The Fright Stuff

Andy Meisler's last story for the magazine was a profile of sports agent-turned-educator Patrick McCabe.

Even for a layman, the concept is fairly easy to grasp: The lower a racing airplane flies, the better its pilot can see and the closer it can come to the spindly pylons that mark the inner edge of the racecourse.

Which is probably why Ramblin' Rose, a 2,000-pound, 310-horsepower two-seater was flying at an altitude of about 60 feet at 2:45 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 13. The black Questair Venture 20--an egg-shaped home-built craft that would look great inside a design museum but looks even better going 300 mph--was running last in an eight-plane field. It was circling a 6.3-mile course defined by 10 50-foot-tall pylons over the Nevada desert adjacent to Reno Stead Airport.

On lap two of six, as it flashed past the checkered "home pylon" in front of tens of thousands of spectators, the airplane's nose twitched down, its horizontal tail folded upward and it plowed straight into the desert floor, a tiny plane making a tiny crash and raising a small cloud of dust. There was no noise, no fire. Just a scattering of debris, mostly aluminum. One man in the crowd speed dialed his cell phone and said simply, to whomever he was calling, "This is a solemn moment."

The race was stopped and the other competitors landed. The crowd remained silent as the announcer enjoined spectators not to rush toward the wreck--though they gave no indication that they were about to--and risk interfering with emergency personnel. Although everyone was certain that the downed pilot, a middle-aged Mississippi businessman named Tommy Rose, was dead, no announcement was made. Improvising smoothly, the race organizers piped soothing music through the public-address system, then sent a jet-powered dragster down the runway for the crowd's enjoyment and authorized the announcers to proclaim that the day's final race would be held as scheduled.

The next morning there was a brief request over the public-address system to "keep the family of Tommy Rose in your thoughts, your prayers and your memories," but no further mention of the fatal accident. One observer, though, breached etiquette by asking one of the most successful airplane racers present whether the previous day's accident still lingered in his mind.

"Can't go there," said Bill "Tiger" Destefani of Bakersfield. "It don't work."

Wwhich is fair warning that this story isn't about "Survivor," "Fear Factor" or trendy "extreme" sports such as road luge or wakeboarding. It's about the National Championship Air Races--an official misnomer since it's the only regularly scheduled closed-course pylon airplane race in the world.

Most people who know about this annual event know it as the Reno Air Races, or simply Reno. What they also know, whether they profess to enjoy this knowledge or not, is that it poses real, not virtual, danger. Since its inception in 1964, 14 competitors have been killed.

Pilots at Reno compete in several different classes, including home-built passenger planes like Rose's, tiny one-seat Formula One planes, small biplanes, 1940s-era T-6 military trainers and even subsonic, Czech-built L-39 jet trainers. Its marquee races, the ones that attract the most spectators, are between so-called Unlimited class airplanes: aircraft whose only design requirement is that they be powered by piston engines. The fastest planes in this class fly more than twice as fast as any land- or water-based racing machine.

Which leads to an interesting anomaly. On the one hand, air racing at Reno is a semi-secret, under-publicized cult passion. On the other, it's a display of numerous mainstream American obsessions, including adventure for adventure's sake, competition for competition's sake, expensive thrills, pure speed, high-octane fuels, souped-up internal combustion engines, home-brewed technology, World War II worship and the God-given right to flirt with death, preferably instant, without interference from the government or anyone else.

Oh, yes--we almost forgot. Air racing is possibly the only sport in history where nearly all of the risks--financial and physical--are shouldered by rich, occasionally grumpy, old white men.

"This is my last year for goin,' " insists Tiger Destefani, a prosperous cotton and alfalfa farmer, on a typically blazing Central Valley afternoon. "I'm all through. It's gonna be 23 years of it. It's enough. And it gets tougher and tougher; everything costs more. The engines now are about 150,000 bucks. When I first started racing, you could get one done for 20. And sponsors are hard to come by, and I'm just tired of it. I wanna do other things in my life.

"I'm not exactly a kid anymore either," he adds. "I'm 57. You start noticing things happening. Eyesight starts goin'. I got to wear glasses now to see way out there. And the [G-forces] hurt more. And I've had enough blown engines and all that stuff, you know?"

Destefani smiles and nods crisply toward his visitor from the big city, who at the moment is trying to calculate, without success, just how much deception--self- and otherwise--is going on. Destefani, a short, bald, wiry man with piercing light blue eyes and a sizable chaw in his mouth, is a six-time Reno Unlimited class champion. Country music plays from a boombox in the hangar that he rents at Minter Field, a sleepy former U.S. Army Air Corps training base a few miles northwest of Bakersfield. Every few minutes he rises to spit a stream of tobacco juice into a trash can.

