Reno Racer “Miss Van Nuys” Returns to The Air

Vicky Benzing flying her P-51D now Plum Crazy to her home base. Photo via Vicky Benzing
United Fuel Cells


By Adam Estes

One of the most recognizable aircraft of the Reno Air Races, P-51D 44-74423 Miss Van Nuys (Race #64) has just recently undergone a four-year overhaul at Fighter Rebuilders in Chino, California. Flown by pilot and businessman Clay Lacy for over 50 years, the purple Mustang is now flying again as “Plum Crazy” with its new owner, Vicky Benzing, maintaining a long-lasting legacy into the foreseeable future.

A really meaningful photo by Adam Estes. Vicky’s all suited up, while Clay Lacy and Stve Hinton Jr are watching on.

The story of Miss Van Nuys begins like thousands of her compatriots in Inglewood, California, the location of North American Aviation’s headquarters. Accepted into the US Army Air Force as 44-74423, this Mustang stayed in the continental United States and led a largely uneventful postwar life in the newly independent US Air Force until it was transferred on August 11, 1950, to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), where it would spend much of the 1950s at such bases as RCAF Station Sea Island, British Columbia and RCAF Station Trenton, Ontario. On July 21, 1958, the aircraft was sold off to Intercontinental Airways of Canastota, New York, an outfit run by James Defuria, who bought several surplus RCAF Mustangs to be sold in the United States, though the aircraft would be officially stricken off charge with the RCAF until August 14, 1959.

It was with Defuria that RCAF 9595 was issued with its first civilian registration number, N6517D. After a series of successive owners across the US, the plane returned to California in 1964 as NX182F, and was acquired by California Airmotive Inc., run by aviation businessman Allen Paulson at Burbank Airport. It would be at this point where this Mustang, flown by Paulson’s friend and United Airlines pilot Clay Lacy, would become a fixture of one of the largest events in the warbird community, the Reno Air Races.

Established by pilot Bill Stead in 1964 outside Reno, Nevada, the Reno Air Races have since hundreds of both stock and modified surplus aircraft of WWII compete in pylon racing in the Unlimited category. Though many, many P-51 Mustangs would race at Reno over the next 59 years, none were all purple like Clay Lacy’s Mustang, and it received that iconic purple scheme as a result of a shipping error. Among the many planes that Allen Paulson would trade during the early 1960s, were three second-hand Lockheed Constellations, which were intended to be used for a non-scheduled airline that would fly passengers from the West Coast to Hawaii. As such, it was decided that the Connies would have a purple cheat line down the fuselage to represent the orchid flower. Unfortunately, the order for 50 gallons of purple paint was misinterpreted as 1,500 gallons of paint! Lacy and Paulson decided to make the most of the extra paint by using much of it on the newly acquired Mustang.

Lacy would place third at the first Reno Air Races in 1964, starting the first in a streak of third-place winnings at Reno lasting from 1964 to 1969. This streak would end in 1970, however, when Clay Lacy flew Race 64 to become the National Champion at Reno. Over the next 50 years, N64CL and Lacy would become fixtures at airshows and air races, with no mistaking them for another plane and pilot given the all-purple paint job, or the stuffed character of Snoopy that Lacy would take with him in the cockpit. The aircraft’s name also changed several times over the course of Lacy’s ownership, from “Miss Lois Jean”, to “Miss Santa Barbara”, and its most famous name “Miss Van Nuys”. In 2014, N64CL was on display at the flight line at Reno, making it one of several racers from the original 1964 that started it all in attendance.

In 2019, after owning the aircraft for over 50 years, Clay Lacy placed the Mustang on sale. In an interview for Air Classics, Lacy said, “It is amazing to me that I have had that Mustang for nearly six decades. We have gone through a lot of adventures together, however,… I decided to advertise the aircraft through Bob Hannah Aviation.” Lacy wouldn’t have long to wait for a buyer, who turned out to be longtime friend and fellow pilot Vicky Benzing. Benzing, who has a PhD in Chemistry and is an internationally renowned air show performer, racing pilot, and skydiver, thrills audiences with her modified Boeing-Stearman PT-17, and is now set to fly Race 64 in future airshows. Not long after she bought the aircraft from Lacy, Benzing flew it to Chino to be worked on at Fighter Rebuilders’ shop, where after four years of dedicated work, the team at Fighter Rebuilders capped off the complete overhaul of Race 64 with its post-restoration flight on August 31, with a new name; Plum Crazy.

Vicky shared with us a very neat fact: “Mike Boal did the artwork on the nose and tail of the plane. He’s the same fellow who, as a teenager, painted the original artwork on the airplane in 1964. He was excited to participate in this restoration, just as we were excited to have him participate. We ran out of time to have the race numbers and the gear door art painted (Clay’s races), but he will finish the job after Reno. I met Mike 4 years ago in 2019 at Clay’s birthday party. We happened to sit at the same table and the topic of the Mustang came up. It was shortly after I bought the airplane and before I brought the airplane to Reno for static display.”

 

With the final air races at Reno scheduled for September 13-18, Race 64 will make an appearance at the show. There is perhaps no more fitting venue for its post-restoration public debut, and it is good to know that Race 64 will continue to be active for years to come.

 

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