UNLIMITED AIR RACING - RENO 2018
Text and Photos by Dan Whitney
Published 22 Feb 2019; Revised 10 Mar 2019


September 2018 marked the 55th Annual National Championship Air Races, and once again held at Reno’s Stead Field. As usual the racing was fun and exciting, even though the Super Unlimited racers were noticeably absent. Consequently, the Unlimited field was reduced to only 15 WWII era competitors. The dearth of competitors is directly attributable to the reduced purses available to the participants and winners. Efforts are being made to get additional sponsorship, and thereby be able to offer purses that will bring out the competitors. Even so, if you are not focused on comparing speeds to the previous year, the actual racing was very exciting and again provided the fans with an opportunity to see these marvelous aircraft in their element: close, low and fast!

Though the field in the Unlimited Division was 15 racing Warbirds, down from 18 in 2017, it still beat the 11 racer field of 2016. The result was that there were two Unlimited races each day, Thursday through Sunday. The weather was again perfect for air racing, lots of sunshine, moderate winds, and no smoke from the California wildfires. The emphasis on safety again paid off, with the only major incident being when two of the jet class racers had a mid-air, but fortunately both were able to land safely.

The Big Picture

This year’s Unlimited field included eight P-51 Mustangs, five Sea Furys, a with two Allison V-1710 powered racers, a P-63A and a Yak 3M (that again came all the way from New Zealand!). Missing this year were the highly modified P-51s Strega and Voodoo, both capable of speeds in excess of 500 mph.

Most of the Unlimiteds are individually owned, however the Sanders Family brought four Sea Furys and the Palm Springs Museum brought a Mustang and their P-63. Please see the table at the end of this article for a complete listing of the racers, the airplane’s name, the name of the pilot, along with the speeds and finishing positions in each heat.

The Races

With the exception of the Sunday Silver and Gold races, the races are of six laps duration, for a length of 46.99 miles. For Sunday’s finals, the Silver is seven laps, 54.90 miles, and the Unlimited Gold race is for eight laps, 62.81 miles.

All racers have to be on the field the Saturday before race week. Qualifying begins on Monday and extends to noon Wednesday. That afternoon the airshow and non-Unlimited classes began racing, with the first Unlimited race occurring Thursday morning.

Mustangs Blondie and Speedball Alice finished in fifth and sixth respectively with speeds of 308.889 and 308.785 mph in Thursday’s Silver heat. They were close like this the whole 46.99 miles!

Thursday – Traditionally the fastest Gold Class Unlimited racers get the day off; this meant that Dreadnought, Sawbones and Miss America could stay in the pits and continue preparations for the hard running. This still leaves the Silver and Bronze racers, where some very competitive battles developed among the well matched racers. The first to race was the Bronze Class, won by Dennis Sanders in the newly restored, and P&W R-2800 powered, Sea Fury TMK 20 (two-seater) The Eagle’s Wings, with an actual speed of 339.607 mph, however he cut a pylon and was penalized 12 seconds, making his winning speed 331.618 mph, still some 13 mph faster than second place Lady Jo. He was followed by three stock P-51D Mustangs: Lady Jo, flown by Rob Gordon, Bunny, flown by Mark Moodie, and Lady B, flown by Michael Pfleger. Both the P-63A Pretty Polly and P-51D Crusader were disqualified.

The Silver Heat featured three P-51Ds, two Sea Furies, and the Yak 3M. The heat was won by Sherm Smoot in the Sanders P&W R-2800 powered single-seat Sea Fury Argonaut at 364.681 mph. He was closely followed by #924, the Sander’s stock Centaurus powered Sea Fury TMK 20, at a speed of 361.077 mph. Third place was taken by Mike Brown in his new P-51D racer Goldfinger with a speed of 358.027 mph, however he cut a pylon and was assessed a 12 second penalty, resulting in his posted speed of 349.159 mph. Third place either way. Graeme Frew, from New Zealand, finished in his Yak 3M Full Noise in fourth with a speed of 339.416 mph. Some very competitive flying was demonstrated between the Mustangs Blondie and Speedball Alice, which finished in fifth and sixth respectively, with speeds of 308.889 and 308.785 mph.

