PHOTO/NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP AIR RACES: The races also feature air shows, aviation demonstrations and pit tours.

The annual flotilla of quiet, colorful balloons has landed, but the roar of classic warbirds will replace them in the Northern Nevada sky this week as the Stihl National Championship Air Races returns after a hiatus in 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced organizers to cancel the event last year, but the races will be back Sept. 15-19 to Reno-Stead Airport, when 145 planes and 155 pilots compete head-to-head in seven race classes at speeds often exceeding 500 miles per hour.

The event includes an air show as well as on-ground displays, competitions and vendors. Fans will see demonstrations by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey, F-35A Lightning II, Tucker’s Air Patrol and Jim Peitz Aerosports. On the ground fans will get to experience the National Aviation Heritage Invitation, the Education Discovery Zone and be able to tour the racing pits, an aviation fan favorite.

Volunteers make it happen

Nobody is more excited than the 1,200-plus volunteers who keep the event flying.

“I’m absolutely thrilled,” said Jeanne Pierce of Wellington, who noted that last year’s cancellation has increased fans’ anticipation of the 2021 races.  “The energy will be fabulous with all the pent-up feelings.”  She will be volunteering with the Reno Area 99s, a chapter of the Ninety-Nines, Inc., International Organization of Women Pilots.

Pierce said the races are always a big boost for the local economy. A 2018 independent study at the University of Nevada, Reno, concluded the event brings in $100 million annually, said Fred Telling, CEO of the Air Race organization.

Pierce works behind the scenes, checking in the race pilots for their daily morning briefing.  Another 99s’ member, Kathy Walton of Sparks, will be front-and-center at the visitors information booth just inside the main entrance.

“I’m looking forward to seeing all the people,” Walton said.  “We’ll be helping with problems, and we have a pipeline to the RARA office to report complaints, suggestions and compliments.”

PHOTO/BEN SCHAEFER: A P-40B Tiger Shark is among the vintage aircraft on display at the National Championship Air Races.

An international event

The race’s information booth displays a map studded with pins that mark the homes of the national and international fans attending the event.  “There are people from all over, and they get a hug when they show up,” Walton said.

The hospitality spills over to all the other volunteers. “I love getting back with old friends, seeing the vendors, the Marines next to us, the Boy Scouts who sell posters.”  

The camaraderie “binds the community together. We’re all supporting aviation,” she said.

Several volunteers stressed the importance of building public support for the aviation industry.  The 99s fund scholarships for women to train, refresh and learn new aviation skills.  There is a shortage of pilots nationally, Pierce noted, both for airlines and the general aviation industry. The Experimental Aviation Association’s Young Eagles program guides youngsters through a training program that leads to their first flight in a general-aviation airplane.

“We need more mechanics to keep planes flying,” said 99s volunteer Marye Ann Mead.  A new scholarship program to encourage students to explore aviation careers is expected.

A tram takes fans on a tour of the pits during the National Championship Air Races in 2018.

Action on the ground

The event reaches across acres of the airport. That’s why Jim Williams, a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter No. 1361, drives a tractor that pulls a tram from one end of the Stead ramp to the other.  The use of the tractors is donated by Renner Equipment Company of Yerington and Fallon.

“The trams help people walking all those miles with a little rest, just cruising along in comfortable seating, so they can see the whole show,” Williams explained.  It’s a free service, just hop aboard at the stops.

With aircraft and ground operations in full swing, and large crowds expected during the races, navigating the trams isn’t a simple matter of just driving around on the concrete and asphalt,

“We have a training session before the races,” Williams said.  “We practice doing turns with the tram, and we have radio communication with the observer.”  Volunteers riding on the back of the tram announce the stops and advise the drivers of any safety problems on the ride.

PHOTO/NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP AIR RACES: Volunteers drive the trams that shuttle fans around the event.

Racing around the pylons

Read is thrilled to be part of the team that assists the race broadcast announcers.  The volunteers watch the races with stopwatches in hand and make sure the commentators know which planes and pilots are in the air, what class they are flying in, their qualifying times and other details.

“They are all dedicated,” she said of the team.  “All volunteers are unbelievably important to the races.  Local support is a biggie.”  While many volunteers belong to a club or group, others volunteer directly for the Air Race Association in security, parking, merchandise sales, hospitality, logistics and flight line operations. 

“Volunteer support is pivotal,” said Telling.  The crucial Pylon Racing Seminar session in June —  when pilots learn the ropes of racing on the course mapped out over the sagebrush desert between Stead’s hillsides — was very successful thanks to the help of the volunteers, he said.

“It heartened me,” Telling said.  “It was a longer session with more planes coming, and there was nary a complaint. The pylon judges, pilots, tow crews were all pleased that we’re back and moving forward.”

PHOTO/PIXABAY: Aircraft compete in seven races classes at the event, which is one of the few remaining air races in the nation.

Tickets available online

In addition to the positive economic impact of the races, Telling sees a community benefit: “For a community its size, you rarely see so many special events as you do in Reno – rodeo, Hot August Nights, the Rib Cookoff. It all adds cultural diversity to the mix.”

Advance ticket sales are online. The subscription Checkered Flag Club is sold out and there are only a few places left in the Chairman’s Club.  About 40% of sales will occur on race days as attendees buy their tickets at the entrance, organizers said.

The Unlimited class of stock or modified WWII fighters including P-51 Mustangs, F-8F Bearcats and Hawker Sea Furys being flown at speeds exceeding 500 mph are Telling’s favorites, he said.  The class is “a hotbed of innovation and invention” in the ongoing creation of more power.

PHOTO/AIR RACES: The Air Force Thunderbirds perform at the National Championship Air Races in Stead.

New racing class added

This year includes the event’s newest racing class, STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing) Drag, with 25 competitors looking to take home the first championship.

“I like to watch the STOL Drag race,” said Williams, “Seeing the skill level of the bush pilots when they put it into a slip to the finish line.” Walton also is a fan of the Heritage division planes like the twin Beechs, she said. 

More space for veterans and fans who wish to bring their own lawn chairs is being carved out on the flight line areas in front of the general admission grandstand, Telling said.  “We had 250 veterans at the 2019 event.”

Fans can visit the airfield to watch preliminary heat races for free on Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 13 and 14, Read said.  Visitors can wander the pits where airplanes are tied down, talk with pilots and soak up the race atmosphere.  Static displays of large National Guard transport planes are open for tours. 

The event also includes hands-on activities for all attendees in a STEM Education Discovery Zone, led by an innovative team of engineers, scientists and educators.  This year’s STEM Zone includes an expanded drone flying zone, flight simulators, a 3D printing zone, a hydraulic robotic arm, STEM Arcade and much more. Plus, kids who participate in the STEM Discovery Zone will get free access to the Air Races for the remainder of the week.

PHOTO/DARRELL PERRY: An F-22 Raptor on display at the National Championship Air Races.

A matter of safety

As always, safety is paramount, Telling said. “We recognize and appreciate the tremendous importance of first responders and firefighters in helping conduct a safe event.”

Greg “Shifty” Peairs, who served as “air boss” for 14 years and is now retired, highlighted some safety measures developed over many years to make the races safer.  Each airplane undergoes a flight test when modifications are made, and all planes and pilots must meet stringent FAA requirements.

Peiras also praised the crash and fire rescue teams.  “They are the top teams of any airshow in the U.S,” he said.

For information about tickets, parking, shuttles from two area hotels, performers, the Heritage displays, smoke and COVID information, visit  The Reno Air Racing Association (RARA) is looking for volunteers and will work with volunteers to schedule convenient days and time slots. For more information or to request an application, send an email to or call 775-972-6663.

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