by Karen Morss
Me: What time are you leaving tomorrow, Dave?
Dave: Wheels up, 7am.
Me: Isn't that a little early?
Dave: Are you kidding me? There are seven planes there already.
And so began our trip to Stead, Nevada for the 50th National Championship Air Races.
This year had been fraught with challenges. But you know what they say, what doesn't
kill you makes you stronger. We were thrilled just to be going. And especially honored by
the story in the program, ‘A Racer and his Wife’.
I arrived late Sunday afternoon. Dave had flown the course and scoped out the
competition. As we drove to the hotel he told me, 'Earl (Hibler) got a new engine and I
can't get past Tom (McNerney).' It was going to be an interesting week.
Dave and Earl have been racing together for over 30 years starting in Formula One.
They have flown some of the closest, most exciting races in the class. But Earl hasn’t
been here for the past two years and we’ve missed him. Tom is a sophomore racer who
has done an amazing job with Race 55, including some aerodynamic mods that have his
4-cylinder, Lancair 320 going faster than ever. Vicky Benzig and Colleen Keller are both
racing Sport Class this year (a first to have two women in the class). I’m proud to call
Qualification takes place on Monday and Tuesday, with some last minute quals
Wednesday morning. Tom qualified on Monday at 268.272 mph. Dave and Earl qualify
on Tuesday in what was one of the most exciting and memorable qualifications ever.
That morning Earl told me, ‘I’m coming for him’ and did he ever. Keep in mind they were
up there to qualify, not race. But race they did, displaying their awesome formation and
racing skills. Dave held him off for the first two laps but Earl caught him on the third lap
and passed him just before the home pylon. Dave qualified at 271.280 and Earl at
270.894. Let the racing begin or continue in their case.
When the pairings came out we were a little disappointed. Earl and Tom would fly in the
Bronze on Wednesday with Earl in the pole and Tom third. We would start at the bottom
of the Silver on Thursday. You take what you get and do the best that you can.
Doug Matthews asked Dave to be the alternate pilot for Rebel, a P51 Mustang racing
Unlimited. There was a lot of paperwork to get through but they made it happen and on
Wednesday Dave got to fly the Mustang. He qualified at 325 mph (bettering previous
qual by 10mph) but would have to wait and see how events unfolded if he was to fly
Earl won his first race with a speed of 276.279 faster than Baby Doll’s ever gone. Tom
finished third at 268.300 and got the pole for the Medallion race. The Medallion race was
for the bottom 8 planes. Tom won that race with a speed of 261.906. When I saw Earl
after the race, I bowed in submission and said ’You’ve got him Earl. We can’t go that
fast.’ He laughed and said, ‘We’ll see.’ I know and he knows that Race 99 can’t go that
fast unless we get a race prop. But racing is racing and anything can happen (and
One of the really fun traditions at the Air Races is the antique Fire truck that loads up the
winning crew and pilot of each race and parades them in front of the grandstands. It’s a
lot of fun for everyone especially when you go past Section 3, the most awesome, avid
air race fans in the world. They hold up scorecards for each team rating their
performance from 1 to 10. Both Earl’s and Tom’s teams got to ride on the Fire truck that
day. It was great to see for both teams.
On Thursday, we would start in the race in 8th position, tail end Charlie. As the form up
unfolded, Vicky Benzig had to pull up to sort out some issues with her plane. When she
rejoined, she was behind Dave. For the next six laps, she did everything she could to get
past him. She’s quite a bit faster but it is very hard to pass in air racing. She told me after
the race, she had learned more about passing in that race than any other.
During a race, my job is to give Dave his lap speed and the interval of the plane behind
him. He was holding Vicky off between 4 and 7 seconds until the final turn around lap 8.
With the straightaway in front of her, she opened it up and passed him at the finish. In
the excitement of the moment, I neglected to tell him she was coming. She finished with a
speed of 267.221 and Dave at 267.199, only .049 seconds separating them. I must
admit, I was cheering for Vicky in the last few seconds. It was a great race but he did
chide me with a smile for cheering for the competition.
The pairings came out for Friday. Pairings are set based on the previous race speed.