Friday – The day’s Unlimited racing started with eight Silver heat racers, with the winner being Dennis Sanders in the Sea Fury The Eagle’s Wings at a speed of 347.332 mph. Clearly he intended to “bump” up into the Saturday Gold heat, as he won by bettering his qualifying speed of 336.952 mph. The rest of the field was made up of P-51Ds, and the sole P-63A. Blondie and Speedball Alice continued their competitive ways, however this time Dan Vance in Speedball Alice bested Brant Seghetti in Blondie by 8.7 seconds finishing second and third with 326.968 and 321.554 mph respectively. Michael Pfleger finished fourth in his Mustang Lady B at 311.147 mph and J.P. Thibodeau in Crusader was 21 seconds behind Lady B at 294.318 mph. Following them was “JD” Dale in the P-63A Pretty Polly, finishing at 288.322 mph, and Mark Moody in the P-51D Bunny. They had a tight race in which JD held the lead. As you can see in the adjacent photo, it was close. However, Mark only completed five of the six laps as Bunny was lapped by Dennis Sanders in The Eagle’s Wings and there was no need to do another lap. Mustang Lady Jo, piloted by Rob Gordon, was a DNF.

After waiting all week we got to see the six Unlimited Gold racers in the last race on Friday! Joel Swager in Dreadnought was never challenged, and won the six lap race with a speed of 421.107 mph. They finished in the order in which they qualified and started the race. The big Wright R-3350 powered Sea Fury Sawbones was second, eleven seconds behind Dreadnought, at 408.982 mph, followed by 26 seconds later by the P-51D Miss America at 383.863 mph.

Sherm Smoot, who had bumped into the Gold Heat with his Silver Heat win on Thursday in the R-2800 powered Sea Fury Argonaut, finished fourth at 363.882 mph. He was followed by #924, the Centaurus powered Sea Fury who was fifth at 356.294 mph. Sixth place was Mike Brown in his beautiful polished metal and gold P-51D Goldfinger at 354.056 mph, the only Gold Heat racer to better his qualifying speed. Graeme Frew in the Yak 3M Full Noise was lapped by Dreadnought, and with the race finished, elected to only complete five of the six laps, for which his speed was 342.003 mph.

P-51 Mustangs, (left to right) Blondie, Lady B and Crusader finished 4th, 5th and 6th respectively in Saturday’s Silver Heat with speeds of 316.975, 315.541 and 315.456 mph. That’s some pretty close racing!

Saturday – The first Unlimited race of the day was the Silver Heat, again won by Dennis Sanders in the Sea Fury The Eagle’s Wings at 340.618 mph, making him eligible to “bump up” to race in the Sunday Gold Final. He was followed by Dan Vance in his P-51D Speedball Alice, some 24 seconds later, finishing with a speed of 324.898 mph. He was followed by three closely packed P-51’s, Blondie, Lady B and Crusader, piloted respectively by Brant Seghetti, Michael Pfleger and J.P. Thibodeau, with speeds of 316.975, 315.541 and 315.456 mph. This “race within a race” was fun to watch as the three stock P-51Ds jockeyed and passed one another. Following them by nearly 30 seconds was Tom Nightingale in Bunny and Rob Gordon in Lady Jo, also stock V-1650 Merlin powered Mustangs, their speeds were 301.782 and 298.978 mph respectively. Bringing up the rear was the rare and smooth running Allison powered P-63A Pretty Polly, piloted by “JD” Dale. Having been lapped, “JD” elected to only complete five of the scheduled six laps, for which he recorded a speed of 282.633 mph.

The Gold Heat started and finished just like the day before, that is they started in the order they finished on Friday, and finished in the same order. It appeared that no one was “pushing” it either, as speeds were generally the same as the day before. If anyone did have “something” under the hood, they were saving it for Sunday’s final.

