Matthias Dolderer flew fast and stayed consistent at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, claiming both the Oct. 2 race victory and the 2016 Red Bull Air Race World Championship title. The German pilot’s dream came true while the three American pilots (including two-time champion Kirby Chambliss, AOPA ambassador Michael Goulian, and Challenger Class rookie Kevin Coleman) endured a nightmare homecoming weekend marred by a disqualification for running over the rev limit, an over-lean engine that didn’t supply the needed power, and, in Coleman's case, more than one pylon strike.
Dolderer came into the weekend with a commanding lead, and only Matt Hall still had a chance to halt his march to the world championship. Hall trailed by 16.5 points as race day dawned Oct. 2, and needed another win, and a poor result for Dolderer, to keep his own championship hopes alive. Those hopes were dashed in a split second as Hall’s wing sliced an air gate pylon during his final run, a mistake that carries a 3-second penalty and left the door wide open for Dolderer, who needed only to complete his own run to collect the 2016 title.
“I didn't see Matt's pylon hit but when I heard his time I thought that I could fly easy and still win (the championship),” Dolderer said in post-race comments published by Red Bull. “But you can have more problems if you take it easy, so I went for the fastest time I could.”
For Chambliss and Goulian, the Oct. 2 races began with dogged optimism despite a tough day of qualifying Oct. 1 that put them in eighth and ninth place. Chambliss politely fielded a question about his hopes for the race ahead.
“My ambition is to win,” he said, suited up for the race after the morning briefing. “I hope to be able to make that happen.”
Chambliss noted that the return to American soil for the first time in the 2016 season was “a double-edged sword.” On the one hand, there is the boost one gets from home-crowd support, but that is offset to a degree by the distraction of having so many friends and well-wishers visiting, and the extra media attention on top of that.
“You’ve really got to be able to push all that out and just close the canopy and say, ‘OK, my job is to race,’” Chambliss said.
In the first round of head-to-head competition for time through the twisting course laid out over the infield of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Chambliss appeared to do just that. His opponent, Pete McLeod of Canada, had collected a 2-second penalty for failing to fly level through a gate, and Chambliss posted a clean run and a better time–until the officials in race control looked at the data streamed back from Chambliss’ Edge 540 V3, and disqualified him for exceeding the 2,950-rpm limit during the run.
During a pre-race visit to the paddock, Chambliss’ team tactician Paulo Iscold said engine performance had been an issue much on his mind during the practice and qualifying sessions. A surprise move up the starting order during qualifying (after another pilot failed to start his own engine) had left Chambliss with insufficient time to warm the oil to the ideal temperature, and the resulting reduction in rpm had sapped power. But Iscold was also mindful that the race rules are very strict when it comes to the rpm limit, because, he noted, unlike an IndyCar that can come to a controlled stop with relative ease if it blows up an engine, the consequences of a blown engine could be much more severe for a pilot flying at treetop height.
“We need to be really, really careful with it, not to over-rev,” Iscold said, unintentionally foreshadowing the issue that would be the team’s undoing. A television camera caught Chambliss pacing in his hangar like a caged animal after the disqualification was announced, and everybody gave the frustrated pilot some space.
Goulian noted that a gate penalty was all that stood between him and third place in qualifying, and he felt good going into his own first-round race heat against Martin Sonka. Goulian flew a clean run, but a slow one, at 1:06.534, which was about three seconds behind the pace he had in mind.
“I thought I flew the perfect line,” Goulian said in post-race comments published by Red Bull. “We set up our engine like in Ascot and the engine was running at three gallons an hour, which was too lean so the airspeed just kept decreasing. I'm a bit frustrated, we're just going to have to look and learn.”
In the Challenger Class race, Kevin Coleman finished fourth of four pilots thanks to two pylon strikes and the resulting six seconds in penalties.
Lackluster race results did not take the shine off the weekend just the same.
"Just being here in Indianapolis and being an American at the Indy speedway …it really is a 'pinch me' moment,” Goulian said. “It's been a great week.”
AOPA welcomed hundreds of members and guests to the Brickyard Bash Oct. 1, a party that straddled the famous Yard of Bricks. Food, drinks, and music from the band Edisun, which set up on the victory lane podium overlooking that famous finish line, made the evening a much more relaxing affair than it probably was for those who had to get up the next morning and race. Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), one of general aviation’s most strident supporters in Congress, and Red Bull Air Race General Manager Erich Wolf took the stage together to kick off the festivities.
The pilots and their teams now head to Las Vegas for the final race of the season Oct. 15 and 16, and then the scramble will begin to develop and test modifications for the 2017 season. Because of shipping, customs, and the other logistics involved in returning the race series to Abu Dhabi, they will have just six weeks to make major modifications before packing the aircraft in shipping containers and turning the page on 2016.