September Reno Air Races 2004
by Skip Holm

These were hot August nights in
Provo, Utah. 
This was air race season


The Dago Red crew had been working through the nights and days to install the engine that would give Dago Red another race victory, the sixth consecutive win in a row, making Dago Red the winningest racer in the history of air racing.  The engine had taken approximately eight months to overhaul, inspect, and repair.  A new crank and new main bearings had needed to be installed, as well as traditional components from running such high manifold pressure.  The Dago team had tried a new power setting in the 2003 race and this had been disastrous to the engine.  The torque had been so great that the crankshaft had flexed between the bearings, in the longitudinal axis, with the consequence being the edges of the main crankshaft bearings had broken off and had been found laying in the oil pan. 

On 15 August, the team of Kerch, Mike, Dave, Steve, Dan and Clay had installed the engine and were ground running the engine.  I arrived shortly thereafter and as the flying started, this engine had accumulated 9 hours of flight time.  It was the most prepared engine we had seen in years of racing, and we were set for success.  All the flights were without any concern, with the engine feeling and operating very well.  After landing from the last break-in flight, race fuel was added and the last power flight was planned prior to the team going home. As Kerch so aptly put it, “We had a package!”  The plane was ready for Reno 2004!

Luckily for our race team, guys are what they are throughout the world, and ours was no exception.  The food had arrived and all the crew stopped doing and started eating.  The eating gave way to gabbing and as the rest of us continued to yammer on about nothings, Dave went back to the racer and decided to inspect one more filter.  We had inspected the main filter after the last flight and had found nothing of consequence, so the expectation was to find nothing in the smaller filters also.  As Dave took the last filter off, he saw metal bronze shavings that precipitated sending the engine back to California and having it re-overhauled.  We considered this to be extremely good luck in times of extremely bad luck, as we still had time to make the Reno race schedule. 

More hot August nights.
More Provo.
More engine work.
More problems.

On September eve, after working night and day in the Dwight Thorn’s engine shop, Steve, Mike, Kerch, Eric and John had done the impossible again; they had put together the second engine package, installing a new crankshaft, bearings, and new 50 year old race-ready parts.  The engine was again on the way to Provo for installation in Dago Red.  On 3 September, we flew Dago Red for the first time with this new engine.  All was well in the Dago Red racing world. 

The engine break-in took two days and on the second day a long flight was planned, to culminate in adding race fuel for a power run and subsequent flight to Reno.  This lengthy flight went as planned, and as the hour long flight was finishing, numerous planes had entered the pattern at Provo for the planned airshow that day, as well as several student pilot planes were vying for take-off positions. 

Within the next minute, a plane on landing roll experienced a ground loop, leaving parts and debris on the runway, the airport manager pickup had driven on the active, someone on the frequency had declared the runway was closed, a student pilot had taxied onto the runway anticipating takeoff, and the Dago Red engine quit in flight.  This combination of events and subsequent actions happened in space warp time, and initially, the dead stick seemed acceptable to me, but soon turned very exciting.  I called a Mayday, saying I was landing on runway 13.  The traffic on the runway did not respond to the Mayday by exiting the runway, so I again called Mayday, commanding the traffic to exit the runway immediately.  They again did not exit, but stopped on the runway.  The Dago Red ground crew now repeated on the Dago Red channel that the pickup and planes were still on the runway, and the runway was still closed.  I had turned toward the runway for the landing but immediately realized that I was not going to clear the traffic on this angle, so I turned to an off angle and off runway approach. 

Also, by now, I had great apprehension on even making it onto the solid ground that protruded from the swamp land and the dike area.  I had made a decision to lower the gear, forcing me to land on some area that would sustain a gear down landing.  Dago Red was the only ride I had at Reno and did not want to ruin the high speed slick paint job by belling in the puppy.  I also thought of Jeannie’s belly landing in 1980, so lifted the flaps and the cooling door, thinking in my mind that these items were hard to replace or fix in case of some additional damage in the landing phase. 