Sunday – The weather, which had been good all week, continued and brought with it a fantastic day, good crowds, and everything set for an exciting conclusion to the 55th Reno National Championship Air Races.

The seven lap, 54.9007 mile, Unlimited Silver Final was an all “Pursuit” race field, that is, six stock P-51D’s and the one P-63A. The racing was quite close: only 26 seconds separated the first five Mustangs! These were Speedball Alice, Blondie, Bunny, Crusader, and Lady B, piloted respectively by Dan Vance, Brant Segetti, Mark Moodie, J.P. Thibodeau and Michael Pfleger. Correspondingly, their speeds were, 334.220, 333.985, 333.562, 321.634 and 320.058 mph. While the speeds weren’t in the 400+ mph range, how are you to know, when the racing is so competitive and close. The crowd loved seeing the Mustangs in their element, low and fast! Rob Gordon in Lady Jo was another six seconds back, at 314.275 mph, and “JD” Dale, in the Kingcobra Pretty Polly, brought up the rear at 307.781 mph, the only race in which he bested his qualifying speed of 291.540 mph. It was a fun race!

And now for the climax of race week, the Unlimited Gold Final! At eight laps, and 62.81 miles, it is the longest race of the week. It was a full field of eight racers, as Dennis Sanders had joined the mix following his Saturday Silver Heat win in the Sea Fury The Eagle’s Wings. The field consisted of five Sea Furys, two Mustangs and Graeme Frew’s Yak.

Joel Swager motored Dreadnought around the course, leading in his steady fashion, never really being challenged, and finishing first with a speed of 417.735 mph, almost as fast as his Saturday finish at 417.996 mph, both well short of his qualifying speed of 433.285 mph. Brent Hisey in his P-51D Miss America did challenge, and pass, Curt Brown in Sawbones, finishing second at 410.927 mph, nine seconds ahead of Sawbones, who ran 401.721 mph. These three racers lapped the remainder of the field, consequently the rest of the racers elected to finish only seven laps. Their finishing speeds being, Sherm Smoot in Argonaut at 364.652 mph, Mark Watt in #924 at 355.175 mph, Mike Brown in his P-51D Goldfinger at 353.175 mph and Graeme Frew in the Yak Full Noise at 352.608 mph. Dennis Sanders finished last with The Eagle’s Wings at 328.065 mph.

Certainly the speeds were down from the record highs of previous years, but seeing a sky full of big Warbirds in competition is still exciting and a unique event to witness.

The Racers

The following descriptions of each airplane are given in the order in which they qualified. See the table at the end of this article for speeds and placement in all of the Unlimited Heats.

#8 Dreadnought, a Sea Fury T.Mk.20, re-powered with a Pratt & Whitney R-4360, and piloted for the second year by Joel Swager. This big and heavy airplane takes the approach to racing of being pretty, and very dependable: likely to finish in the money when one or more of the highly modified racers has problem, which was the case this year as the highly modified racers didn’t show up. Back in 1986 Dreadnought set a new qualifying record at 452.737 mph, and this year qualified at 433.285 mph. This year Swager ran 421 to 417 in the Gold Heats and was in front at the finish on Sunday with a speed of 417.735 mph, nine seconds ahead of second place.

#71 Sawbones, again flown by Shuttle Astronaut Curt Brown, was the only Wright R-3350-26WA powered Sea Fury at the races this year. Curt qualified at 413.511 mph, a bit better than last year. He finished second in the first two days of Gold heat racing, but on Sunday was passed by P-51D, Miss America, thus finishing in third with a speed of 401.721 mph. In the past couple of years Sawbones has been fitted with a new cowling and propeller spinner in an effort to reduce cooling drag. Those modifications were successful, but there was nothing similar done to the airframe or engine for this years’ competition.

