Story and Photography by Gary Daniels
This past March, the Reno Air Racing Association (RARA) announced that 2023 would be the final year of air racing at Reno-Stead Airport. Citing challenging economic conditions, rapid area development, and public safety issues, the 59th National Championship Air Races would be the last to be held in Reno. RARA CEO and Chairman of the Board, Fred Telling said, “While not the outcome we had hoped for, we will take this challenge in stride and emerge stronger than before. Our September Family has always pulled together through all these years! We remain undefeated, undaunted, and determined to re-launch the National Championship Air Races from a new home in 2025.” 2023 would be the last year spectators would be thrilled by the sights and sounds of high-performance jet and piston aircraft rounding the pylons at breakneck speed in the ‘Valley of Speed.’
Hearing this news, aviation enthusiasts from around the world who have always wanted to see the Reno Air Races, but hadn’t, made plans to do so. And those that have attended multiple years, or even decades, were not going to miss this last Reno … no way, no how! And, come they did! Attendance was up almost 40% over the past 10 years. The daily crowds filled the giant bleachers and sponsor boxes. The food providers were overwhelmed, and the souvenir vendors sold out of all ‘Last Reno’ commemorative swag by the middle of the week. An estimated 140,000 attended to show their support and witness the ‘Final Flag.’
My very first Reno Air Race would be the very last Reno Air Race. Over the decades, I have watched the legendary races from afar. Career and family responsibilities made it too difficult to attend. But each year, I would soak up the news, video, and photos while the races were underway. I was always in awe of the pilots and aircraft making history. Names like Slovak, Gardner, Shelton, Destefani, Hinton, Holm, Lockwood, Swager, Leeward, Brown, Penny, Zaccagnino, Vandam, Van Fossen, and Buehn flying aircraft with names like American Spirit, Viper, Red Baron, Rare Bear, Strega, Voodoo, Dreadnought, Miss TNT and Midnight Miss III. For me, I saw the event as a pinnacle of aviation I must see one day. With the March announcement, I pulled out all the stops to attend the Final Flag at Reno.
I arrived at the fabled Reno-Stead Airport mid-week, missing all the excitement of the qualification races. This year, six classes competed instead of the usual seven. The Biplane Class could not participate due to the results of a very unpopular lawsuit. More than 150 aircraft and pilots competed across the six classes. The aircraft classes are what make the Reno Air Race so unique. The Jet Class first competed at Reno in 2002 and features ‘vintage’ jets exceeding speeds of 500 miles per hour. The racecourse for the Jet Class is 8.1025 miles. The Unlimited Class is one of the original classes from 1964. This class races stock or modified World War II fighters. There have also been a few ‘scratch-built’ racers over the years. Aircraft in this class can reach speeds nearing 500 miles per hour. The Unlimited Class course is 8.0851 miles. The T-6 Class races the World War II advance trainer North American Aviation T-6/ SNJ/Harvard. These stock and modified warbirds achieve speeds in the 220 to 240 miles per hour range. The T-6 Class course is 4.9352 miles. The Sport Class features high-performance and innovative kit-built aircraft. These aircraft are sleek and surprisingly fast, reaching speeds nearing 350 miles per hour. The Sports Class course is 6.9680 miles. The Formula 1 (F-1) Class is one of the original classes from 1964. These small aircraft are powered by the Continental 0-200 engine and can exceed 250 miles per hour. Many of these aircraft have been built by the pilots that race them. The F-1 Class course is 3.1875 miles. The last is the unique STOL Class. This is a new class added in 2021. The STOL Class does not fly fast, fly low, and turn left like all the other classes. Instead, they fly a straight 2000-foot track. The goal of these light, fat-tired hotrods is to race down the track, land, come to a full stop, turn around, take off, and race back down the track to land and come to a full stop. Whichever aircraft can do all that the fastest wins.
Laden with 25 pounds of camera gear, I certainly put my steps in each day. My days started at sunrise and ended after dark. Like a wide-eyed child trying to take it all in, I explored from one end of the expansive airport to the other, spending a considerable amount of time in all the class pit areas. I had heard the phrase ‘September Family’ from several people and had first seen it in the press release about the ending of the race at Reno. It is in the pit areas that I began to understand what this phrase meant. The ‘pits’ are concentrated mostly on the west side of the field, with the Jet Class and STOL pits on the east side of the grandstands. Whether in the F1 hangar, or in the open-air Jet, Unlimited, T-6, Sport, or STOL class pits areas, I gradually became aware of a feeling that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but I knew it was special. Each of the pit areas were frenetic with activity: teams working hard to ready their aircraft for the various races of the day, panels off, wrenches turning, parts being replaced, surfaces wiped down, and aircraft being pushed out to the tarmac for engine runs. Within each of the pits, I heard laughter and bantering. These folks were working hard and having a great time while doing so. I saw family members present in the pits, children darting about, wives preparing lunch, friends dropping by, and hugging each other with that hug you give to a good friend you haven’t seen in a while. I began to realize that this is the “September Family” I have heard about, that wonderful family that all these people have become a part of by coming to Reno for years or even decades.