In the center of the hangar sits his red-and-white racer called Strega (Italian for "witch"), which is being tended by several members of his pit crew. Built around 1945 as a North American P-51D Mustang fighter, it was a rotting wreck in 1982 when Destefani imported it from Australia and rebuilt it with major modifications. He removed all of its guns and armor, clipped 2 1/2 feet off each wingtip and 6 inches off each horizontal tail surface, and reduced the size of the pilots' cockpit canopy to an aerodynamically slick pimple.

As were most wartime P-51s, Strega is powered by a Merlin engine, a supercharged, liquid-cooled V-12 designed by Rolls-Royce in the late 1930s. But while World War II Mustangs had a maximum takeoff weight of 12,100 pounds and their Merlins were tuned to produce 1,700 horsepower, Destefani's plane weighs 8,650 pounds at takeoff and its war-surplus Merlin, running at full throttle, pumps out about 3,600 horsepower.

How the old engine's output is doubled is a highly technical and complicated subject, but a simplified way to explain it is by using a measurement called "manifold pressure." This is the barometric pressure of the air rammed into the carburetor by the supercharger. During World War II, a P-51's maximum manifold pressure was set at 60 inches of mercury, although in extremis a fighter pilot could push it to 67 inches for a maximum of five minutes. This was called "war emergency power," and using it meant that the engine had to be completely overhauled before it was started again.

Strega's maximum manifold pressure is 155 inches. At that setting the engine's useful life is particularly brief. "It's like riding a hand grenade with the pin pulled," says Destefani. "Every time we rebuild it [it's as if] we give it an internal fuse. Sometimes it's a long fuse, sometimes it's a short fuse. You just don't know."

That's why Destefani flies Strega only 15 or 20 hours per year. He uses the full throttle only at Reno, where he's confident that if his engine fails he can successfully glide to a landing on any of Reno Stead's three long runways. This has happened more times than he can remember.

Destefani began taking flying lessons at age 21 from a local crop-duster. In 1978, while recuperating from a near-fatal bout of spinal meningitis, he made an important decision. "I said, 'You know, here I am almost dying, and I haven't done everything I wanted to do.' So when I got out of the hospital, I changed my life and started doing what I wanted."

He wanted to buy, fly and race P-51 Mustangs, the best World War II fighter plane, and began racing in the mid-1980s. Destefani's first one, called Mangia Pane ("eats bread"), was an also-ran at Reno. The next, Dago Red, did better. He then piloted Strega to Reno's Unlimited championship in 1987, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996 and 1997. (For the record, Destefani first announced his imminent retirement in 2000. But that year, because of mechanical problems, he did not race. In 2001, the Reno races were canceled because of the post-Sept. 11 ban on private flying.)

Along the way he also started a side business, Warbirds Unlimited, which restores derelict World War II aircraft to flying condition, but not necessarily for racing. He has restored and delivered them all over the country.

Racing in the Unlimited class is particularly dangerous. In the past 15 years, three Unlimited pilots have died at Reno. Another Unlimited-class plane crash-landed while being flown to Minnesota, killing its businessman owner.

The man who paid $30,000 for one week of liability insurance this year shakes his head. "This is what I do," says Destefani. "I know what I'm doing, and I do it well."

Is there any sort of death wish or thrill-seeking gene involved?

No again.

"I had a buddy," Destefani says by way of explanation, "who's dead now. He died of cancer. But he was always flying up there, too, and when somebody would come up to him and say, 'Well, aren't you afraid of dying?' his answer would be, 'We don't come here to die.' And I always thought that was a great answer because we don't. We go to [Reno to] race.

"People are always asking me if this thing is 'dangerous,' " he continues. "You know what's dangerous? I'm a farmer. That's dangerous. You don't think that's a risk? You've got all the forces of nature lined up against you. You know what else is dangerous? Driving your car down a one-lane road. With another driver coming toward you."

During race week in September, Skip Holm of Calabasas could be found sitting in his racing team's motor home parked on the Reno Stead Airport pit area. Dozens of similar vehicles formed one side of roped-in compounds containing flamboyantly painted airplanes at their center. He nodded understandingly when asked about the phenomenon of gray-haired competitors going against the flow of normal human development, becoming not more cautious but less so as they age.

"Yeah," he said. "These guys become successful and rich and then they get bored. So they have to look for something else really challenging to do."

