Reno-The Last Lap
Story and photos by Steve Lewis
I’ve had the pleasure of attending multiple air races at both Stead Field in Reno, Nevada, and both years at Williams Gateway Airport in Chandler, Arizona. Nowhere near as many as I would’ve liked to attend, but I feel blessed to have been able to be at the ones I did. After nearly six decades of air racing at Reno, the National Championship Air Races have come to an end for the final time at Stead Field.
The weather throughout the week was phenomenal. The cool mornings turned into warm afternoons with both beautiful sunrises and some spectacular sunsets. In one of the morning media briefings, it was said that “…the weather has been so good this week that we could’ve run the Formula One class at any point this week.” That normally is not the case as there is a lower wind threshold for that class than all the others and there are regular cancellations of their races each year.
Along with the great weather, there were many highlights for me personally this year. In addition to the larger field of racers in the Unlimited class than there had been in past several years, there were also many active-duty aircraft sporting ‘heritage’ paint schemes, some of which I had been wanting to photograph for quite some time now. If it wasn’t for the tragic events on the last day of the air races, this show was shaping up to be the best I had attended in my short time of going.
The big question in the Unlimited class was “……will Joel Swagger in Dreadnought be able to hold off Steve Hinton in the ‘Franken-Mustang’ Bardahl Special and win the final flag in the gold race Sunday?”. Most people knew that Bardahl Special was coming to the races with many parts off of former championship winners such as Voodoo, and possibly others, but it still needed to be answered on the track.
There was also the question of could Brent Hisey race a low enough line in Miss America and did they have any tricks up their sleeve to possibly win it all?
The first question was unfortunately answered early on as Swagger in Dreadnought blew the motor on Tuesday as it rounded pylon 8 during qualification. Joel was able to bring himself and the aircraft down safely with a very skillful dead stick landing.
The second was answered even before the gold race was set as Miss America was DQ’d, then allowed to fly again in the Silver to try and get back into the Gold race. And while that race never happened, there was little doubt that Bardahl Special was going to run away from the pack regardless.
There were however several intense and close races in the other Unlimited Bronze and Silver races, as well as in the Formula One class, the T-6 class, and the Sport class that kept race fans at the edge of their seats, especially the battle in the Sport class. Jeff Lavelle and Andrew Findlay were neck and neck throughout each of their races turning speeds of just under 400mph. This, along with the Gold Jet class race was one of three Gold races that would never take place.
Unfortunately, the ‘last lap’ came all too early. After the conclusion of a very entertaining Gold T-6 race on Sunday, two of the T-6 Texans collided while turning base to land resulting in both aircraft going down and the loss of both highly-skilled pilots, Chris Rushing and Nick Macy. Our hearts go out to their family and friends, they will be sorely missed.
And while the races ended on an extremely somber note, even more somber than it would have already ended on, there IS a future for air racing. As of the writing of this article, there are six finalists for future sites to hold several classes of air racing. There was a lot of talk and excitement from many in the crowd and media as people discussed what sites they would like to see and the advantages and disadvantages of each location. Only time will tell, but I have optimism that we will all be together again soon, on a different patch of land, cheering on our favorite racers as they fly low, fly fast, and turn left.
I’d like to thank Molly Ellery and the entire Media Ops Team for their incredible hospitality, kindness, and helping to provide that family atmosphere that so many have come to love each September.
A Gallery of Reno’s 2023 Racing Aircraft:
A Gallery of Reno’s 2023 Air Show and Static Display Aircraft: