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National Championship Air Races back on solid footingNational Championship Air Races back on solid footing

The National Championship Air Races—the always thrilling annual aerial event featuring six classes of racing aircraft including the “unlimited” competition between some of the fastest piston airplanes ever built—opened at Nevada’s Reno/Stead Airport on Sept. 13 while continuing an emergence from recent financial difficulties, and with a change in its executive board leadership imminent.

As the fifty-fourth air races began, the Reno Air Racing Association announced that John Agather, chairman of its board of directors for the past three years, would step down Oct. 1, to be replaced by Fred Telling, a current board member who has raced in the T-6 class, according to a news release.

Agather, president of an investment company based in San Antonio, Texas, and a multiengine and instrument-rated pilot, said in a statement that it was time for a new leader to take the “national treasure” of the Reno races to the next level.

“When I was elected in 2014, there was great doubt the event could continue due to the economic pressure it faced. However, with proper management adjustments and cost controls, we are now holding our third event since then, which will have an economic impact of nearly a quarter billion dollars for the region.”

Telling, chairman of the Tampa, Florida-based company Oragenics, is type rated in Citation jets and the DC-3, and is rated in fixed-wing aircraft and rotorcraft. He and his wife Barbara fly a 2014 Citation M2, and they own a collection of North American Aviation aircraft including<em>Baby Boomer</em> is a regular contender in the National Championship Air Races. Photo by Robert Fisher. Baby Boomer, a 1940 Harvard variant that Telling raced in the T-6 class in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2008. From 2011 through 2013, Lee Oman raced Baby Boomer, and for the last four years, Gene McNeely has raced the airplane, the announcement said.

“I am incredibly excited about the opportunity to serve as Chairman of the Reno Air Racing Association (RARA) Board of Directors,” Telling said. “The dedication and commitment of RARA staff, our volunteers, the race pilots and the Federal Aviation Administration to assuring this unique, national treasure continues is truly inspiring. Moving forward, I am confident that we can build on our recent progress while continuing to strengthen and transform this one-of-a-kind racing event. I look forward to the task.”

The “great doubt” Agather cited about the races’ future was acknowledged by RARA in a June 2015 letter to racing fans that reported a restructuring of the organization, and noted the effects of the 2011 crash of a modified P-51D that claimed the lives of pilot Jimmy Leeward and numerous spectators.

“Although RARA has enjoyed a remarkable fifty plus year span of operations, the truth is that the organization has financial challenges. The tragic events of 2011 only deepened the fiscal concerns,” the letter said, noting that attendance would be a key factor in the races’ survival.

In 2016, then-RARA President Mike Crowell noted in a Nevada newspaper op-ed that RARA had made “great strides,” and achieved a “solid financial footing.”

“We couldn’t have done it without the support of our community,” he wrote.

RARA’s announcement of the changes in its board leadership also noted that the 2016 races generated more than $91.7 million for the region’s economy.

In addition to the racing schedule, the 2017 event was to feature a military appreciation day on Sept. 16, and a variety of aerial performances including military aircraft of the Texas Flying Legends Museum, the U.S. Air Force’s A-10 Heritage Flight Team, demonstrations by a U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier, a B-2 bomber flyby, and other performers.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Air Racing

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