The 58-year-old Holm flies Dago Red, Destefani's old airplane, now much improved and owned by a Utah businessman. Holm flew Dago Red to the Unlimited championship in 1998, 1999 and 2000. A retired Lockheed test pilot who flew experimental models of the U-2 spy plane and F-117 Stealth Fighter, Holm has gone in the opposite direction: He's filling out his own Golden Years Risk Portfolio by having started a company whose still-nascent aim is to manufacture and sell general aviation aircraft built in Poland and mainland China. The project Holm is most enthusiastic about is a lightweight plane powered by a Harley-Davidson motorcycle engine.

Holm also tests privately developed aircraft and is one of the premier pilots in the movie industry. In short, along with his old friend Destefani, he's the kind of guy you would have heard about if air racing were still in its golden age, which, unfortunately, ended 53 years ago.

Between World Wars I and II, air racers had the same name recognition as race car drivers. Men such as Jimmy Doolittle, Roscoe Turner (who liked to pose with his pet lion cub in the cockpit) and Hollywood stunt flier Frank Tallman were sports celebrities. Planes were sponsored by major oil and auto-parts companies. Races were held around the country, and the annual Cleveland National Air Races, home of the national championships, was a major event covered on every newspaper sports page.

Early air racers pioneered innovations such as streamlining and retractable landing gear that were incorporated during World War II, when piston-engine aircraft technology was pushed to its limits. After the war, air racing resumed. The fastest competitors used surplus fighter planes that at the time could be purchased for as little as $1,000. Fans loved watching veteran racers and young war veterans compete in the Mustangs, Lockheed Lightnings, DeHavilland Mosquitoes, Chance Vought Corsairs and Bell Airacobras that had made the world safe for democracy. The Air Force and Navy sent their boys to race their new jets, too.

In 1949, one of the favorites for the Cleveland championship was a former U.S. Army Air Corps transport pilot named Bill Odom. He flew Beguine, a beautifully modified Mustang whose fuselage was painted with the opening notes of the Cole Porter song "Begin the Beguine." On the second lap Odom lost control and plunged into a newly built house alongside the racecourse, killing himself, a young mother inside the house and her 13-month-old son, who was outside in his playpen.

That tragedy and the outbreak of the Korean War--which curtailed military participation--wiped air racing off the American sports calendar. Almost everyone assumed it was gone for good.

The first unlimited mishap at Reno 2002 took place on Sunday, Sept. 8, one day before the weeklong competition officially began. A retired Vietnam-era Air Force fighter pilot from Auburn, Calif., named Tom Dwelle went up for a test flight in Critical Mass, a Hawker Sea Fury once flown by the British Royal Navy. His landing was perfect, but while taxiing back to the pit, his landing gear collapsed. Dwelle was unhurt, but damage to his fuselage, engine and propeller forced him to withdraw from the race.

The next day, Skip Holm went up for a qualifying run. He circled counterclockwise around the longest and widest Unlimited course (10 pylons, 8.2688 miles), skimming the ground in the crystalline desert air in 59.80 seconds. This equaled 497.797 mph, a new qualifying record.

On Tuesday, Tiger Destefani took off in Strega, warmed the engine and called for a one-lap qualification run. His circuit was timed at 486.798 mph, so he requested and began a two-lap run, hoping to wring out more power, beat Holm and maybe even turn in the first 500-mph lap in Reno history.

On the second lap of that run he pushed the throttle as far as it would go. At full song, a racing Merlin driving a four-blade propeller makes an unforgettable noise. It sounds like an angry monster chewing its way through a large wooden building.

Everything looked fine for Strega until the eighth pylon, when Destefani felt a slight jolt--possibly a valve breaking or a piston disintegrating. People on the ground saw a puff of black smoke from the plane's exhaust pipes. By the time Destefani got to the finish line, the Merlin had backfired violently and shot a ball of burning gas through the air-induction system. It blew apart the turbocharger and sprayed large fragments of engine and engine cowling into the air.

Destefani immediately pulled up and off the course, trading airspeed for altitude, and glided to an uneventful dead-stick landing on a far runway. The plane was towed into a hangar, where he and his mechanics quickly determined that his finely tuned $150,000 investment had been turned into a lump of scrap metal. He had no spare engine.

Destefani grabbed a beer and told a reporter from a local newspaper that he was now officially retired from air racing. "We're done now," he said.

Asked why he hadn't been content with his first qualifying lap (which was the second-fastest this year), he said, "I figured if it won't run today, what would it do on Sunday?"

