Each September for six decades, the skies of Northern Nevada have vibrated with the roar of the National Championship Air Races.
That era will come to a close this year. The Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority recently announced that the races, scheduled for Sept. 13-17, will be the last to be held at the Reno-Stead Airport. The event, organizers said, has been grounded by the surrounding area’s rapid development and challenging economic conditions.
But don’t write the air races’ obituary just yet.
“We are committed to work hard to find a replacement location,” said Terry Matter, a longtime Air Races board member and retired race operations director. “We’re looking to keep air racing active and alive.”
The Reno races are a national and international attraction for aviation enthusiasts; for 59 years, it has had a deep impact on the area’s economy and community. A 2019 study by the University of Nevada, Reno, showed an annual economic impact of up to $100 million, said Tony Logoteta, chief operating officer of the Reno Air Racing Association. Between 65 and 75% of visitors are from areas outside of Reno-Sparks, including many international visitors.
“It fills up every (hotel) room,” said Joey Scolari, a longtime board member. Scolari noted that downtown Reno once “allowed us to put airplanes in front of the hotels and hosted a parade.” In the 1980s, he recalled, a jet racer landed at the Reno-Tahoe Airport and taxied up Mill Street into downtown Reno at 4 a.m.
Beyond to the economic boost, the event has benefited its home community in many ways, organizers said, from educational opportunities to support for local nonprofits, groups and clubs. Organizers and fans all have stories about memorable races, marked by heart-pounding competitions, famous aviators, memorable displays—and, occasionally, tragic crashes.
For 60 years, Reno was an air race capital in a sport that began in the 1930s. Propeller-driven planes and jets can reach speeds in excess of 400 mph as they zoom in an oval course between pylons, relatively close to the ground. In 2003, Skip Holm piloted Terry Bland’s modified P-51D Mustang, Dago Red, and reached an all-time unlimited class speed record of 507.105 mph in a six-lap race around the course.
Some of the propeller-driven planes are modified World War II fighters; many of the pilots are considered the best air racers in the world.
One competition at the 2017 races stands out for Scolari. “It was the most exciting I’ve ever seen,” he said.
The race between unlimited class racers Strega, piloted by Robert “Hoot” Gibson, and Voodoo, flown by Steve Hinton—both in modified P-51 World War II fighters—had all the spectators standing from the beginning of the race to the finish, Scolari said. “It was like eagles in play, back and forth for the lead, the greatest race of all time,” he said.
Matter agreed: “In the last lap, Strega passed Voodoo for a photo finish.”
Reno’s racing revival
It all began with a Reno veteran and a lonely desert runway.
Bill Stead, a World War II military pilot, hosted a revival of air racing in 1964 at Sky Ranch airfield, a dirt airstrip in Spanish Springs. Two years later, the races moved to the closed Stead Air Force Base, named for Bill’s brother, Croston. The event has continued annually, with the exception of cancellations in 2001, due to the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The World War II fighters of the early days were eventually joined by other types of aircraft. Competition classes expanded to include jet, sport, T-6, formula one, biplane and STOL (short takeoff and landing) planes. Internationally acclaimed military demonstration teams, including the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, the Navy’s Blue Angels, and the Royal Canadian Air Force Snowbirds, put on shows. Exhibitions have featured top aerobatic pilots including Bob Hoover, Sean Tucker, Lefty Gardner, Joann Osterud and Wayne Handley. A “pit” ticket has allowed fans to tour displays of military and civilian aircraft parked at the field.
The National Aviation Heritage Invitational brings restored vintage aircraft to the ramp. The NAHI came first to the Air Races in 1999 and continued through 2019—and will be back this year. Trophies are awarded in several categories for exacting restorations of vintage aircraft.
“The (National Aviation Heritage Invitational being) back at Reno is absolutely fantastic,” said Joshua Cawthra, an aviation accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. “NAHI is the West Coast Mecca for aviation enthusiasts from all over the world.”
