t’s the final Gold race for the Sport Class at the Stihl National Championship Air Races outside Reno, Nevada. I’m in an Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros, making circles at 8,500 feet above the Reno-Stead Airport, watching as a group of eight Lancair Legacies, Super Glasairs and Thunder Mustangs battles it out at high speeds around the pylons. At the controls of the L-39 is Mark “Magic” Johnson, a former U.S. Air Force pilot and current USAF Reserve pilot who flies pace for the Sport Silver and Gold heats. It’s a perfect day for racing, with clear skies and winds as gentle as they get in this high desert landscape. Pilot and builder Jeff LaVelle, who has been dominating the Sport Class in his souped-up Super Glasair III, Race 39, lost the pole position for the final heat to Andy Findlay in Race 30, also known as One Moment, in a thrilling race on Saturday afternoon. For this final race, LaVelle is pushing Race 39 as hard as he can to catch Findlay, who is clocking the course at an average speed of more than 400 mph. On the final lap, in what’s called the Valley of Speed — the area just before the final turn to the home pylon — I watch in horror as a fat trail of smoke appears behind one of the airplanes on the course. Magic calls out “smoke” and points the light jet toward the ailing airplane. Like any Reno race day, the day started early in “the room of long benches” tucked in the back of one of the large hangars on the west side of the field. This is where the morning briefing is conducted by NCAR air boss Greg “Shifty” Peairs. The “Shifty brief” for the Sport and T-6 classes happens at 7:30 a.m. sharp. The door locks at that time, and each pilot must sign a log to prove they were there. A missed Shifty brief means no flying for the day. Critical issues are discussed, such as what went right and what went wrong the previous day, what can be improved, safety considerations, weather, schedule and more. Like the racers, pace pilots have to attend the briefings and complete the Pylon Racing School, which takes place at Stead Field in June, to learn the procedures for the races and the specific pace-pilot duties. Those duties are numerous. One important task is keeping on schedule. Pace conducts a separate briefing for each heat to provide the race pilots with specific times for when to meet at the airplanes, start the engines, taxi to the runway, take off, enter the racecourse and land. Other details, such as the speeds for different segments of the flight, are also covered.