As I dove toward the airfield, I was reminded of a well used phrase I use when teaching pilots to fly high performance jets or props – always crash on the airfield!  I dove toward the field, actually the dike, trying to avoid the dike and the 10 foot chain link fence that was built above the dike.  As I approached the dike in the dive, I would have bet you my prize Pomeranian plastic puppy that the tail wheel would catch the fence above the dike.   Believing it is always better to be lucky than good, I, still sitting 10 feet ahead of the low flying tail wheel, whisked over the chain link fence.  I now knew I was on the airport area, so I held the plane off as much as possible, with full aft stick, touching down just beyond the marsh in a tail first attitude.  Just prior to the tail wheel touching, I hit a power pole with the left wing, while still in flight.  Dago then touched down on the mains, rolling to a stop with the prop just along for the ride.  The only damage to the plane was the left wing and shrapnel wounds on the underside from the rocks thrown by the wheels on touchdown.

We left the hot August nights for the cold Reno races.
Dago Red qualified in #1 position.

We qualified on Monday, going slightly faster than Rare Bear.  The interesting part of this qualification was that both Rare Bear and Dago Red were on the qualifying lap at the same time.  I had taken off behind Rare Bear and entered the course about a half lap behind Rare Bear.  I had S-turned prior to joining the race course, getting spacing behind Rare Bear, surmising that this half lap would work good for the both of us as we would both be running at approximately the same speed.  As I came around pylon #5, I was amazed to note that the Bear passed me with what looked like an overtake of 50+ knots.  At that point, I told myself to push this puppy up, for the speeds would not even be similar if this was any indication. 

After qualifying, someone asked me why the qualifying speeds were so close.  I knew the answer, as I told them it was a tailgating technique.  As the Bear passed me on pylon #5, the 18 wheeler syndrome, the tailgating tactic, the sucked along technique from that machine had moved me slightly faster than his speed.  This accounted for the close but slightly faster speed of the Dago Red flying machine.

Dago Red ran explicably good at Reno. 
Dago Dog fans now wear warm Dago Red jackets

The races on Friday and Saturday went as we had planned.  We had had several problems with Dago, one of which was a problem on Saturday with canopy fogging.  We analyzed this fogging problem and corrected it as much as we thought we could for Sunday’s race.

Sunday started out as a cold day and stayed that way.  Luckily, the Dago Red team had gotten warm Dago Dog jackets for the loyal Dago Dog fans.  Ironically, we had anticipated a cold year, but had not expected a COLD year.  The P-51 racers work better in hotter weather, as we carry our cooling water internally, and do not depend entirely on the outside temperature to regulate our temperatures.  We get much better speeds in warm to hot weather at the same power we use to get nominal speeds in cold weather.

The Sunday’s race was a fiasco from the onset to the end.  With snow falling on the hills within 4 miles of Stead, RARA decided to run the Unlimited Gold race hours before it was scheduled to happen.  When this happened, there was much confusion on the ramp, for all the Gold race planes were not ready to run.  One was Rare Bear, as they were still busy loading nitrous.  We had asked for a delay in the racing to allow all the planes to participate, and for all planes to race when they had been scheduled.  The way it ultimately worked was that the Gold launched prior to the Jet Races, in the middle of the worst weather of the day.  Steve led us to the start of the race via downtown Reno, aptly keeping us clear of all the clouds, and starting the race in an excellent manner. 

As Steve called for the race start, I pushed the power up, simultaneously looking at Rare Bear for any changes in relative positioning.  As the power came up and the resultant water was dumped on the 240 degree radiator below the cockpit, the cockpit slowly started to fog over on both the left and right side.  I had experienced this fogging on Saturday, to which we had sealed some radiator to cockpit pressure leaks and had also Clay-technique treated the canopy on Sunday morning.  I had anticipated a better anti-fogging condition than on Saturday.  This fogging was much worst!  As Dago rounded pylon #6 on the first lap, I had wiped the forward canopy clear and was starting on the left side.  Looking ahead, I saw what looked like IFR conditions in the vicinity of pylon #7, and once entering this area of precipitation, I quickly realized that the weather that was outside of the canopy wanted to also be inside the canopy.  I now attempted to quickly invent a wiping and flying technique (‘quickly’ being the definitive word in this paragraph), as I realized the precipitation around pylon #7 would always be there and the resultant fogging would always occur from there to about pylon #4. 