STEM education soars
Area students and parents have had opportunities to learn about the science, engineering and technology of aviation in the STEM Education Discovery Zone, an exhibit sponsored by the Global Robot and Drone Deployment group and the Nevada Business Aviation Association.
The program was created by Reza Karamooz of Las Vegas, who brought drones to the Air Races in 2014 at his own expense and with his own crew. Now it’s all presented in partnership with the Air Races management team.
“In 2019, we had 12,000 kids,” Karamooz said.
In a large tent behind the race grandstands, the young participants have flown flight simulators and drones, watched a 3-D printer build a model of the Saturn rocket, and took part in other aviation-related activities. Karamooz, who also hosts STEM aviation events in Northern California and in Utah, said he was inspired to create the program by his childhood experiences.
“I went to an airshow when I was a kid, and when I was growing up, there were the space missions and moon visits,” he said.
Karamooz said the races are a perfect venue for learning about aviation and science because “all the magic is already there.” Some youngsters who attended the races during the decades were inspired to pursue careers in aviation.
“Bringing all the kids out and getting them involved in the races has had an impact for over 50 years,” Scolari said.
The dangerous side
Between 1972 and 2022, 21 pilots have died in crashes during races or when flying practice runs. A wing walker was killed while performing in 1975.
The races endured its greatest tragedy in 2011, when pilot Jimmy Leeward and 10 spectators died after Leeward’s heavily modified World War II-era aircraft spun out of control while banking around a pylon and slammed into a seating area. About 70 spectators were seriously injured, many from flying shrapnel.
At the time, fans wondered if the disaster would herald the end of the races, but the event continued. Organizers work closely with the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates air shows and other aviation events.
“What we know, (the FAA) knows,” Matter said. “We were open with them. Both the local FAA and the top people were on our team. It was a big reason for the races’ success.”
Clarence Bohartz, a retired FAA airworthiness and operations inspector who is now a volunteer for the Air Races, said the event’s relationship with the FAA is key to its success.
“There was trust on both sides,” he said. “This (Reno) FAA office has always been the best office pilots could work with. … We would look for the best way to find a ‘yes’ answer.”
Pilots often ask the FAA and race officials what modifications to their planes are allowed. Racing aircraft are often better built than production airplanes, Bohartz noted, because when working with racers, “You make sure everything is tested and correct.”
“Our biggest concern was safety, which started with the spectators, then pilots,” Bohartz said. Rules keep the crowd at a distance from the racing course, and the pilots are subject to speed limits.
Bohartz, who inspected aircraft, also was involved in operational safety. In earlier years, racing pilots were former military pilots who had formation training at high speeds. Newer pilots often lack that experience. Each year, instructors in the Pylon Racing Seminar train rookies how to fly safely around the pylons.
Volunteers are essential
More than 1,200 volunteers help staff all the activities. Members of community organizations and local service clubs help with essential services and staff booths offering merchandise and food, earning revenue for their programs.
John Melarkey, who began his involvement with the races in 1967 as a pylon judge, managed a cadre of race-course workers for 22 years until his retirement last year.
“It gets in your blood,” Melarkey said. “You can’t not do it.”
Attendance records from 1990 to 2022 show that more than 200 volunteers have worked more than 4,700 hours in that period.
“In general, the community does not recognize the big impact of the races—but the people who volunteer do understand,” said volunteer Karol Hines. “People come from all over the world for aviation events, not just in Reno, but also Minden and Truckee.”
Hines, a soaring (glider) pilot who has competed in international and national contests, was part of the crew for the aerobatic performer Leo Loudenslager beginning in 1983. She and other crew members held up the poles that suspended the ribbons Loudenslager cut while flying low over the main runway.
Volunteers especially treasure the camaraderie, she said. Hines enjoyed the “pit parties” held by competition teams in the staging area.
Scolari said the award dinners for pilots, crew and volunteers after the competition also stand out as the most enjoyable times.
“It’s family after 30 years,” he said.
Melarkey agreed. “It’s a big family reunion,” he said.