Get extra lift from AOPA. Start your free membership trial today! Click here

Road to Reno

Prepping for the world’s fastest motorsport

Peter Zaccagnino had a decision to make. The April deadline for applying to race in the 2022 Stihl National Championship Air Races was approaching. Was he going to race two airplanes this year—or just one?

racing reno

Photography by Chris Rose (this photo by Mike Fizer) Peter Zaccagnino Getty Images, Jonathan Devich Pete Zaccagnino, flying his modified Aero L–29 Delfin, will again race the Czech-built jet trainer in this year’s Stihl National Championship Races in Reno, Nevada. He won the Jet class in 2015 flying a de Havilland Vampire, but in 2016 he had engine trouble and had to make a gear-up landing. He wasn’t injured. Because competitors are flying 50 feet off the ground and close together, the flying has to be predictable in every single spot, Zaccagnino said. Getty Images, Jonathan Devich

Just Lucky—his Aero L–29 Delfin whose blue and gray paint camouflages a Pratt & Whitney JT-12 engine—would be ready to go if the race happened tomorrow. Zaccagnino had previously won four Gold trophies in the L–29; he would be taking it to Reno again. That was not the issue.

The wild card was Coming In Hot, a Lancair Super Legacy. Zaccagnino had built the airplane himself, and since first racing it in the Sport class in 2018, he was constantly tweaking it to make it lighter and more aerodynamic. Now, Zaccagnino had to roll the dice on whether the Legacy would be ready in time for the race. If he entered the Legacy and then later had to pull out, he’d face a financial penalty.

If this were a movie, a director could frame Zaccagnino’s profile against the craggy Wasatch Range in Heber City, Utah, where he is based, and have him shrug and say, “Whatever. Let’s do it.” Cue the montage music.

The sport of Doolittle and Thaden

In the same way that aviators call EAA AirVenture “Oshkosh,” the Stihl National Championship Air Races are usually referred to, simply, as “Reno.” Begun in 1964, the event harkens to the golden age of air racing at the end of World War I to the beginning of World War II, when thousands of people turned out to watch Jimmy Doolittle, Roscoe Turner, Louise Thaden, and Jackie Cochran compete for trophies and glory (and cash purses).

Seven classes of aircraft compete at Reno/Stead Airport (RTS): Unlimited, Jet, Formula 1, Biplane, Sport, T–6, and STOL Drag. Six classes fly an oval-ish course that varies in length according to the class of airplane, veering around pylons that mark the course and also give pilots visual clues on the best line to fly to the next pylon. The STOL Drag class flies a straight-line course with no pylons (see “New Class on the Block,” p. 73). The multi-day event is packed with airshows, military aircraft demonstrations, and of course the races. It’s family friendly, with access to the Pits—a display area for airplanes, pilots, and crews—that give it an up-close-and-personal aspect that fans love.

The Unlimited class—which includes such noisy crowd pleasers as P–51s, F–8F Bearcats, and Hawker Sea Furies—are arguably the stars of the event, but each class has its appeal, and each has its standouts. In the Jet class, Zaccagnino will compete against pilots flying trainers such as the BAC Jet Provost, PZL TS–11 Iskra, Aero L–39 Albatros, and de Havilland Vampire. The Formula 1 class includes aircraft powered by a Continental O-200 engine. The Biplane class is for small aerobatic aircraft such as the Pitts Special. The Sport class will include Zaccagnino’s Legacy squaring off against other high-performance kit-built airplanes. The T–6 class pits stock T–6 Texans (including the U.S. Navy and Canadian built versions) against each other. The STOL Drag class gives tailwheel pilots a national venue to show off their short takeoff and landing skills in a drag-racing-style format.

Racers first qualify, meaning they fly to establish their place in the finals. The fastest eight in a class compete for Gold; the next fastest eight compete for Silver; the next eight compete for Bronze; and the final, or slowest, eight in a class compete for Medallion.

A first place in the Sport class is Zaccagnino’s goal. He first brought the Lancair to Reno in 2018. He was forced to fly the airplane at 50 percent power because the fuel pump was not delivering enough fuel, and to complicate matters, a Band-aid solution for the intake system turned out to add even more drag. As a result, he won the Sport class Medallion flying eight laps in 8 minutes 34.678 seconds at an airspeed of 235.796 knots. He took a lot of “good-natured ribbing” about the airplane’s slowish speed and its paint scheme, or lack thereof. (It is painted a flat white. “My priority is going fast and being safe, not necessarily looking good,” Zaccagnino said.)

