In the skies over Las Vegas, it’s a day like no other. There’s a helicopter doing aerobatics, dancing to a tune like a mechanical Michael Jackson and bowing to an audience after its showstopper performance. There are skydivers, wingsuited mad men, and pilots racing at crazy speeds through pylons so close you almost believe you can reach out and touch them. There’s music, and on the ground, performances by other demons of speed—motorcycles, race cars, bicycles.
It’s the finale of the Red Bull Air Race World Championship, a series loved by Europeans and slowly finding its way into the hearts of an American audience. Established in 2003 by the sports think tank of the energy drink company and masterminded by Hungarian pilot Peter Besenyei—who would win that first championship—the Red Bull Air Race World Championship has included U.S. pilots since its inception. Two have won the world championship: Kirby Chambliss in 2004 and 2006, and the late Mike Mangold in 2005. The races took a three-year hiatus between 2010 and 2014 and now are back—with a vengeance. Red Bull is pushing the races as one of its major marketing events.
But someone must have forgotten to tell the partygoers 15 miles away on “The Strip.” For here on this brilliant October day, some 20,000 spectators are witnessing this extravaganza at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a venue that can hold 280,000. Red Bull has to compete with an American love of football, and a Sunday afternoon air race does not yet command the passionate aviation audiences it gets in Europe.
“The motor speedways are wonderful venues to conduct the race, so the fans can see everything from takeoff to the race to the landing, but they are more challenging to fill all of the seats in those 200,000-seat venues because of their size and locations,” said longtime race director Jim “Guido” DiMatteo, a U.S. naval aviator with more than 5,000 hours who also serves as the U.S. liaison for the Breitling Jet Team. “We have seen increases in attendance over the past two years at those venues, and we’re looking forward to that trend continuing.”
Because Red Bull has a large television viewing audience in the United States and the rest of the world, DiMatteo says, venues also are chosen for spectacular TV shots. It will add “the Brickyard” of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year as a venue.
The slow growth of a U.S. audience hardly deters the race pilots, especially Americans Chambliss and Michael Goulian. Chambliss has been competing since 2003, and Goulian joined in 2004. Both have had great showings. This is a field of only 14 to 16 pilots from around the world, so being in the Master Class, as Red Bull calls the category, is no small feat. A championship has eluded Goulian, although he won the race in Budapest in 2009, and he has an unflagging determination to win.
In the hunt
Goulian is an aerobatic pilot. He’s been flying since he was 15 and got the aviation bug honestly; his father owns a flight school. Goulian paid for lessons by working for his dad—no special treatment here. Goulian also considers himself an athlete first, and he loves sports—especially ice hockey and golf. Route 1 outside Boston has ice hockey rinks like other areas have baseball diamonds. Everyone plays hockey. As did Goulian. But once he started flying, a choice had to be made. He flew his first aerobatic flight at 16.
Goulian has won many honors as an aerobatic pilot, including the U.S. national championship when he was 27. It was Chambliss who encouraged Goulian to join the Red Bull Air Races. “There was no training. Kirby just said, ‘Show up and try to make it through.’ That was it,” Goulian said. “I just flew above the air gates during training and started to drop into one or two as I started to get more comfortable. RBAR is a really neat challenge—very different than aerobatic flying. It takes a lot of technical flying skills and the pilot must be comfortable near the ground while maneuvering abruptly. The machine, a great team, and good tactics are all required to be successful.”
A great team—and an unusual one—is what Goulian is depending on today. Steve Hall, a friend from high school and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of aeronautics and astronautics, watches Goulian’s race flights on his computer, tracking the performance and noting the nuances that could affect his speed. Pablo Branco is his race coordinator, and Dax Wanless is his race technician. Wife Karin and daughter Emily provide the support.
