Dale, Jim “JD” 309.364 276.207B7 293.177S62 DNS 296.668S52
41 Lady B P-51D Mustang Pfleger, Michael 306.336 305.906B5 300.419S4 316.439S3 307.218S3
62 Bunny P-51D Mustang Nightingale, Tom 299.6381 305.614B60 296.638S51 315.101S40 302.268S41
71 Sawbones Hawker FB11 Sea Fury/R-3350 Brown, Curt No Time DNS DNS DNS DNS
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, DNR = Did Not Race, DQ = Disqualified, BOLD = 1st Place Heat Winners, Number following Heat letter is finishing position
0 Piloted by Mark Moodie
1 Piloted by Tom Nightingale
2 Piloted by Patrick Nightingale
3 Completed 7 of 8 laps
4 Completed 6 of 8 laps
5 Completed 5 of 8 laps
6 Completed 2 of 8 laps, DNF/Engine
7 Mayday on first lap


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