A total of 115 women pilots will take off on the flight of a lifetime when the flag drops at 8 a.m. (ET) on June 21, marking the start of the 45th annual Air Race Classic (ARC).
Among them will be Marie Carastro, 94, the oldest competitor in the race’s 93-year history. Marie will be joined by her teammates, grand-daughter Danielle Carastro, who at age 16 was the youngest ARC participant (2016 race), and daughter Susan Carastro (Danielle’s aunt). Their team is one of two with multi-generational members of the same family competing in this year’s race, says Donna Harris, director of finance and vice president of the Air Race Classic Board.
Harris will be in the air with them, flying a Cessna 182 RG with Air Race Classic president and five-time Master CFI Lara Gaerte. It will be Harris’s third time to compete in the ARC. In her first race in 2016, also with Gaerte, they placed about in the middle of the pack. “In 2019, we placed seventh. This year, we’re hoping to be in the top 10 again or at least finish with no penalties,” she says.
Harris and Gaerte, and the Carastro family trio are two of 50 teams registered to race in the 2022 ARC. When the competition starts, the teams will take off full throttle, 30 seconds apart, down the runway at Lakeland Linder International Airport (KLAL) in Lakeland, Florida. From there, they will embark on a course that will take them roughly 2,400 sm, across 12 states, ending on June 24—or when they touch down before then at Terre Haute Regional Airport (KHUF) in Indiana.
The entire race is flown VFR, and including the terminus stop, there are nine competition legs. At each prescribed stop along the way, the racers will execute a high-speed low pass across a timing line. The fastest airplanes may complete the course in two days, while the slowest may take all four days. However, to be eligible for judging, the teams must cross the final timing line at the terminus airport by 5 p.m. (ET) on the last day of the competition.
Because the ARC is a handicap race, teams race against their own best time. “The race is not about the first one across the finish line, it’s about who beats their handicap by the most,” Harris says. This allows slower airplanes to compete against faster airplanes on an equal basis. “Normal handicap speeds are based on operating at full throttle,” she explains. “It’s leaned appropriately—it’s for best power, [not] best fuel economy.”
The eight intermediate stops in this year’s race are: Moultrie, Georgia (KMGR); Muscle Shoals, Alabama (KMSL); Hattiesburg, Mississippi (KHBG); Pine Bluff, Arkansas (KPBF); Ada, Oklahoma (KADH); Lawrence, Kansas (KLWC); Mt. Vernon, Illinois (KMVN); Tullahoma, Tennessee (KTHA); and a flyover in Washington, Indiana (KDCY).
ARC Builds Confidence and Skills
Harris says participating in the ARC helped build her self-confidence as a pilot. “I gained a better understanding of the airplane and how it works at different speeds, different altitudes,” she says. She also gleaned knowledge from her teammate, Gaerte, who has logged 11,000 flight hours.
Harris says there’s a real strategy to the race and aside from the camaraderie and fun surrounding the event, it gives pilots an opportunity to broaden their skills and push themselves and their aircraft.
“A lot of private pilots stay in their home environment. They don’t go more than 50 miles outside of their home airport,” she says. “This [ARC] allows the women to do an extended cross-country, four days of cross-country flying, 2,400 nautical miles, and experience new parts of the country that they may never have gotten to before. Plus, they get to meet other women pilots who have stories that they can learn from and grow from.”
In addition to gaining knowledge and honing their skills, pilots racing in the competition class—including teams from 13 different colleges or universities—have the opportunity to win cash and other awards. The overall winner will earn $6,000, plus medallions and awards for each team member. Smaller cash prizes will be awarded to those teams finishing in second to 10th place. Separate prizes are awarded for top finishers (first through fourth place) of each leg of the race. The top four collegiate teams will also receive a plaque for each team member and their sponsoring institution.
Rebounding After the Pandemic
The 2022 race marks a return to the original long-distance format, following a lapse caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 competition was canceled and the 2021 contest consisted of a one-day Air Derby, which was flown in different locations determined by each team. The Air Derby allowed a greater variety of aircraft to compete and now ARC is considering opening its competition guidelines to include experimental, and possibly, turbocharged airplanes in the future. To do this, however, performance baselines will first need to be determined.
To that end, this year’s race will include three aircraft flying with electronic data managed systems. A first for the ARC, the airplanes will be piloted by teams representing the University of North Dakota (one team) and Liberty University (two teams), but they won’t be competing for prizes. Harris says their participation will allow ARC judges to determine appropriate handicaps for this type of aircraft, so that hopefully they can compete in the future.
The advanced avionics on these airplanes don’t allow them to operate at full throttle, which is the performance level upon which ARC bases each aircraft’s handicap, Harris says. “We need to capture that data at different rpm [settings], 2,600, 2,400, and 2,500…This will allow them to compete more equitably in the future.”
ARC invited turbocharged or supercharged piston aircraft to join in the noncompetition class this year, as well; however, none registered.
A 93-Year Legacy
The Air Race Classic traces its roots to the 1929 Women’s Air Derby, aka the Powder Puff Derby, in which Amelia Earhart and 19 other female pilots raced from Santa Monica, California, to Cleveland, Ohio. This year’s ARC celebrates the 93rd anniversary of that historic competition, which marked the beginning of women’s air racing in the U.S.
“Every June, female pilots from across the nation fly the ARC for the competition and camaraderie,” says Gaerte. “We look forward to celebrating the 93rd anniversary of the Women’s Air Derby as we welcome back veteran racers and meet new competitors at our start in Lakeland, Florida.”
ARC fans can follow the racers’ progress on airraceclassic.org.