#11 Miss America, a clipped wing P-51D flown by Brent Hisey, was back at Reno after a five year absence, and powered by a Rick Shanholtzer racing Merlin. He qualified at 405.013 mph, which locked him into the Gold Heats for the week. He finished in 3rd in the Friday and Saturday heats and finished second in the Gold Final on Sunday with a speed of 410.927 mph. Brent definitely has something extra “under the hood” of his Mustang, which along with clipped wings and other racing accouterments, made Miss America a very competitive racer.

All week long the crew of Miss America was chasing a ‘gremlin’ in that a considerable amount of ADI fluid was venting from its tank during the race, leaving a small ‘contrail’. By the time of the Sunday Final they had pretty much resolved the issue by changing the ‘scarf’ angle on the tank vent tube. As a result no vapor is seen coming from the below wing vent in the below photo, taken during the Gold Final.

 

#114 Argonaut, a Pratt & Whitney R-2800-CB3 powered single seat Sea Fury FB Mk.11 was flown again by Sherm Smoot. He qualified at 379.967 mph, better than last year’s 375.597 mph. By winning the Unlimited Silver Heat on Thursday he was able to bump into the Gold Heats for the rest of the week. There he finished in 4th place for all of the Gold races.

#924G Is a two-seat T.Mk.20 Sea Fury, powered by a rare Bristol Centaurus 18-cylinder sleeve valve engine. This year it was again flown by Mark Watt, who qualified the racer at 366.675 mph, up from last year’s qualifying speed of 358.916, but not close to its 2016 speed of 386.154 mph (equivalent to 377.824 mph on the current course). Although Mark finished in second during the Thursday Silver Heat, he was brought into the Gold class to complete the field for the Friday Heat. From there he was a steady 5th place finisher in the Gold Heats for the rest of the week. His speeds were very consistent being 356.394, 356.993 and 355.175 mph for the Friday, Saturday and Sunday Gold Heats respectively.

#35 Full Noise, an Allison V-1710 powered Yakovlev 3M for the second time brought from New Zealand just for the races by owner/pilot Graeme Frew. He had his stock Allison V-1710 running well and qualified with a speed of 362.770 mph. Full Noise finished 4th in the Thursday Silver Heat, thus was the last of the racers to advance to fill the Gold field for the rest of the week.

 

#2 Goldfinger, is a stock Rolls-Royce Merlin powered P-51D that previously raced at Reno as #45 Risky Business, but has been recently purchased and modified by Michael Brown. He previously owned and flew the highly modified and R-3350 powered Sea Fury #232. Mike qualified the reworked Goldfinger at 351.986 mph and ran in the Thursday Silver Heat, where his 3rd place finish qualified him to move into the Gold field for the rest of the week.

#44 Sparky/Blondie, is another stock Rolls-Royce Merlin powered P-51D, and flown by Brant Seghetti. Brant has been flying the aircraft at Reno since 1997, and qualified his racer this year at 344.222 mph, better than the speeds he qualified at during the previous two years. Brant finished 5th in the Thursday Silver race, and with the bumping of the racers ahead of him into the Gold class, he finished 3rd on Friday and Saturday and finished 2nd in the Silver final on Sunday with a speed of 333.985 mph.

#31 Speedball Alice, is a stock Merlin powered P-51D qualified and raced by Dan Vance. His qualifying speed was 338.534 mph, twenty mph faster than his 2017 qualifying speed. This placed him in the Silver Heats all week, where he won the seven lap final on Sunday with a speed of 334.220 mph.

 

#3 The Eagle’s Wings, Hawker TMK20 Sea Fury came straight out of the Sanders Family shop where it was rebuilt and fitted with a P&W R-2800 for Joseph H. Thibodeau. It was piloted by Dennis Sanders, who qualified the new racer at 336.952 mph and won three races during the week: The Thursday Bronze, the Friday (347.332 mph) and Saturday Silver Heats, then bumped up into the Sunday Gold Final, where he took it easy and finished 8th with 328.065 mph.

