The New Face of the National Championship Air Races

The races take on a different vibe as tool-maker Stihl takes over as title sponsor.

Reno Air Races
Stihl came in as the title sponsor for the 2016 and 2017 races after Breitling decided to drop its sponsorship.Pia Bergqvist

In the past few years there has been much speculation about the future of the National Championship Air Races, held this year for the 53rd year in the desert outside Reno, Nevada, at the Reno-Stead Airport. There has been a significant drop in the number of Unlimited-Class air race airplanes that enter each year. These beautiful airplanes have been roaring through the skies for decades, and the value of the airplanes has increased dramatically, discouraging owners from risking the damage the races present to the engines and airframes.

The event has also been threatened by encroachment of development in the area, which has appeared to become the warehouse capital of the west. And what seemed be the last nail in the coffin was the decision of Breitling to cancel its title sponsorship.

But despite all of the headwinds in the past years, the races appear to have turned the tides with new, enthusiastic leadership in place in Reno Air Race Association's chairman John Agather, a successful businessman from San Antonio whose blood is full of aviation history. Agather shook up the organization by reducing the board from 24 to 7 and hiring Mike Crowell, a former executive of Coca-Cola who knows how to turn a business around, as president and CEO. The first year Agather and Crowell were at the helm the races (in 2015) turned a profit. See some of the changes the team has made in photos from this year's event.

Agather and Crowell have a vision for the future of bringing the average age of the attendees down. This year there were many exhibits and activities for kids and young adults, such as some Navy-themed games, simulators and a drone area where people could race drones in a net-encased course. Three thousand school kids from the area were brought in to experience the excitement.

While the number of Unlimited airplanes racing was probably at its lowest in the 53-year history of the event, with fewer than a dozen flying around the pylons, the Sport, Biplane, Formula One and Jet Classes were very busy. Around 120 airplanes were pushed around the pylons this year by their highly skilled pilots.