Since then, he has decreased the airplane’s weight from the typical 1,650–1,700 pounds to 1,505 pounds. The stock Continental TSIO twin turbocharged engine has a customized turbocharger and intake. The airplane is 100-percent carbon—no fiberglass. The Legacy has no back windows and no door handle. Zaccagnino designed the flaps himself, and they took 200 hours to build. With these and other enhancements, the airplane that won the slowest Sport class in 2018 now could fly at 350 knots at 500 horsepower—if it’s ready in time. Still to be installed was a new lower cowling that is meant to prevent the turbos from ingesting sand.

Prep and more prep

The Legacy is parked in a communal hangar in Heber City, Utah, hemmed in by a Cessna CitationJet, an Airbus A-Star, and the L–29. If the drab white speedster is to go to Reno, it will soon need flight tests—pulling some Gs, making left turns—and sustainability tests to ensure the engine can take the pounding it will get during the real thing. “I want no guesses while we’re at the races,” Zaccagnino said.

His first visit to Reno was not as a racer but as a pace airplane pilot for the Sport class. The pace pilot leads the racers in an echelon formation and watches for safety and fair start issues, then pulls up while announcing the start of the race. Bob Hoover flew his P–51D Mustang Old Yeller as a pace plane for the 1985 Reno races. “I went out and did the pace plane and was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m coming back to race next year,’” Zaccagnino said. Since then, he has won five Golds, all on display at the hangar. He is one of just four pilots who have raced in multiple classes at the same event, and is chief pilot of High Performance Aircraft Racing, the team he founded.

Zaccagnino works on the race airplanes in between running his aircraft management company PC Aviators, performing flight tests, and writing military spy thrillers (two published, two more in the works). Like many passionate aircraft builders, he also has a project airplane waiting in the wings: a Beech 18 parked at Mason City, Iowa.

Born in New Jersey and raised by a single mother, Zaccagnino and his older brother, Mike always played with airplanes. Mike died at age 14. “He was the biggest influence on my life,” Zaccagnino said. He said he always knew he wanted to design, build, and fly airplanes. He earned a degree in aeronautical engineering from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and paid for tuition by purchasing an Aeronca Champ for $7,800 and giving flight instruction in it.

A family of fanatics

No airplane that races at Reno could be successful without its crew, especially for a pilot who plans to fly in two classes at the same event. Crews of volunteers help not only during the race but before and after. They help disassemble and trailer an airplane if that’s needed, and then reassemble at the race. They wash and polish the airplane and perform any other tasks that enable the pilot to dash from safety briefing to post briefing (and fly the airplane).

Zaccagnino’s crew has a core group of 18, plus another five or six who can’t commit to attending every race. The team includes four airplane mechanics and three builders, but there’s plenty of work for all, including organizing group meals (the team camps together at Reno). P.J. McCarthy of Park City, Utah, says the group is “all pilot fanatics,” a nucleus of people immersed in airplanes.

“We all rally around the race for years,” McCarthy said. He started coming to the race in 1988. Other team members include a heart surgeon “who’s like a little kid out there,” McCarthy said, and a retired professional football player.

Volunteering as a team member gets you free admission to the races and a pass to the Pits, where newcomers are always shocked at “how personal it is and their ability to get amongst the pilots and the planes, unlike at other airshows where everything is roped off,” Zaccagnino said. At the races, the camaraderie is palpable—not only among individual team members but between the competitors, who are more than willing to help each other. “One year I had to take the tail off my jet,” Zaccagnino said. “There were two other teams full hands-on helping us make it happen.”

“I have the best team, period,” he said.

As the road to Reno becomes crowded with airplanes and pilots, will this be the year that a flat-white Lancair Legacy called Coming in Hot outshines the rest of its class? We’ll report on the Stihl National Championship standings online and in a future issue of AOPA Pilot.

[email protected]

Jill W. Tallman

Jill W. Tallman

AOPA Technical Editor
AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who is part-owner of a Cessna 182Q.

Related Articles