#81 Lady Jo, was back on the course for the first time since 2015, when the stock P-51D qualified at 303.289 mph on the old course. This year pilot Rob Gordon qualified at 328.643 mph. In the Thursday Bronze Heat Lady Jo came in second place to The Eagle’s Wings, 21 seconds behind with a speed of 318.442 mph. Gordon’s next best performance was in the Silver Final on Sunday, where he finished sixth, with a speed of 314.275 mph.

#41 Lady B, a stock Merlin powered P-51D, was racing for the second year with Michael Pfleger as the pilot. The airplane had an earlier racing career in the hands of E.D. Winer, who took 1st place with it at the Los Angeles Air Races in 1966, and 2nd place at Reno in 1967, when the airplane was painted in his distinctive yellow and black checkerboard pattern. Now owned by Fred Telling the airplane is in stock configuration and presents a pretty figure out on the pylons.

 

#62 Bunny, another stock Merlin powered P-51D came to Reno courtesy of the Palm Springs Air Museum. The airplane was qualified by Mark Moodie at 309.263 mph, bettering his 2017 qualifying speed of 300.147 mph. Moodie finished3rd in the Bronze Heat on Thursday, then seventh and sixth respectively in the Friday and Saturday Silver heats. His best race was in the Sunday Silver final where he finished third, with a speed of 333.562 mph. The airplane was only restored to fly in 2015, and is marked as the Tuskegee P-51D, Bunny.

#63 Pretty Polly, was the forth Bell P-63A Kingcobra built and after spending the war doing test work for the NACA was surplused. The Palm Springs Air Museum restored the aircraft and it is flown by Jim “JD” Dale. Originally the aircraft had a two-stage Allison V-1710-93 engine; however the Auxiliary Supercharger has been removed in its current configuration. This was the aircraft’s first outing as a racer, and Dale qualified it at 291.540 mph. His speed in the Silver Final was 307.781 mph, better than he qualified.

#21 Crusader, a stock P-51D Mustang owned by Joseph H. Thibodeau and flown by his son J.P. Thibodeau. Joseph owned two of this year’s racers, the newly rebuilt #3 Sea Fury, The Eagle’s Nest, and the #21 P-51D Crusader, flown by J.P. Crusader had not raced at Reno since 2005, when it was qualified at a speed of 363.372 mph. In 2004 Crusader qualified at 378.378 mph and won the Sunday Bronze Final with a speed of 408.163 mph. This year J.P. qualified it at 283.552 mph. His best finish of the week was in Sunday’s Silver Final, where he came in 4th at 321.634 mph. In each day’s heat races he was able to increase his speed, the only one of the entire field to do that. As a side note, back in 2004 Joe Thibodeau had entered as #21, a Hawker Sea Fury, however he showed up in Crusader, his #21 Mustang. Several of the “official” records of the year incorrectly identify his performance as having been in the Sea Fury, although photographs at the time clearly show he raced Crusader.

 

The Airshow

This year the Reno Race Committee was not able to schedule one of the military jet demonstration teams; however they did invite the Patriots Jet Team, the largest privately owned jet team in the western hemisphere. This six jet team uses the Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros jet trainer and features pilots that were formerly part of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds or the U.S. Navy Blue Angels. They are unbelievably precise in their flying, and have the advantage of not having afterburners, meaning they stay visible throughout their entire show.

 

The Other Racing Classes

While our emphasis is on the Unlimited Class and Warbirds at Reno, there is a lot of other racing going on as well. The Jet Class, Sports Class, T-6 Class, Biplanes and Formula One Classes all have a full race schedule, with racing starting at eight in the morning and continuing until about five in the afternoon. In total, there were 108 qualifying racers from all classes, which resulted in a full racing schedule every day. Racing is alive and well at Reno!

Jet Class

This year there were 16 Jet Class racers. This included twelve L-39s, four L-29s. Qualifying speeds ranged from 377.574 to 506.168 mph.

