2015 Event Review

National Championship Air Races, September 16-20, 2015
Location: Stead Field, Reno, Nevada
Admission: General admission, $14 to $35 depending on day Pit Passes, $20-$34 depending on day
Parking: $10 on-site
Value: Excellent
air race
National Championship Air Races, Reno, Nevada

And the excitement continues! After last year's incredible photo-finish between Bill "Tiger" Destefani in Strega and Steven Hinton in Voodoo during a heat race, and Thom Richard's disqualification flying Heavy Metal in the Gold Medal final race, many thought it would be years before we'd see anything near as thrilling. When "Tiger" retired, Heavy Metal was heavily damaged by fire on its way to the races, and Rare Bear declared a Mayday landing on Monday those fears seemed to be confirmed. But as veteran air race fans can tell you, anything can happen and "it ain't over until the planes are on the ground and a clean race has been announced."

The 52nd annual National Championship Air Races took place at Stead Field from September 16 to 20 this year. The weather was characterized by clear skies and mild temperatures: perfect conditions for racing. 116 planes qualified in the six classes and the action was pretty much non-stop all week. When not flying, the aircraft were being fine-tuned or overhauled in the pits. The crews often worked late into the night to recover from damage or to coax the last little bit of performance out of the airframes and engines. Racing began around 0800 and didn't finish until about 1600. Interspersed with the racing in the afternoon were the airshow performances, which we highlight in another review.

Attendance continues to grow, both in numbers of fans and numbers of racers. Over 150,000 spectators attended this year's event. The Sport class attracted 37 entrants and featured some intense duels in the four medal races (Gold, Silver, Bronze and Medallion). The Jet class qualified a record 17 aircraft, dominated by eleven L-39s. The field also included an L-139, three L-29 Delfins, and a TS-11 Iskra. But it was a DH 115 Vampire jet, Vampire, piloted by Pete Zaccagnino, which took the gold. Steve Senegal, in Endeavor, dominated the sixteen plane Formula One field. And even the sometimes staid T-6 class saw some spirited action this year, with Dennis Buehn, in Midnight Miss III, taking the gold.

But it is the Unlimited class which attracts the most attention and which this year created, once again, the most excitement. Thirteen highly modified warbirds qualified to race and no fewer than seven P-51D Mustangs showed up. Unfortunately Heavy Metal had been damaged by fire during a refueling stop on its way to Reno and did not participate. Completing the impressive lineup were four Sea Furies, a Yak-11, and perennial fan favorite Rare Bear. The F8F Bearcat captured pole position with a qualification time of 480.644 mph, but also showed signs of its temperamental engine when it called for a Mayday landing on Monday. But all eyes were on Voodoo and Strega. Six-time champion Steven Hinton was once again piloting Voodoo, while Robert "Hoot" Gibson replaced "Tiger" Destefani in Strega. In the first heat, Rare Bear continued its blistering pace, winning with a speed of 478.479, with Strega and Voodoo coming in second and third, respectively. In Heat 3A "Hoot" poured it on, coming in first with a speed of 484.793 mph, with Hinton once again right behind him. Stewart Dawson, in Rare Bear, held on to third. All the while, Dennis Sanders, in the Sea Fury Dreadnought, maintained a steady presence behind the trio of leaders, never deviating by more than a few mph from his 425 mph pace. By Sunday afternoon the stands were filled and excitement was running high. Had Hinton simply been nursing Voodoo? Could "Hoot" hang on? Would Rare Bear even finish? As the line of racers appeared from behind the crowd, Steve Hinton Sr., flying the T-33 pace jet Pacemaker, pulled up and away, declaring "Gentlemen, you have a race!" Immediately, "Hoot" bolted for the lead and the dueling began. Lap after lap, Hinton kept doggedly after him, but with every pass through the "Valley of Speed" he fell a little farther behind and Stewart Dawson gained a bit on Voodoo. By the last lap, it was pretty clear that an upset was in the making, and attention shifted to see whether Hinton would be able to hang on to second. Sure enough, Strega took the checkered flag! Rounding the last turn, Rare Bear overtook Voodoo and at the last second Hinton called a Mayday and climbed to altitude to recover. And just like that it was over. "Hoot" Gibson had broken Steve Hinton's six-year winning streak, Rare Bear had not only finished, but Stewart Dawson had flown it to second place, and Dennis Sanders, flying the ever-dependable Dreadnought, would once again share the podium. What a race!

Leave it to a former astronaut ("Hoot" Gibson flew F-4s and F-14s as a Naval aviator and went on to pilot the Space Shuttle for NASA) to take the gold with such an out-of-this world win: "I've been dreaming about this for 25 years or so, and I've been a fan of the air races since I was a little kid. I can't believe I won the Unlimited championship. What a thrill." When asked about his plans for the future he said the only certain thing was that he'd be back next year.

By all measures, the races appear to have recovered from the repercussions of 2011's fatal crash. Attendance is up and the Reno Air Racing Association (RARA) is projecting a profit of over $100,000 (where the original budget called for a $630,000 loss). Overall, the event is projected to have generated more than $70 million for the region's economy. "To say we're very pleased with the preliminary results of the 2015 National Championship Air Races is an understatement," said John Agather, chairman of the RARA board of directors. "We're already planning for a great event next year and are excited to have the Blue Angels returning in 2016." See you in Stead, September 14-18, 2016!

would like to thank all of the staff, volunteers and sponsors who make this event possible and thank Kelly Glenn for arranging media access.


Unlimited Breitling Gold Results:


Race #



Speed (mph)



P-51D Mustang Strega

Robert “Hoot” Gibson




F8F-2 Bearcat   Rare Bear            

Stewart Dawson




Sea Fury TMK 20 Dreadnought

Dennis Sanders




Sea Fury TMK 20 Sawbones"

Curt Brown




Sea Fury TMK 20

Korey Wells




Sea Fury  MK II     Argonaut           

Stewart Dawson




P-51D Mustang      Voodoo           

Steven Hinton





Results from all of the heats and races can be found online at http://reports.airrace.org.
At the Pylons
Despite the incredible diversity of aircraft types, speeds, course layouts and number of laps, one thing remains constant: you have to fly a clean race. The official rules are clearly spelled out and first-timer racers must attend a training camp known as the "Rookie School." Enforcing these rules out in the "sticks" are the pylon judges, a close-knit group of roughly 150 members who come from around the globe each year to volunteer their time and expertise. Standing out in the high desert, enduring the extremes of heat and cold and searching for shade as aircraft fly directly towards you at speeds between 200 and 500 mph fifty feet off the deck is not for everybody. But for this small group it becomes addictive; many have been doing this for decades. After all, it's the best seat in the house at the "Fastest Motorsport in the World." (Yes, that's right, even the slowest winning speeds at Stead are faster than the track record at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.) Each member of the team is responsible for ensuring that the pilots conform to the course rules. Among other things, pilots must keep their aircraft within altitude limits, pass outside the pylon and not pass other aircraft on the inside. We were fortunate to spend time at Inner Pylon 5 during the races where we watched Team Captain Dean Patmon and his crew in action. Each member knew exactly what to do and they did it with a professionalism that was a joy to see. We're looking forward to seeing them again next year in Stead.
For Reno Air Show and static on display Click here!
Report and photography by Norman A. Graf for

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National Championship Air Races
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