In 1964, a wealthy Nevada rancher, hydroplane racer and private pilot named William Stead invited anyone who still owned a race-worthy airplane to drop by the dirt-surfaced landing strip on his 207,000-acre Sky Ranch.

Those were the first National Championship Air Races. Eight Unlimited class planes and a gaggle of assorted biplanes, monoplane midget racers (now called Formula Ones), turned up. They did it again the following September. In 1966, the races moved to Stead Air Force Base, formerly the Reno Army Air Base, which had recently closed. (It was renamed after Stead's younger brother, a P-51 pilot for the Nevada Air National Guard, was killed in a crash there.) On April 28, 1966, Stead himself died when a mechanical failure caused him to lose control of his midget racer during a practice flight.

Hence, Bill Stead never saw his creation blossom. He never saw Reno's city fathers and gambling moguls--realizing that the event was just the right size to fill the hotel rooms and casinos of Las Vegas' little brother during a quiet autumn week--embrace the races. (They supported them financially when necessary, but, more importantly, they kept developers from infringing onto the Reno Stead racecourse.) He never saw crowds of nearly 100,000 fill the bleachers and pit areas, or his namesake airport become, once a year, a small island of tarmac and sagebrush in a sea of parked cars and RVs.

He also never suffered through several years of inept coverage by ABC's "Wide World of Sports," which Reno insiders blame for a subsequent lack of network TV exposure. And he never saw potential corporate sponsors resist all entreaties to join the fun, since they're well aware that (a) air racing fans, unlike auto racing fans, don't go out Monday to buy the same brand of tires and engine oil their heroes had used on Sunday, and (b) a winged billboard emblazoned with their logo might negatively impact their bottom line should it fall, perhaps burning fiercely, into spectators.

Nor did he have the chance to gloat over the dozens of other promoters who tried staging air racing meets in other cities and failed. Or see spare parts for Unlimiteds become rare and expensive antiques. Or watch successive Reno Air Races organizers keep prize money at such a low level that only first-prize winners had a chance to meet expenses.

And, of course, he never saw Tiger Destefani's dramatic retirement from air racing--which lasted maybe three hours.

On Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 10, Dan Martin, a San Jose contractor-turned-full-time Warbird restorer and race pilot, offered to lend his friend Destefani a Merlin, the one with the burnt piston that he had back home. Dave Fagoaga, a scowling, black-bearded master Merlin mechanic on the Dago Red team, volunteered to help make Strega air worthy--with his employer Terry Bland's blessing. Strega crew chief L.D. Hughes made the first of several all-night pickup-truck runs to Martin's shop in Hollister. Their daunting task was to construct, in the four days remaining before the race, one healthy Merlin out of two dead ones.

Under Reno's complicated rules, each airplane races daily in several preliminary heats beginning on Thursday; their individual finishes and average speeds place them in either the gold, silver or bronze finals. Because of Strega's second-place qualifying run, Destefani was allowed to stay on the ground until Saturday. If he finished first in the silver heat that morning he would be "bumped up" to the gold, or championship, final on Sunday.

By Wednesday the "old" Merlin engine had been dismounted and disassembled into hundreds of parts, not one of them even remotely electronic. That day, too, a Mustang named Miss America (which was being qualified by its owner, an Oklahoma City brain surgeon named Brent Hisey) threw a rod through its engine block, starting a small fire and necessitating a too-hasty return to the ground.

Landing hard, Miss America bounced onto and off Runway 32, ran through a ditch, wiped out its landing gear and performed a 180-degree pirouette that nearly tossed the plane onto its back, which would have been catastrophic. After the Strega team learned that Hisey was unhurt, its members began making inquiries about borrowing some of Miss America's undamaged parts.

On Thursday the Strega team began building the "new" Merlin engine. This was also the first day of heat races for all classes and the first day that paying spectators were admitted. The meet's opening ceremonies--heavily 9/11-influenced, with four T-6s flying in "missing man" formation--were sandwiched at noon between the opening races. An unscientific survey of the crowd indicated that (a) almost everyone except the many Japanese photographers present was older than 40, and (b) about half were private pilots. Most of the rest were radio-control fliers, model airplane hobbyists or unlicensed all-around aviation freaks.

At any one time, a dozen or more were gathered around the open doors of the Strega hangar, watching a seemingly infinite number of nuts, bolts, gaskets, valves, hoses and wires being painstakingly examined, installed, removed, adjusted, reinstalled, safety-wired and inspected. Some, documenting the process with their still and video cameras, watched for hours.

