Reno Air Races 1964 to 50th Anniversary
There have been few events in sports that manage to last 50 years. Fortunately the National Championship Air Races at Reno are one of them. This year will mark the 50th running of this race during September 11th-15th 2013. Like WWII veterans, few people who were at the races in 1964 will be at the races this year. Few people showed up for the first one and crowds weren’t nearly as crowded as they are today. The current gathering is nothing compared to its humble beginnings and humble it was.
The Races are currently held at the former Stead Air National Guard Base which in 1964 was an active military base. The base was named for 1st LT Croston Stead who died in a 1949 crash of a P-51 Mustang. His brother Bill Stead came up with the idea of restarting National Championship Air Races which effectively ended in Cleveland after Bill Odom’s crash. Air racing didn’t exactly grind to a screeching halt in 1949; while there were some races, but they were so far and few in between that there was no real “organization”. Even Reno wasn’t the only source of unlimited (generally WWII fighters) racing after 1964. Closed course (like Reno) and cross country races were held in various locations until the early 1970s. After that the sole survivor was the Reno Races.
Bill Stead was a well known cattleman and sportsman who liked big toys; fast airplanes and boats. Bill raced boats including unlimited hydroplanes, he was also an accomplished pilot. His air racing seemed confined to the 190 cubic inch midget racers. While I can’t confirm he raced in 1964, he did race in 1965 in N36C “Miss Cosmic Wind”. Bill died in a Midget crash in St. Petersburg FL on April 28, 1966.
Of course the first races weren’t held at the current location, they were initially held at the Sky Ranch in Spanish Springs Nevada about 20 miles east of the present location. The runway was a narrow 2000′ dirt strip. To get things moving Bill contacted Duane Cole to plan the races. Duane Cole was a monumental power in aviation. He started his career at the end of barnstorming, literally invented precision aerobatics and shaped what is the modern airshow. Needless to say he got the Reno Air Races off to a good start. The races were held September 12-20, 1964.
They started with a cross country race for the Unlimiteds sponsored by Harold’s Casino. The race was from St. Petersburg FL to Reno. Eight P-51Ds started and five eventually finished the race. The winner was Wayne Adams in a P-51D N332 averaging 319 MPH.
Once they got to Reno, there was a Women’s Race won by Irene Leverton in a Piper Cherokee at 143 MPH. There were hot air balloons and soaring too. The first US National Aerobatic Championship was held there and won by none other than Duane Cole in his Taylorcraft (on display in the EAA Museum)
There were only three classes of racing at the first event; Midget Racers, homebuilt biplanes, and the Unlimiteds which were all WWII fighters.
Notables flying the Midgets were Steve Whitman and Art Scholl. Steve had been racing since before the war, he ended his career as the manager of an airport in Wisconsin. He got the EAA to move their operations to “his” airport at Oshkosh, which is named in his memory. Art Scholl was well known as an aerobatic pilot later flying his Pennzoil Super Chipmunks in front of millions. He was also known for his film work on hundreds of motion pictures, including Top Gun where he was lost in a tragic crash.
For all of Steve Whitman’s experience, he lost the Midget race to Bob Porter who managed 193 MPH to Steve’s 187, Art Scholl was third and two others after him. The Biplane class was won by Clyde Parsons in a Knight Twister at 144 MPH. Still Steve’s legacy, his “Bonzo” racer is in the EAA Museum at Oshkosh.
The Unlimited closed course race was fielded with 5 Mustangs and 3 Bearcats. The only airplane that was significantly modified was the Bearcat N1111L owned and flown by Lockheed test pilot Darryl Greenameyer. In the months preceding the race, Darryl had installed a formula one (small, very small) canopy and sealed the wing flaps. That Bearcat went on to win races and set records. You can currently find it in the National Air and Space Museum’s Hazy Center; one of Art Scholl’s Chipmunks hangs near it.
Another notable in the Unlimited race that year was Clay Lacy. Clay still flies airshows and performed an aerobatic routine in Chino this spring in a Lear Jet 23. If there was a renaissance man in aviation Clay is it. He was an airline pilot, air racer, and set countless records. For all practical purposes he invented modern business aviation. When the Lear Jet was introduced, he partnered with golfer Arnold Palmer and figured out how to sell them to corporations who had no idea how badly they needed them. Clay has flown about everything from a Piper Cub to the old “Super Guppy”. He runs Clay Lacy Aviation out of Van Nuys CA and is a real power house in aviation.
Another interesting pilot was Bob Love in a P-51D. Bob was an Ace, shooting down 6 planes in the Korean War. Mira Slovak flew a Bearcat in the race, and was an airline pilot from Czechoslovakia. He commandeered his own airliner in 1953 and flew out of the communist block to Frankfurt Germany and freedom. He also raced hyrdoplanes starting in the mid 1950s.
There were rules; one of which was that you had to land and take off on that narrow short dirt runway or be disqualified. Greenameyer couldn’t land the Bearcat there because of a lack of flaps and the tiny canopy with little visibility so he operated out of Reno Municipal Airport. He raced, but ultimately was disqualified.
The races were set up to run in heats and the pilot with the most points would be champion. Bob Love had the fastest airplane but was penalized for cutting pylons in a prior heat. That penalty cost him the First Unlimited Championship and it went to Mira Slovak at 356 MPH.
What kind of money was awarded? A good example was for the Unlimited category in 1966 and I’m sure in 1964 it was less, a LOT less. The total purse was $10,000 plus 8% of the gate. By the time you split it all up, there isn’t much even for the winner. I’d venture to say the winner took home less than the cost of ferrying a P-51 to the current races. If you want to compare it, Roscoe Turner won about $42,000 in 1938 in the air races, he did a lot better and money was worth more back then.
In the aftermath of the races, I have no gauge of the attendance, but still they were successful. The races were on the covers of about every magazine on the newstands. ABC had it on the Wide World of Sports, playing the coverage twice in the next year. The Board of Trustees had to look at the finances and they were $13,000 in the hole for the race. But they decided to continue it anyways. The next year ABC paid $12,000 for the rights to the race and in 1966 raised it to $15,000. I can’t say that the Air Races have ever been a great money maker on their own, but they are a very unique event and a real boost for the Reno economy.
As I noted above, few people who were there in 1964 are still around. Mira Slovak still living in the Pacific Northwest. Clay Lacy (who was at Reno last year and probably will be this year) is still with us and still flying. Any others? Photos of the first year are rare, a few from my collection are here.
So here we are less than 2 months from the races. Time to make plans, buy tickets and get ready. We want to see you in Reno in September for the unique opportunity to be part of the 50th National Championship Air Races.
I’d like to thank Valerie Miller of the Reno Air Racing Association for helping make this story possible.
You can contact me, Mark Hrutkay at TNMark1@GMail.Com.