In the Unlimited pits, I caught the eye of my friend, Mike Hastings, and asked to come into the pit. Mike is one of those aviation superstars who is ever so humble and believes in helping others however he can. He was at Reno as part of the support team for Race 44, a P-51D named Sparky being flown by Brant Seghetti. I asked Mike about his emotions as he was working at the last Reno race. Mike thoughtfully replied, “I have been going to Reno for almost 25 years. Spanning the beginning of my airline, warbird, and aerobatic careers up until now, Reno has been so many things for me over the years. I’ve been a fan, a spectator, a support crew, and a mechanic. I have been the beneficiary of incredible grace from others, a friend of so many, and part of a very special family. We celebrated together, and we grieved together. I will forever hold dear the unique aviation passion that exists only in Reno. Reno is a chapter in my life that will never fade in my memory.” Ah yes, that “September Family.” I was beginning to understand.
While passing through the T-6 pit area, I noticed several of the teams applying speed tape over every fuselage and canopy seam. The silver speed tape gave the aircraft a messy appearance that seemed to fit in with the grittiness of the racing environment. I spotted John Lohmar, pilot of Race 88 T-6 Radial Velocity, and asked him if the taping really helped that much. John pointed to a section of the fuselage just taped and replied, “If I can get a tenth of a knot here and a tenth of a knot thereby taping the airframe, well, that may just make the difference in the race.” All of these teams were at Reno to win!
There were four aircraft at Reno that did not come to race, just to wow the crowds and participate in the Final Flag at Reno. Warren Pietsch brought his stunning P-51C Thunderbird. Throughout the week, Bernie Vasquez would lift off in Jimmy Stewart’s old ride and thrill the audience. Also present was Bob Hoover’s P-51D Ol Yeller, the Planes of Fame P-51D Wee Willy II, and the recently restored P-47D Thunderbolt Bonnie. For the opening ceremonies on Saturday morning, a missing man formation was flown with Thunderbird, Ol Yeller, Vick Benzing’s P-51D Plum Crazy, and Wee Willy II. A very special tribute indeed.
On Sunday afternoon, the last race ever to be flown at Reno would be the T-6 Gold heat. After the race, during the recovery of the race aircraft, Chris Rushing and Nick Macy perished in a terrible accident. The races were ended by mid-afternoon. Emotions flooded the entire airfield, especially the T-6 pits. With my ‘journalist’ cap on, I walked to the T-6 pits to investigate and report. Someone had wisely stretched ropes across the pit entries to keep the public out. I honored that wish and moved on. It is important to remember that in the 59-year history of the race, 24 aviators and 10 spectators lost their lives.
The grandstands emptied quickly as the air race spectators left Reno-Stead for the very last time. Sadness prevailed in every area of the airport. I could see that the September Family was dealing with a terrible loss. I took a step back just to observe. For me, I felt like a very small bird that had landed on the very top of a gigantic and beautiful tree. The tree is a metaphor for Reno, the trunk and limbs are the rich histories of Reno and the leaves are the countless friendships made over the years forming the canopy of family. The small bird is me, landing for the first time on this amazing tree for just a fleeting moment, never to be a part of the tree, but so grateful it exists.
Mike Steiger finished a five-year stint as the RARA president of the Jet Class after the 2023 races. His story illustrates the Reno experience. Mike related to me, “My family and I wait impatiently all year to spend two weeks with our aviation “family” and to compete in the fastest class in the fastest motorsport in the world! I have created lifelong friends at Reno. We are rivals while we race, but when the checkered flag waves at the end of six laps, we are close friends again.”
Mike continued, “In 1975, my parents made the Reno Air Race our family vacation. As a 10-year-old aviation enthusiast, it was the thrill of a lifetime when I was in the Unlimited pits and asked to pull the chocks on Mac McClane Race 5, a Griffon-powered RB-51 with counter-rotating propellers. Next door was Darrel Greenameyer, who became a hero to me with his yellow F8F Bearcat named Conquest 1. Across from McClane was Lyle Shelton in his F8F. I was hooked.
Thirty-two years later, in 2007, Ed Noel asked me to crew for Race 5, an L-39 named American Spirit. In 2012, I found myself in the cockpit of Race 55, an L-29 named Spirit of Freedom, once owned by Mira Slovak who was the winner of the very first Reno Air Race in the Smirnoff Bearcat. In 2015, I was given the opportunity to pilot Race 25, an L-39 named Czech 6, and raced it for two years to third place in the Gold. Ed Noel then asked me to be the alternate pilot in Race 5. In 2018, I became the primary pilot for Race 5 and flew her to victory winning Jet Gold. In 2019, I placed second in the Jet Gold in Race 5. Race 5 did not participate in the 2021 or 2022 races. For 2023, we dusted off Race 5 for the last Reno not knowing how she would compete. We were surprised, Race 5 took the Gold! The Noel Air Race Team was honored to be a part of the last Final Flag at Reno.
The new location for Reno will be announced in December. I cannot wait to see where it will be. Hopefully, all our “September Family” will continue to race at the new location. All of us will miss Reno. This is where I, and so many others, learned the ins and outs of air racing. As long as we have our September Family, we will be happy racing anywhere.”