This was the start of lap #1.
This was fun!  Is this fun?
The outhouse on pylon #4/

I was still in the midst of inventing, clarifying, verifying, and coordinating this wiping technique while flying the machine as I cleared home pylon and turned to #1 and #3.  There would logically be some delay from precipitation wetting to fogging, and I was about to experience it based on time of flight from pylon #7 to pylon #4.  As I approached pylon #3, I knew that my technique of wiping and flying needed some adjustments, and these adjustments would take some more distance than what I now had.  Knowing that the guide pylon had a light on it, I saw it and aimed for it.  Once past the light, I delayed slightly over two seconds and turned, based on my past 446 times around this racecourse, and of course, this time, I blew it.  I cut pylon #4 by 280 feet.  This was later relayed to me by the emotional pylon #4 judge, who said the distance was based on the outhouse being 200 feet from the pylon, saying I was well outside of the outhouse.  He said the outhouse had been placed this far away from the pylon in order to comply with the scatter distance requirements of the racecourse, but also in a tongue-in-cheek remark confessed that the distance works well for some of the food digestive problems of various visitors to the pylon.

I recognized the cut on pylon #4, but did not know if it was a big cut or merely an over-fly, no-cut, canopy still beyond the pylon condition, or even if Rare Bear had followed.  Once this happened, I flew to the light on pylon #6, starting back down the backstretch toward the snowstorm around pylon #7, to see if I had mastered the wipe technique from flying through the precip. 

Pylon judges and poor jokes.

The pylon judges have a gathering on the ramp at Reno during each race week.  My wife Dede and I attended, as well as Chris, Steve, Margaret and Mark from the team.  None of us had ever been to a pylon party before, and as we found out later, no race pilot had shown up at one for the past 20 years either.  As the party started, different folks would get up, go to the front of the room, grab the mike, and tell a joke.  As we listened to these poor to middle jokes, Dede suggested that one of us go up and tell a joke.  Both Steve and I did, and we later both won a prize for the best jokes. 

My joke was about the blonde on the airline who sat in first class and when asked to move back to coach because the stewardess knew there was no one seated in first class on this leg, states, “I’m blonde and beautiful, and I’m going to stay here”.  The stewardess then gets the 1st Officer to try and move the girl, and she only repeats, I’m blonde and beautiful, and I’m going to stay here”.  The 1st Officer then says the Captain has a blonde wife and maybe he can get this girl to move.  The Captain goes up to the girl, whispers something in her ear and she immediately sashays back to coach.  Both the stewardess and 1st Officer want to know how the Captain got the girl to move so quickly.  The Captain responded by saying that he merely asked her where she was going.  She responded, “Houston”.  The Captain then told her, “Miss, first class does not stop in Houston.”

Prior to leaving, I thanked the pylon judges and their volunteers for the self sacrificing work they do each year in supporting the air races for the fans and the pilot and race team personnel.  They cheered as we left, chanting, “No cuts for Dago, no cuts for Dago”.  Integrity lives at pylon #4.

Laps #2 through #8
Snow in the cockpit.

Coming through the precipitation on pylon #7, I found the wipe technique worked, and it was time to settle down and race relaxed.  I still wondered (1) did I cut #4, (2) did Rare Bear cut #4, (3) is Rare Bear going to stay with me for the whole race, (4) is Rare Bear going to implode or explode, which would allow me to win, (5) is Rare Bear going to pass, in which case I would pull out of the race, as I was not too sure I could see well enough to fly a tight formation at race power going through the snow-rain on pylon #7, and of course, (6) what will Terry and the crew say when this is all over?  Too many questions, and none of them boring.  I elected to keep enough power whipping through that Merlin to ensure that any #2 would stay there, plus I’m an optimist and still thought anything could happen.  Unfortunately, the anything did not happen and Dago Red came in #2.

Pulling off and setting up for landing, I saw Rare Bear on final to be the first to land, but then saw one gear down and one gear up.  I  knew he would have to go around and recycle the gear.  I though God knows who should be in front on the racecourse, in the landing pattern, or in the lineup at the grandstand.  This “God knows” has been a favorite saying in my life as I grew up. Things happen, but still remain as they are meant to be or have to be.  Dago Red seems at times to be alive and have a mind and consciousness of it’s own -- it knows it’s place in the matrix of race planes: It was first in the race, first in the landing pattern and first at the grandstand.  Dago Red is a warrior, and a hell of a raceplane!