Reno National Air Races

Bill Stead, a Nevada rancher, hydroplane racer, and World War II ace, in 1964 came up with the idea of reviving the National Air Races to help celebrate the centennial of Nevada's statehood.

He persuaded Reno businessmen to sponsor the races as part of a major air show that included the national aerobatics and balloon championships, skydiving competition, and a performance by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. Stead also talked ABC Television into covering the races.

Competition was held at the Sky Ranch, where the runway was simply a 2,000-foot stretch of dirt. Pilots wanted to take off from Reno Municipal Airport, fly to the course, and return to the airport after racing, but Stead had guaranteed ABC that takeoffs and landings could filmed at the ranch. He threatened to disqualify any flyer who didn't use the makeshift landing strip and the pilots reluctantly went along with it.

The opening event was the finish of a trans-continental race from St. Petersburg, Florida, to Reno. Over the next several days, closed-circuit races were held for five classes of planes: Unlimited, Formula One, Midget, Stearman, and Cherokee 180s with women pilots.

Because of Stead's experience with hydroplanes, the races used a scoring method borrowed from powerboat racing, with points awarded for a pilot's finishing position in each heat. In the Unlimited class, Bob Love finished first in the final heat, but the championship trophy went on points to Mira Slovak.

The points formula was discarded in 1965 in favour of a series of heats leading up to a final race for each class of planes, with the championship going to the winner of the final.

The races were staged at the Sky Ranch for the first two years. When Reno's Stead Air Force Base was closed in 1966, it was turned over to the city and renamed Stead Airfield, which has been the site of the Reno National Air Races ever since.

(Bill Stead was killed in a Formula One race in Florida shortly after the 1965 races. Ironically, Stead AFB was named for his brother, Croston Stead, who had been killed in a crash while flying with the Nevado National Guard.)

Classes of Competition

There's now competition in four classes:

Unlimited

The Unlimited Class is open to any piston-driven aircraft with an empty weight greater than 4500 pounds [the weight restriction was added in 2005]. Aside from a very few "scratch-built" aircraft, the Unlimited Class has generally been populated by stock or modified WWII fighters, the most-often-flown types including the P-51 Mustang, F-8F Bearcat, and Hawker Sea Fury. Aircraft speeds in the Unlimited Class reach 500 mph.

Formula One

Formula One aircraft are all powered by a Continental O-200 engine (the same 100 hp engine used in a Cessna 150). Weights and sizes of every major engine part must be within stock limits. The cam profile and carburetion are strictly controlled. Race aircraft must have 66 square feet of wing area, weigh at least 500 pounds empty, and have a fixed landing gear and fixed pitch propeller. The fastest Formula One aircraft reach almost 250 mph on the 3.12-mile race course at Reno. Many Formula One aircraft are built by the pilots that race them and are a relatively inexpensive way to enjoy the excitement and satisfaction of air racing.

Biplanes

The Biplane Class is represented by small, aerobatic aircraft like the Pitts Special, the Mong, and the Smith Miniplane, giving pilots a chance to apply their skills to racing on a 3.18-mile course at speeds exceeding 200 mph.

T-6

The T-6 Class features match racing between stock aircraft, including the original T-6 "Texan", the Canadian-built "Harvard", and the US Navy "SNJ" version aircraft.

All of the T-6 variants are powered by the Pratt & Whitney Wasp R-1340-AN-1 air-cooled radial engine, which develops about 600 horsepower, and all have essentially the same airframe.

Originally built by North American Aviation, the 15,495 aircraft that were manufactured over the life of the model served primarily as advanced trainers, helping pilots bridge between basic trainers and front-line tactical aircraft such as the P-51 Mustang.

The fastest T-6 aircraft generally post race speeds into the 220-230 mph range on the 5.06-mile course at Reno. Because the aircraft are all of the same type, the T-6 class provides some of the most exciting racing at Reno, with an emphasis on strategy and pilot skill rather than raw horsepower.

Sport class

The Sport Class highlights the new and innovative work being done in the development of high performance kit-built aircraft. Competition in the Class is fierce, with the rapid introduction of race-driven engine and airframe technology. Eligible aircraft include production model kit-built aircraft, of which 5 or more kits have been produced and delivered to customers by the manufacturer, powered by a reciprocating engine of 650 cubic inches or less. All aircraft must have a current FAA issued airworthiness certificate.

Sport Class aircraft race on a 6.37-mile course at speeds reaching nearly 350 mph.

Jet class

The Jet Class was inaugurated in 2002 as an invitation-only class, featuring match racing with Czech-built Aerovodochody L-39 "Albatros" jets, racing at speeds in the 400+ mph range. In 2004, sponsorship and interest had developed to the point where the Class was opened to participation by any qualified pilot and aircraft.

The races take place over a four-day period in September, from Thursday through Sunday, but time trials are held earlier in the week. Planes are assigned to heats based on their qualifying times and those with the eight fastest times in heat races move on to the "Gold" championship race on Sunday.

If the number of entries permits, there are two other championships in each class, the "Silver" and "Bronze" races, each with eight planes, based on their times in heats.

The closed-circuit course is a little over 9 miles long. Since speeds approach 500 miles an hour in the Unlimited class, it takes a little more than a minute for a plane to negotiate one lap, and all the action is in clear view of spectators. The Unlimited "Gold" championship race is usually flown over eight laps, the "Silver" race over eight laps, and the "Bronze" race over six laps.

About 150,000 spectators turn out over the four-day period. In addition to racing, they get to see exhibitions of aerobatics, stunt flying, and skydiving, as well as flyovers and demonstrations by military teams.

Unlimited Champions

Year Winner Speed
1964 Mira Slovak 355.52 mph
(NOTE: Bob Love averaged 366.82 mph
but Slovak won on points.)
1965 Darryl Greenamyer 375.1 mph
1966 Darryl Greenamyer 396.221 mph
1967 Darryl Greenamyer 392.621 mph
1968 Darryl Greenamyer 388.654 mph
1969 Darryl Greenamyer 412.631 mph
1970 Clay Lacy 387.342 mph
1971 Darryl Greenamyer 413.987 mph
1972 Gunther Balz 416.160 mph
1973 Lyle Shelton 428.155 mph
1974 Ken Burnstine 381.482 mph
1975 Lyle Shelton 429.916 mph
1976 Lefty Gardner 379.610 mph
1977 Darryl Greenamyer 430.703 mph
1978 Steve Hinton 415.457 mph
1979 John Crocker 422.302 mph
1980 Roy "Mac" McClain 433.010 mph
1981 Skip Holm 431.288 mph
1982 Ron Hevle 405.092 mph
1983 Neil Anderson 425.242 mph
1984 Skip Holm 437.621 mph
1985 Steve Hinton 438.186 mph
1986 Rick Brickert 434.488 mph
1987 Bill Destefani 452.559 mph
1988 Lyle Shelton 456.821 mph
1989 Lyle Shelton 450.910 mph
1990 Lyle Shelton 468.620 mph
1991 Lyle Shelton 481.618 mph
1992 Bill Destefani 450.835 mph
1993 Bill Destefani 455.38 mph
1994 John Penney 424.407 mph
1995 Bill Destefani 467.029 mph
1996 Bill Destefani 467.948 mph
1997 Bill Destefani 453.130 mph
1998 Howard Pardue 366.5690
1999 Bruce Lockwood 472.332 mph
2000 Skip Holm 441.2970 mph
2001 Not held (09/11)  
2002 Skip Holm 466.834
2003 Skip Holm 480.415