 

Sport Class

Sport Class racing allows a wide range of airplane types, as long as their engines are under 1,000 cubic inches displacement, but otherwise unlimited as they allow turbosuperchargers, ADI, and even nitrous oxide injection. This year’s qualifying speeds ranged from 245.822 to Jeff LaVelle’s 407.022 mph.

 

T-6 Class

Qualifying speeds for the “stock” T-6 class ranged from 189.010 to 243.030 mph. The racing is tight, close and noisy!

 

Biplane Class

 

Formula One Class

 

Summary

So there wasn’t any really “heavy metal” in the Unlimited Class at Reno this year, but there was no shortage of interesting and exciting racers and airplanes. There are also a number of creditable rumors around that next year some of the “big boys” will be back. We can hope, and encourage them.

All said, it was a great week, wonderful weather, awesome people, and an organization working to make this the truly memorable event it has always been.

See you all at Reno 2019!

 

Reno 2018 Unlimited Qualifying and Finishing Speeds
Race No. Name Aircraft Type Pilot Qualifying
mph
Thursday
mph
Friday
mph
Saturday
mph
Sunday
mph
8 Dreadnought Hawker TMK20 Sea Fury/R-4360 Swager, Joel 433.285 BYE 421.107G1 417.996G1 417.735G1
71 Sawbones Hawker FB11 Sea Fury/R-3350 Brown, Curt 413.511 BYE 408.982G2 410.037G2 401.721G3
11 Miss America P-51D Mustang Hisey, Brent 405.013 BYE 383.863G3 386.806G3 410.927G2
114 Argonaut Hawker Mk 11 Sea Fury/R-2800 Smoot, Sherman 379.967 364.681S1 363.882G4 368.967G4 364.652G46
924 #924G Hawker TMK20 Sea Fury/Centaurus Watt, Mark 366.675 361.077S2 356.294G5 356.993G5 355.175G56
35 Full Noise Yakovlev 3M/V-1710 Frew, Graeme 362.770 339.416S4 342.003G75 356.131G6 352.608G76
2 Goldfinger P-51D Mustang Brown, Mike 351.986 349.159S32 354.056G6 353.868G7 353.911G66
44 Sparky/Blondie P-51D Mustang Seghetti, Brant 344.222 308.889S5 321.554S3 316.975S3 333.985S2
31 Speedball Alice P-51D Mustang Vance, Dan 338.534 308.785S6 326.968S2 324.898S2 334.220S1
3 Eagle’s Wings Hawker TMK20 Sea Fury/R-2800 Sanders, Dennis 336.952 331.618B11 347.332S1 340.618S1 328.065G86
81 Lady Jo P-51D Mustang Gordon, Rob 328.643 318.442B2 DNF-S84 298.978S7 314.275S6
41 Lady B P-51D Mustang Pfleger, Michael 317.901 311.744B4 311.147S4 315.541S4 320.058S5
62 Bunny P-51D Mustang Moodie, Mark 309.263 315.811B3 287.660S73 301.782S63 333.562S3
63 Pretty Polly P-63A Kingcobra Dale, Jim “JD” 291.540 DQ-B 288.322S6 282.633S85 307.781S7
21 Crusader P-51D Mustang Thibodeau, JP 283.552 DQ-B 294.318S5 315.456S5 321.634S4
M = Medallion, B = Bronze Heat Race, S = Silver Heat Race, G = Gold Heat Race, DNS = Did Not Start, DNF-# = Did Not Finish-lap out,
DNQ = Did Not Qualify, DNR = Did Not Race, DQ = Disqualified, BOLD = 1st Place Heat Winners, Number following Heat letter is finishing position
1 Penalized 12 sec for pylon cut, actually ran 339.607 mph
2 Penalized 12 sec for pylon cut, actually ran 358.027 mph
3 Piloted by Tom Nightingale
4 Completed only first two laps
5 Lapped, Completed 5 of 6 laps
6 Lapped, Completed 7 of 8 laps

 


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