“My family loves my racing and they tell me that when I’m racing somewhere around the globe, they’re up early in the morning watching the race live on the Internet and going crazy,” he said. “Especially my daughter Emily, she loves it. Knowing you have family at home who are there for you, no matter what, is very comforting. This might sound a little corny, but when you are thousands of miles from home, you feel pretty lonely at times. You have your friends and team members with you, but there’s nothing like family. Being away is the hardest part of my life.”
Karin and Emily are here today in Vegas and although Goulian has a weekend full of high-pressure racing, he is charmingly entertaining VIPs at his hangar and his energy is high. If there’s stress, he’s not showing it. In fact, Goulian has said that being “calm of mind” is the key to performing well. “In 2009 it was an easy week; I slept well, I ate well, I felt good. I give my best performance when I am calm of mind while flying.”
Two things in Goulian’s hangar appear odd the morning of Sunday’s race. Red Bull energy drink cans seemingly are scattered around the floor and Goulian—with eyes shut—is slowly dancing around them. He’s practicing the race and the cans are the pylons. It seems other racers do this before a competition, too. It’s called “the can dance.”
The air races begin at the Breitling start gate. The run to the first gate must be under 200 knots (230 mph). Exceed that and you could lose before you even start. As the raceplane passes the gate, DiMatteo calls, “Number 99 Goulian, you are cleared into the track…smoke on.”
Timing is activated when the airplane crosses the start line and is stopped when it passes the finish line. Each course is a six-kilometer racetrack of air gates—inflatable pylons in pairs—through which the racer must fly horizontally. The only exception is the chicane, a series of single pylons positioned in a line and navigated in a slalom style. There are two laps. Each pilot flies individually, with the aim of finishing in the fastest time.
Saturday was qualifying day, when the master pilots race in reverse order of the championship standings. The fastest of two runs counts. On race day, the starting order is based on the results in qualifying, with the fastest pilot flying last. The winner of each heat in the Round of 14 advances to the Round of 8, as well as the “fastest loser”—and it is Goulian who earns this dubious-sounding honor, with a race time of 49.851 seconds error-free. In the Round of 8 he is pitted against Japan’s Yoshihide Muroya, who outraces Goulian by 1.39 seconds.
Today’s top finishers are Australia’s Matt Hall, the United Kingdom’s Paul Bonhomme, and Germany’s Matthias Dolderer. As the championship is cumulative, Bonhomme is the 2015 winner.
A new season
The 2016 Red Bull Air Race Championship begins in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, on March 11. Since that October day in Vegas, Goulian and his team have been working on modifications to his raceplane, a Zivko Edge 540 V2. There’s a new Lycoming Thunderbolt engine and Garmin G3X panel. They’ve been at Bully Aero in Burlington, North Carolina, working on the aircraft and made test flights the week of February 8.
“For 2016, our team looked at every aspect of the plane,” Goulian said. “We changed almost everything except the engine and landing gear. We analyzed the drag on almost every part of the plane, but we focused on engine cooling drag, so we made a lot of cowling modifications. We also studied and designed winglets, so we will show up in Abu Dhabi for our first race with winglets.”
Two RBAR greats—Benseyei and Bonhomme—retired after the 2015 races. There is a field of 14 for 2016. How will Goulian fare? “As race director I don’t pull for any one pilot, but knowing Mike as a friend, I would like to see him do well,” said DiMatteo. “If he continues to work hard and make his aircraft faster, then hopefully in 2016 he will be up on that podium.”
For Goulian there’s always golf to provide the sporting life he loves. At 47, he’s in the middle of the pack agewise, and his desire to win will continue to propel him. “Golf and flying both take a lot of confidence and skill. Both also have a lot of decision making required to be good. If you grip it and rip it mindlessly, either on the golf course or in a plane, you won’t have much success,” he said.
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March 11-12 Abu Dhabi, UAE
April 23-24 Spielberg, Austria
June 4-5 Chiba, Japan
July 16-17 Budapest, Hungary
August 13-14 Ascot, Great Britain
September 3-4 Lausitzring, Germany
October 1-2 Indianapolis
October 15-16 Las Vegas