Red Bull Rocks the Races

Think snowboarding, think X-Games. Now add music and wings.

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Red Bull Air Races Rock Europe

It's been raining an awful lot in Europe this summer. This point is relevant because it means the Danube River is six feet higher than normal, leaving only 27 feet between the water and the bottom of Budapest's famous Chain Bridge. This is an important dimension,because all 10 pilots competing in the Red Bull Air Race here today have to fly underneath the Chain Bridge not once, but twice-at speeds approaching 220 mph. And yet, the high-speed passes underneath the Chain Bridge are only one of the many radical notions incorporated into the fledgling Red Bull Air Race World Series. For while the Red Bull air races still involve the traditional elements of airplanes, pylons, and speed, they're actually an eye-popping combination of airshow and competition aerobatics, air racing, downhill slalom ski racing, and snowboarding competition. And instead of being held at airports, they're held at spectacular downtown locations around the world, presented with the sound, fury, and high-tech production value of a Hollywood music video. The result is not just a new air race series, but an entirely new sport, targeted at a new audience and a new generation.

The Red Bull Air Races began in 2003, after Red Bull CEO Dietrich Mateschitz, a pilot and avid sports enthusiast, asked Peter Besenyei, Hungary's national aerobatic champion, to see if he could devise an air race for aerobatic pilots. Besenyei's idea was to pull together a small group of the best competition aerobatic pilots in the world-professional pilots with good judgment as well as good skills-and pit them against each other in a timed, low-level, slalom pylon course that also included some aerobatic maneuvers. The resulting competition is one where the pilots cross a start line-one at a time, as in a downhill ski race-which starts the clock. Then they have to maneuver their way through a series of horizontal (wings level) and vertical (wings in a 90-degree bank) "gates", which consist of inflatable, cone-shaped pylons. Just making the gates requires turns so sharp the pilots pull six to 11 Gs in the course of each run. But in addition, the races also require the pilots to perform aerobatic maneuvers such as Cuban eights, rolls, loops, or tail slides in between some of the gates. Not to mention things like flying under bridges or in close proximity to some really important national landmarks or buildings somewhere in the process. All this in a breathtaking 75-second run through a looping, zig-zag course only 1/3 of a mile long, and within as little as 20 feet off the ground-or, in some cases, the water-where the gap between first and second place can be as small as a few hundredths of a second.

If it sounds exciting, it is. If it also sounds a little crazy, well, it's probably a bit of that, too. However, race director Hannes Arch stresses that, while there is clearly risk inherent in the events, a tremendous amount of energy and thought has been invested in risk management.

"For us, the safety lies in the selection of the pilots," he says. "This is an invitational race. If we did it by speed, a guy might qualify who's fast but risky. We don't want that." Of course, even with professional pilots, staging an air race in a convenient, urban environment isn't exactly the easiest thing to get permission to do. Red Bull staged its first few races at airports, just to show officials they could operate a safe event. But the company's focus now, as it wraps up its third year of racing and its first complete, seven-race world series, is on getting the races in as interesting locations, and as close to population centers, as possible.

"The trick is to find someone in the government or governing body who trusts us and says, 'they're professional and this will be safe,'" Arch explains. "If you find someone like that, you're successful. If you don't, you're not."

Safety also plays a big role in the construction and layout of the race courses. The pylons are made of spinnaker material that is designed to shred easily upon contact. "Sometimes, you don't even know you've clipped a pylon," says Kirby Chambliss, a Southwest Airlines Captain and five-time U.S. National Aerobatic Champion who's one of two U.S. pilots in the Red Bull series. Red Bull has also carefully planned the turns and maneuvers in each course so that spectators will not be at risk, even in the event of a mishap. The risk to the pilots, however, is another matter. They're pulling a lot of Gs, in tight quarters, around obstacles, and low to the ground.

"Two years ago, if you told me the airplanes would turn the corners we're turning, I'd have told you you were crazy," Chambliss says, shaking his head. "Now we do it all the time, and it's no big deal."

Which is not to say that Chambliss thinks those maneuvers are without risk. "Airshow experience is important for this, because you're already comfortable flying close to the ground," he says. "But airshows don't have the competitive pressure, or bridges and pylons flashing past you. And the floor in aerobatic competitions is 328 feet. At 328 feet, you can make a lot of mistakes. At five feet, you can't make mistakes."

Unfortunately, all pilots are human. Which means that somewhere along the way, mistakes are going to be made - a point Chambliss acknowledges. "Are we going to lose one of these [planes] sometime? Probably. But it's like the Indy 500. Is someone going to go into the wall at Indy? Probably. Is that dangerous? Yes. Could we make it safer? Yes. But would anyone watch it, then? No."

"Everyone is aware of what they're doing here," says Mike Mangold, a former Air Force fighter pilot and aerobatic champion who's the other U.S. pilot in the Red Bull series. "You're really alive, but you're also pretty doggone focused down there."

And yet, while I have no desire to take on that level of risk, I want at least a tiny taste of how this new kind of pylon racing feels and looks from the pilot's point of view. So Besenyei agrees to take me flying through and around a set of practice pylons they've set up at the former MiG base they're using as a staging area in Budapest.

Besenyei-who is something of a media superstar in Hungary for his aerobatic victories and exploits-straps me into the front seat of his Extra 300 with multiple seatbelts, until I literally cannot move. We taxi out, and he shoves the throttle forward, which shoves me back into my seat with a punch equal to what I imagine I'd sustain if a Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker suddenly landed on top of me. It's a feeling and force that endures pretty much throughout the entire flight.

