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Air racing roars back to life in Reno

Editor's note: This story was updated September 25 to correct information about the winning aircraft in the STOL drag race.

Crowds delighted in the return of the sights, sounds, and thrills of air racing at Nevada’s Reno/Stead Airport—including the first-ever competition in a new racing class—during the 2021 Stihl National Championship Air Races held September 15 to 19.

Racers took to the air once more at Reno/Stead Airport. Photo by Kevin Cortes.

It felt almost like old times, said one participant, as the races picked up where they left off when racing was canceled in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic—the only cancellation of the event since all aircraft were grounded after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

“The grandstands were full and there were people just everywhere the entire time,” said Oregon pilot Kyle Bushman, known to aviation enthusiasts as a short-takeoff-and-landing (STOL) specialist who advocates for the popular sport as a competition and demonstration component of aviation events.

“Every high-time Reno person said it felt the closest to ‘yesteryear Reno’ than they’ve ever had,” he said.

Nothing says “air racing is back” better than watching Hawker Sea Furys battle North American P–51D and F–51D Mustangs and a Bell P–63C Kingcobra for top honors in the Unlimited category (Joel Swager, pilot of the TMK–20 Sea Fury Dreadnought took the gold) or Pete Stavrides of Virginia Beach, Virginia, flying his black Aero Vodochody L–29 to a jet-class victory against a field full of L–29s, Aero Vodochody L–39s, and a SIAI-Marchetti S.211. See a complete list of race results in the six traditional racing classes here.

Those adrenaline-pumping rivalries aside, Bushman’s reaction to air racing’s roaring return was more than the elation of a general aviation pilot seeing aviation in action once again. He is among a small group of aviators who have brought something new to the Reno Air Racing Association’s annual event: STOL drag racing.

Previously present as a demonstration event, STOL drag racing made its debut in Reno in 2021 as a competition class.

“With its independent spirit, STOL drag racing is purely about who gets to the finish line first. STOL drag racers fly on a designated track, about 2,000 feet in each direction, landing on or after a [white] chalk line. Precision and perfect timing are crucial, as any aircraft that don’t make a complete stop between runs are disqualified,” according to the event’s website.

The first STOL drag winner of gold was CubCrafters Carbon Cub pilot Toby Ashley, a veteran STOL competitor and a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Bushman noted great interest in the STOL drag competition in Reno, in which 24 racers participated, noting that its popular appeal is connected to its accessibility to many pilots.

Unlike many other racing aircraft, the STOL aircraft are models people have flown or can buy, he said, adding, “It’s generating a lot of grassroots excitement for the event.”

One spectator giving a thumbs-up to STOL drag flying was Kevin Cortes, AOPA’s social media marketer, a newcomer to Reno racing.

“As a first timer to the races I did not know what to expect but I left wanting to return next year,” he said. “It was good to see young pilots and fans around the STOL drag and Sport classes. The excitement around the STOL heats was pretty incredible. It was exciting to see the interaction between pilots and public in the STOL corral. I am looking forward to seeing how the races continue to evolve in the next few years.”

Also looking forward to the future is Bushman, who hopes Reno’s STOL drag racing competition field can be expanded to 48 aircraft. The upgrade would require additional ramp space, a staging area, and a fueling facility, as are available at other aviation venues where STOL drag racing is the only attraction, he said.

While the event was full of energy, Kevin Palmer found time to relax during a brake cool-down between race periods in his Kitfox. Photo courtesy of Kyle Bushman.
Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

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 35-year AOPA member.
Topics: Air Racing

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