The last event of its kind, the Reno National Championship Air Races, returns with more jaw-dropping races on Sept. 13-17
Airplane racing is the world’s fastest motor sport and it gets even more exciting when viewed in person as planes dart across the sky above the crowd.
People from across the country will gather to experience the heart-pounding action firsthand in September from Reno, Nev.
“For the general public, it’s the type of aviation event they can’t see anywhere else, no other show flies this low and close to the crowd so the excitement is there; and nowhere else can you walk through the pits and get close to all of the different planes and the pilots,” said sport class president, Bob Mills, who will be racing for his seventh year.
This year’s event highlights the most popular of the festivities — the races.
Another important mission of the event is to honor military members and highlight military pilots and heroes with appreciation ceremonies. Event spectators will also get up close and personal with military and non-military aircrafts — a hit every year.
Greg “Shifty” Peairs is the air boss of the Reno National Championship Air Races of 12 years and in charge of coordinating pilots, planes, race heat schedules, and basically every facet of the event.
Shifty broke down what guests can expect to see during this year’s extra special air show.
First, 129 participating airplanes are categorized into six classes depending on the aircraft: Formula One, Biplane, T-6, Sport, Jet ,and Unlimited.
Each plane races in heats to determine their placement in divisions within each class: Bronze, Silver and Gold, depending on how fast they are.
“The sport class is the largest, it’s maxed out at 40 planes. Sport has so many doggone airplanes we had to add another division called the Medallion division,” Shifty laughed.
Planes will race in heats from Wednesday, Sept. 13, through Friday, Sept. 15, and the final race will be held on Sunday, Sept. 17, after all of the plane division rankings are solidified in their classes.
“This is working out to be more races than we’ve ever had in the past,” Shifty said.
“I hope everyone who comes out has a great time, because it’s entertainment. We’re the only air race of this type left in the world, and I hope they appreciate what they see as far as the types of airplanes and the fact that they might never get to see those planes again,” he added.
Terry Matter, the Reno Championship Air Races’ director of operations, has been involved in the races as a spectator since 1970, missing only a few races since then. He became a volunteer of the races in 1999, then a pylon judge and board member in 2004, then chairman in 2010, and last year was named the director of operations.
“I just have a real passion for it,” he said.
He and so many others are passionate, not only about flying planes and the air racing event, but about sharing the experience with other people, especially kids whose inspiration is instantly sparked when seeing these magnificent planes.
“First of all, we’d like to satisfy the aviation interests of the spectators who come, but I think just as important is the idea of making it a family event, which not only satisfies those aviation interests of the adults but maybe it also stimulates interest of the younger folks in aviation as a career choice in the future,” Matter said.
Mills also shared his perspective as a pilot and what makes him so crazy about this high-adrenaline sport.
“You know, it’s probably the most fun thing in aviation I’ve done since landing on aircraft carriers as a Navy fighter pilot. I definitely do it for the passion and the challenge of air racing,” he said.
“We’re all pretty much addicted [to this sport]. When we’re taxing back and we see that crowd, we’re smiling and waving, we’re excited to see them, too. We’re definitely going to bring it this year,” Mills added. These races are no cakewalk, either. Pilots are coming to Reno from all around the region and the country, as well as some from Japan, Australia, France and Italy, and no ranking or division placement is promised until race day.
“If an airplane has an engine problem and isn’t able to qualify, it might even be the fastest plane in that class, but if it wasn’t able to qualify it starts dead last. I will do anything in my power if someone’s having a hard time qualifying, to help him or her in those first days,” Shifty said.
His passion comes from years and years of aviation experience both professionally in the Navy and personally, with his work at Soar Truckee glider tours in North Lake Tahoe.
“I love to fly, as you’ve probably figured out,” he said.
That love for flight is what has made his last 15 years with the Reno National Championship Air Races so fulfilling.
“I’m like the choreographer and the conductor of the play. I choreograph with schedules, then once we start flying I basically control what’s going on all around the airport and the raceways, as well as giving guidance to ensure that airplanes are doing the right things timing-wise and that everyone is safe,” Shifty said.
Matter’s highest priority as director of operations is also safety and working as the FAA’s principle point of contact for what goes on flying-wise and safety-wise for the event.
“This is a racing event, so there are some risks associated with it. But I hope people understand we’ve put in place all of the safety measures that are necessary, and have tried to exceed the standards of the FAA in order to present the safest event possible,” he said.
“With any kind of racing you’re going to have an experience or two that you don’t really like. But we want to hopefully put aside some fears that might be associated with the event by exceeding all safety standards,” he added.
These experts have been working tirelessly to bring together the top planes and pilots for a truly spectacular show of speed and precision right in northern Nevada and with such a variety of crafts there is something for everyone to enjoy.
“We have planes that go from 220 miles per hour to over 400 miles per hour. There is something for everyone because it shows the complete range of aviation demonstrations. There are home-built experimental airplanes that are a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors; there’s a ton of pageantry to it. It’s cool, it’s fun, it’s fast — all of the things that make Reno fun,” Mills said.
Cassandra Walker is a features and entertainment reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 530-550-2654 or @snow1cass.