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‘That’s all folks’

Final checkered flag flown over Reno

Thousands of race fans flocked to the Reno/Stead Airport in Reno, Nevada, September 13 through 17 to witness history as the Reno Air Racing Association closed out its 59-year-long run in “the Biggest Little City in the World.”

  • Historic aircraft and thousands of fans converged on the final National Championship Air Races to be held in Reno, Nevada. Photo by Cayla McLeod Hunt.
  • The pylon races were augmented in recent years by the popular STOL drag competition. Photo by Robert Fisher.
  • Photo by Robert Fisher.
  • Photo by Robert Fisher.
  • Photo by Robert Fisher.
  • Photo by Sue Fisher.
  • Photo by Sue Fisher.
  • Photo by Sue Fisher.
  • Photo by Sue Fisher.
  • Photo by Sue Fisher.

Citing challenging economic conditions, rapid area development, and public safety, RARA announced in March that 2023 would be the final year of pylon racing in Reno, though the organization continues to seek a new venue.

The races drew crowds for decades. While generations of spectators were treated to countless thrills, accidents also happened as race-modified airplanes flew in packs around pylons, at speeds up to 500 miles per hour or more, roughly 50 feet off the ground. Over the years, 10 spectators and 24 pilots were killed during or after racing heats, including two pilots who died September 17 just after the final T–6 Gold Medal heat. Until now, only the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the annual rite of speed, forcing cancellation of the races in 2020.

“Reno isn’t our entire history, but the truth of the matter is unlimited air racing was reborn there," said RARA Chairman and CEO Fred Telling. “If I have any huge disappointment, it’s that there is so much history and community support. We call it the ‘September family’—it always comes back together every year.”

To Telling’s pleasure, the “September family” showed up in droves to celebrate, remember, and support the longstanding history of one of the fastest motorsports events in the world. Aircraft of various types qualified for Gold, Silver, or Bronze Medal heats, with the winners of each gold race becoming the national champion.

“Reno is a special place,” said Lancair Legacy gold racer Conrad Huffstutler. “It’s kind of the gathering of a lot of family. They call it the September family and it’s just a lot of good people, a lot of good friends, and I think that’s what I’ll miss most. The competitive nature is fun, it’s a professional competitive nature, we’re not out there to win at all cost and hurt each other, so I do like that. It’s a very good group… it’s sad to see it go.”

Thunder Mustang Gold racer Mathias Haid, of Salzburg, Austria, couldn’t agree more.

“I’ve been part of this game since 2014, and the biggest thing is the Sport Class family,” said Haid. “We are all friends. Everybody is helping out and there’s a lot of camaraderie. It’s not like I have to be number one. For me, it’s just to be part of this family.”

Throughout the week, racers not only took time to be with their “September family” but also to share their love of racing with everyone they could, even pulling fans into “crew only” pit areas to sign autographs, take pictures, and answer questions.

The North American P-51 Mustang 'Ole Yeller' originally flown by R.A. 'Bob' Hoover, who guided racers to the starting line many times over the years. Photo by Cayla McLeod Hunt. Racers spoke of camaraderie more than competition, particularly in the sport class. Photo by Robert Fisher. Photo by Robert Fisher. Photo by Robert Fisher. Photo by Robert Fisher. Photo by Robert Fisher. Photo by Sue Fisher. Photo by Sue Fisher.

Perhaps one of the most visited airplanes at the event was a North American P–51C Mustang named Thunderbird. Although Thunderbird was not participating in the races, crewmembers were eager to share this historic aircraft with the crowd.

“I’ve been working on the airplane for 24 years and we’ve been working on it really hard for the last three,” said owner Warren Pietsch. “It’s actually Jimmy Stewart’s old airplane and it still holds the record for piston powered airplanes for the Bendix and it still holds the transcontinental piston powered time across the country. Jackie Cochran set three records in it that still stand.”

Although Thunderbird was not competing this year, on Saturday morning spectators were treated to a missing man formation featuring Thunderbird and three other historic P–51 Mustangs, including Bob Hoover’s Ole Yeller, Vicky Benzing’s Plum Crazy, and Planes of Fame’s Wee Willy II.

“It was a pretty big deal turning around and looking over my shoulder and Bob Hoover’s airplane was sitting right there on my wing,” said Thunderbird's pilot, Bernie Vasquez. “It was a little different not actually racing this year, but honestly, I’m having way more fun doing the airshow.”

Pilots captivated crowds all week long with speeds and sounds that can only be seen and heard at Reno. The fastest airplanes could be found in the Jet class with an Aero Vodochody L–39 Albatros, American Spirit,” clocking speeds as high as 503 mph, followed closely by the Unlimited Gold class, where Steven Hinton reached 469 mph in a highly modified P–51D Mustang, the “Bardahl Special.”

“Bardahl sounded like a stampede,” said Reno first-timer Abby Hunt. “It was almost like you could hear aviation history in the making. It was a real rush of adrenaline.”

The event concluded early with a simple, yet heartfelt line from announcer Danny Clisham: “Friends, this completes racing at Reno for the day, for the year, and forever as we know it. Please drive safely as you exit.”

Farewell posters and messages were scattered across the Reno/Stead Airport, as fans and racers said goodbye to the Reno Air Races, which were held for the last time in Reno, Nevada, September 13 through 17. Photo by Cayla McLeod Hunt.
Zoomed image
Farewell posters and messages were scattered across the Reno/Stead Airport, as fans and racers said goodbye to the Reno Air Races, which were held for the last time in Reno, Nevada, September 13 through 17. Photo by Cayla McLeod Hunt.
Cayla McLeod
Cayla McLeod Hunt
Social Media Marketer
Social Media Marketer Cayla McLeod Hunt is a private pilot with a love for tailwheel and backcountry aircraft. When she isn't writing stories, she enjoys flying with friends and introducing others to general aviation.
Topics: Air Racing

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