Regional Growth Forces Reno Air Races to Look for New Home

The air races first launched at Reno-Stead Airport in 1964.

A pair of T-6 racers round a pylon at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada. [Shutterstock]

A pair of T-6 racers round a pylon at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada. [Credit: Shutterstock]

If attending the Reno Air Races is on your bucket list, make your plans now. According to the Reno Air Race Association (RARA), this is the last year the National Championship Air Races will be held at the Reno-Stead Airport (KRTS).

A location for next year has not been announced.

The airport was built in 1942. The races have been held at Reno-Stead since 1964, when it was known as Stead Air Force Base. Today, the airport is shared by the military and civilians as a general aviation airport.

"It is with heavy hearts that we write this to let you know that, after nearly 60 years of air racing in northern Nevada, 2023 will be the last National Championship Air Races at the Reno-Stead Airport," RARA said in a statement Thursday. "While we knew this day might eventually come, we had hoped it wouldn't come so soon. Citing the region's significant growth amongst other concerns, the Reno Tahoe Airport Authority (RTAA) has made the decision to sunset the event."

"We are grateful for our time at the Reno-Stead Airport and our partnership with the Reno Tahoe Airport Authority that made the event possible," the organization added.

FLYING made multiple attempts to reach someone from the Reno Tahoe Airport Authority but our calls were not returned before press time.

Knew It Was Coming

The races bring in millions of dollars to the local economy as thousands of aviation fans and racers flock to the area. RARA is encouraging the public and the race regulars to come to the last event.

"We knew it was coming," said Marilyn Dash, who has competed in the races and been a spectator for 25 years.

Dash attributes the RTAA’s decision to terminate the lease for the races on the encroachment that has been happening since the 1960s, saying the neighborhoods and homes pop up every year, getting closer to the buffer zone around the race courses, which extend approximately 10 miles from the airport.

Safety Concerns

Over the years, aircraft accidents, some of them high profile, have raised safety concerns.

On September 16, 2011, the highly modified P-51 Galloping Ghost crashed in front of the box seats, killing 11 people—including the pilot—and injuring at least 64 others, some of whom by shrapnel created when the aircraft plunged onto the ramp and disintegrated. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that worn-out parts and untested modifications led to the pilot's loss of control and subsequent accident.

Last year on September 18, an Aero Vodochody L-29 crashed during a race, killing the pilot. According to the NTSB report, the aircraft was competing in Race 29, and on lap 3 of 6, entered a climb as it neared outer pylon No. 4. The aircraft steeped its bank to approximately 90 degrees, and started a descent, then rolled left to an approximate 90-degree bank and continued rolling until it struck the ground in a nose-low attitude just outside pylon No. 5. The aircraft exploded on impact.

Vintage Aircraft

In addition to the highly modified, highly specialized racing airplanes, Reno was a great place to view award winning vintage aircraft, says Ron Kaplan, executive director at Ohio Air & Space Hall of Fame and Learning Center. 

Kaplan has been involved in the races since he was part of the Miss America P-51 Air Racing Team in the mid-1990s. In 1998, Kaplan and Mike Houghton, then CEO of RARA, were with the Smithsonian, NAHF, and Rolls-Royce, and they co-founded the National Aviation Heritage Invitational. Owners of airworthy vintage aircraft were invited to fly to the event and have their aircraft judged, similar to how it is done at EAA AirVenture each year.

"We would literally host 25 to 35 flying museum pieces each year. And running into the likes of  our enshrinees added to the allure, for everyone—spectators, sponsors, participants," said Kaplan, who served as the NAHI deputy director up until his retirement last year.

Reno often attracted aviation and aerospace legends, such as Paul Tibbets, Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, Bud Anderson, Don Lopez, Gene Cernan, Herb Kelleher, Patrick Brady "and many, many heroes and legends of flight," Kaplan added. "It was never a hard sell to get true aviation aficionados to join us, and many of them, like Bob Hoover, Hoot Gibson, and Clay Lacy, were regulars, anyway."

One of the highlights of Reno was that the majority of attendees came with an inherent appreciation and understanding of aviation history, Kaplan said.

"That was a major reason the annual ‘People's Choice Award’ trophy, as voted by the spectators, was almost as popular as the Grand Champion trophy itself."

Saying Goodbye

It is difficult to imagine the races being held anyplace else, Dash said.

RARA is exploring other venues that accept the 100,000 to 150,000 people that come to the event. 

"I have heard there have been suggestions of moving it to Tonopah, Minden, or Wendover airports," Dash said. Both Tonopah and Minden Airports are in Nevada; Wendover is in Utah.

The RARA is encouraging racers and race fans to make one more trip to Reno for the last event, "making this year's event the biggest and most successful it can be," it said.

The last National Championship Air Races in Reno will take place from September 13 through 17. The organizers say they expect more than 150 airplanes and pilots to attend, as well as several hands-on displays and experiences, including a STEM Education Discovery Zone, the ever popular heritage displays, military demonstrations, and static displays and more.

The event will also mark the third year of competition for the STOL (short take-off and landing) Drag series. Tickets can be purchased here.

"Some teams spend all year working on airplane designs and modifications in preparation for the Reno Air Races, as it is a one of a kind event held in the United States," says Dash. "This is our last time to get us all together. This is your last year to go—let's just do it. Let's send it off with a bang."

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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