Stihl National Championship Air Races Take Off in Reno

Top pilots battle it out in five categories of airplanes at top speeds around closed pylon courses.

Andrew Findlay in One Moment broke the Lancair Legacy speed record during the week's qualifying heats and will give Jeff Lavelle in Race 39 a good challenge in the Sport Gold.Kevin Eccles

The annual Stihl National Championship Air Races at the Reno-Stead Airport (KRTS) have begun. While the top racers won’t start competing until today, the Bronze heats started yesterday for the T-6 and Jet classes. The Formula One and Biplane races were also scheduled to begin yesterday; however, high winds in the afternoon grounded the light racers. So pilots from those two classes along with those from the Sport Class will start competing today.

While it’s always exciting to see and hear the great Unlimited Class airplanes grind it out around the pylons, there won’t be any speed records for the rumbling warbirds this year. Fan favorites Strega and Voodoo are not racing and the fastest qualifying time, set by Joel Swager in a Sea Fury named Dreadnought, was 433 mph, about 50 mph slower than Strega’s qualifying time last year. However, the battle should still be exciting to watch with two other Unlimited airplanes flying quicker than 400 mph.

While they're not as loud, the jets fly faster around the course than the Unlimiteds, pulling several Gs in the turns around the pylons. For the fastest racers, each lap takes less than a minute. To give an idea of how it feels to fly at those speeds, here's a short clip of Scott Farnsworth, who flies Dash Force One, during his qualifying run on Wednesday in which he flew the course at 480 mph. Farnsworth will have a tough field to battle in the official race heats, starting out just ahead of Vicky Benzing in Darkstar II, and behind Pete Zaccagnino in Just Lucky, Pete Stavrides in American Patriot and Rick Vandam in American Spirit, who won the Gold race last year and qualified this year at 506 mph.

The Sport Class is full this year with more than 30 racers flying in four heats. The fastest qualifying time, set by Jeff Lavelle in Super Glasair II Race 39, was 407 mph, which would have placed him third in the Unlimited Class qualifying rounds. At 389 mph, a record qualifying time for a Lancair Legacy, Andrew Finlay was not far behind in One Moment.

With a big TFR in effect for the show, there is no way to fly in to Reno-Stead, but Reno International (RNO) and Truckee (TRK) airports offer good alternatives nearby. In addition to the races, there are many vintage airplanes and warbirds on the field for spectators to enjoy and a slew of vendors and aircraft manufacturers showing off their offerings on the showgrounds.