We've hardly broken ground, however, before Besenyei whips the plane into a sharp, knife-edge turn to the left. This isn't smooth flying. It's surgical technique-sharp, brisk, precise, and intense. We cut back around, descend, and line up on the pylons, which are spaced so closely together that they allow only three feet of clearance on each wingtip. Vertical gates are spaced even closer together, so the only way to clear them is in a knife-edge pass-and there are race judges who impose instant and loudly announced time penalties if a pilot's wings aren't completely level or vertical as he passes through each gate.

We're not going to make it. We can't possibly. They're too close together. And yet, as flashes of white pass by me on either side, I realize we're through safely. SLAM! Almost before I can even process being through the gate, we're in a knife-edge turn to the right. SLAM! Now we're in a 90-degree bank to the left. At first I think Besenyei is trying to intimidate or impress me, but then I realize he's just doing a minimum-time turn to get repositioned to go back through the gate the other way-just like he would in a race. We level out at a slight angle, correct, and then, SLAM! My head whips sideways as we slice through the gate in a knife-edge pass. We level out. Then SLAM! to the right. SLAM! to the left. This is surreal. Cool, but surreal. And that, Besenyei tells me as we circle around, was just practice speed.

Next, we try a few passes at race speed, which is about 220 mph-a number at which those pylons look, if possible, even closer together. And yet, we make it through again. SLAM! SLAM! We're banking hard right, then whipping around to the left. That football player has just gotten a whole lot heavier. SLAM! We cut through the gate again, turning left and pulling 6 1/2 Gs-which feels … ummm … interesting. Like that feeling you get in a really steep bank and multiplied by a factor of three or four. And that's just a couple of simple turns through a single gate, without any of the aerobatic maneuvers.

"What was it like?" one of the Red Bull employees asks me after we land.

"Like being shot through a pinball machine with a piano on your chest," I answer.

But my ride gives me a whole new layer of appreciation for the challenge involved as I watch Chambliss, Mangold, and the eight other race pilots, who come from France, Hungary, England, the Netherlands, Spain, Russia and Zimbabwe, work their way through the Budapest course on the actual day of the race. The race has been scheduled on Hungary's national founding holiday, and fireworks are scheduled on the Danube that evening … a planned coincidence, which undoubtedly helps account for the large turnout, along with the fact that there's no admission fee.

But still - the fireworks aren't until 9:00 p.m. And by 3:00-an hour before the first of the two race runs-there are crowds lined up 20-100 people deep, along a three-to-four-mile stretch of the Danube, on both sides of the river. By 4:00, an estimated 1.2 million people are gathered along the banks.

Ten jumbo video screens-large enough that I can see the images on the screens across the river-are spaced along both banks, along with an entire network of speakers that are transmitting commentary, interviews, and live entertainment from a central stage as well as a steady stream of high-energy, pounding techno-rock music to match the fast-paced videos of the action on the river.

Clearly, part of Red Bull's estimated $2-3 million investment in each race is a hefty production budget to cover the five separate production companies and the crew of 50-60 production personnel involved in staging every event. There are lipstick cameras in or on each plane, live video and audio feed from each cockpit, and up to 18 separate action cameras-on two camera helicopters, at each pylon, and along both sides of the course-that are mixed and displayed in a fast-paced montage on the jumbo screens by a professional director/producer who is clearly very, very good at this sort of thing. Live video coverage is also complemented by computer-generated diagrams of the race course and maneuvers, along with split times comparing each racer's pace with the leader's time. All this set to a pounding soundtrack and running, high-energy commentary by a well-known European Formula I announcer.

With production quality that good, it's little wonder that the Red Bull races are televised all over Europe, right after the highly popular Formula I race coverage slot. It also helps explain the mesmerizing appeal the races seem to have for a surprisingly wide range of spectators, from tattooed and mohawk-sporting teenagers to young couples, families, and older retirees. Chambliss agrees. "Part of the reason I think this works is the technology," he says. "People can experience the same ground rush I do in a vertical maneuver, or watch the bridge supports and pylons flashing by right along with me, or see the penalties assigned and watch the split times on the video screens, as the race is happening."

But whatever the reason, the Red Bull races are a lot of fun to watch-and clearly have a crowd appeal far beyond that of a normal airshow. And as Red Bull has pulled off race after race with few problems and growing crowds, more cities have expressed an interest in hosting Red Bull races in the future. Moscow is even contemplating a race next year-in the middle of Red Square. The acid test of the concept may be whether the Red Bull take on air racing will have the same appeal in the United States, where airplanes are far more commonplace. Here, aerobatic champions are far from national heroes. And as I watch the race planes pass right in front of Budapest's Parliament Building-a masterpiece of Gothic architecture left over from the golden era of the Austria-Hungarian Empire-I try to imagine a race like this being allowed along the Potomac or on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Somehow, the image doesn't gel.

Nevertheless, Red Bull staged its first official U.S. race as part of "Fleet Week" in San Francisco in early October-right over the bay, by the downtown wharves. And talks are underway for a race in Miami next year, when the series is expected to add several locations.

Time will tell if Red Bull's high-tech brand of air racing can make it in the States, or even lasts as a sport. But Chambliss cautions against too much skepticism. "This company's pretty amazing," he says. "I used to say they were crazy. But, like this year in Rotterdam, they wanted a runway close to the race course, so they just built us one, right there on the river. Paved. In three days. " He shakes his head in still-impressed disbelief. "So now," he concludes, "when Red Bull says they're going to do something, I tend to believe them."