On Friday morning a rented crane lifted the reassembled engine up to Strega's nose. Bolting it onto the engine mount and connecting the dozens of hoses and wires of the ignition, fuel, oil, air injection and cooling systems took until late afternoon. The process did not stop after Tommy Rose's fatal crash.

As the sun slipped behind the surrounding hills and the sky turned from cobalt to black, Strega was towed to a taxiway. A mechanic climbed into the cockpit, turned his baseball cap backward and hit the starter switch. The Merlin caught on the first try, shooting short blue flames from its exhaust pipes. A good sign, shouted another crew member above the roar.

An unlimited air race starts in the air. The pace plane is a 40-plus-year-old civilian-owned ex-Air Force T-33 jet trainer. It takes off to the east, climbs to about 12,000 feet, and makes a wide, lazy 270-degree circle of the airport. The Unlimiteds take off one by one in the order they qualified, cut across the circle to form up closely behind the jet in qualifying order, and are led downward, faster and faster until they hit the starting point close to racing speed and altitude. The jet peels off a few seconds before the first pylon.

A few hours before Saturday morning's race, Strega's engine cowling was covered by several aluminum panels, including one salvaged from Miss America. "To Tiger from Miss A," was scrawled on the plane's newly polished nose.

Due to missing the qualifying heats, Strega started the Silver race eighth and last, but, thrillingly, passed one opponent on each lap--four Sea Furys, two Mustangs and one Russian Yak 11. By the eighth and final lap, Destefani was comfortably ahead, winning at an average speed of 414 mph. The inside word from the crew was that he had nearly half of the engine's power in reserve.

"When you got a whole bunch of ducks in formation, you get the back ones first because the next ones don't know it," said Destefani, grinning, back at his pit. "Next thing you know you got the whole flock. If you get the front one first, they all scatter."

Then Destefani spent about an hour signing T-shirts ("Fly Fast, Fly Low, Turn Left" and "Speed Limit 500 MPH"), hats, visors, teddy bears, women's arms and upper breasts, and Revell airplane models.

Sunday morning dawned partly cloudy, with a forecast for gusty afternoon winds. A former space shuttle astronaut won the jet race, but it aroused surprisingly little excitement, probably because the planes were identical; none had been modified, much less dangerously so, and they sounded a lot like vacuum cleaners.

The Sport class was a different matter. The fastest qualifier was 66-year-old Daryl Greenamyer, who had won seven Unlimited championships, the last one in 1977. He had become bored during his long retirement and had built his own plane, called a Lancair Legacy, from a kit (it took 15 months). After Greenamyer crossed the finish line, beating his closest competitor by a lap, he flew an "honorary victory lap" in memory of Tommy Rose.

By 4:10 p.m., the scheduled start of the Unlimited gold race, the wind was 35 knots with gusts up to 50 mph blowing directly across the runway. Dust was flying up to several hundred feet in the air, obscuring the pylons from the spectator area all around the course. Regardless, after only a few minutes' delay, the Unlimiteds took off and circled toward the starting point. On the first lap, Skip Holm and Dago Red led easily, with Destefani and Strega last. By the beginning of the second lap, Strega was third and closing fast on second place. Then, as Destefani flashed by the second pylon, he pulled up and off the course.

"I think I heard Tiger say, 'Mayday,' " said a spectator with an air traffic control band radio.

Destefani put down his flaps and landing gear, did S-turns to avoid overshooting the runway, and landed without incident. He sat in his cockpit for eight minutes while Skip Holm breezed to his fourth straight victory with an average speed of 466.634 mph.

Holm taxied in, jumped out of the cockpit and had a brief interview with a pit reporter. "It was really, really rough out there," said Holm. "It was rougher than a cob." That's why, he explained, at times he was racing at higher-than-usual altitudes.

"I've never been up so high!" joked the former U-2 pilot. "What do they call it when you get dizzy when you're up there so far?"

Strega was towed in 15 minutes later, twin streaks of engine oil painting lines down the sides of the fuselage. Destefani walked alongside. "Well, that's it. I'm retired now," he said, looking a little bit older but not depressed. "I guess it was fitting that I went out with a 'Mayday.' "

Then he grabbed an outstretched Sharpie and signed the bib of a fan's sleeping grandchild.

On Monday, Sept. 16, Destefani took a commercial flight back to Bakersfield to start the cotton harvest. Strega was fitted with yet another borrowed engine and on the following Thursday was flown gingerly home by Dan Martin. When the pit crew tore down both blown engines, they found that the same piston had burnt in each of them. The engines had failed for exactly the same reason. A fix was devised.

To test it, of course, someone will have to race it again at Reno 2003.

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