Earl bumped up to the Silver and we bumped down to the Bronze starting third behind
Tom with Vicky on the pole. There was no chance to get ahead of her this time. She took
the lead at the start and held it the entire way. Dave tried everything he could to get
around Tom but it just wasn’t working. He flew high, he flew low, he flew tight. He tried
different RPM settings. But in the end, you need about 7 mph to pass in air racing and
some luck too. He had neither that day. On the final straightaway, he tried to catch him
but lost in another photo finish by .089 seconds. When we got back to the pits, he said, ‘I
need six inches.’ And the crew went to work.
Our crew this year was Justin Fluegel and Kyle Roh. Justin works for a subsidiary of
Boeing, Insitu, and supports the U.S. Military operations all over the world. This was his
first year crewing at Reno (and we hope the first of many). This was Kyle’s second year
so when he showed up Friday, he knew the drill. They started by cleaning and polishing
every inch of the airplane before taping the wings. Once that was done, Kyle suggested
winglets to cover the nav lights on the wing tips. Kyle works in the wind tunnel at NASA so
he understood the advantage even a small change like this could have on the plane. He
got to work constructing the winglets with the materials we had on hand, namely paper
dinner plates and pink duct tape. I had brought the tape with me to hang up my signs but
it suddenly had a new purpose. As Justin said, ‘Pink, the new color of air racing.’
Dave inspected the first mockup and gave him the go ahead to do a final installation.
Kyle made a trip to the hardware store for some additional parts and got to work. Kyle
had driven from San Jose to Reno after school on Thursday night, arriving about 3am,
so this first day was a Herculean effort and much appreciated by the team. We hoped it
would be enough to give Dave the advantage at the start on Saturday.
When the pairings came out, we were second behind Tom. Vicky had bumped up and
Tim Cone had bumped down to third due to an unexplained power loss in the previous
race. As we wait on the ramp before engine start, the Fire Truck passes with a winning
Formula One crew. Dave mentions wistfully, ‘It’s been awhile since we rode that truck.’
Kim McNerney turns to him with a saucy reply, ‘You can ride with us today.’ Dave
laughed, ‘Ohhhhhhh, challenge on!’
At the start, Tim got past Dave. So not only did he not get Tom, now he was in third. Tim
passed Tom and Dave and Tom battled it out for five more laps. It was so close at the
end but once again Dave lost by a nose; .364 seconds.
Saturday afternoon was spent cleaning off the bugs and removing the antennas from the
belly of the plane. They taped the air inlets. He needed more speed and a better start to
have any chance on Sunday. We would just have to wait for the rest of the races to finish
and the pairings to be released to know the lineup. Dave got the word he would not be
flying the Mustang. He was disappointed but happy that he had requalified his Unlimited
Saturday was also a great day to catch up with friends. Stu and Marilyn Eberhardt
stopped by and both looked fabulous. They’re having fun touring with the Collings
Foundation but I miss them. This was followed by a surprise visit from Patricia and Jon
Sharp. They were being honored at the Legend’s dinner Saturday night. Both look well
and happy and it was good to see them back in the pits.
As we drove to the airport 6:30 Sunday morning, the sun was just rising and lit up the
Golden Valley. Dave said, ‘The week has gone really fast.’ This time, I agree. We figure
based on Saturday’s finishes, that Earl will have the pole, followed by Tom, then Dave. It
should be a really great race. Good for Earl, we thought. He had worked hard to get the
plane back here and his investment was paying off.
When we got to the field, the pairings were up. One plane has withdrawn so everyone
moves up one position. This means Earl moves to Silver, Tom has the Bronze pole and
Dave is second. If he can get Tom at the start, he can win the race. Will this be the day
that Justin and Kyle’s hard work pays off?
Everyone on the ramp is smiling before the final pre-race briefing. These magnificent,
wonderful, ten days a year were quickly coming to an end. The weather had been great,
the flying exceptional, not too many broken airplanes and some good crowds on hand to
see the racing. We only see our September family once a year and it was sinking in that
it was almost over.
The flight takes off and forms up flying behind Peavine Mountain. Race Control clears
them on to the course. I heard Lee say, ‘Gentlemen, you have a race.’ Time slows. I can
hear my heart pounding. Both planes are red and white and I can’t tell who is in the lead
as they come down the chute onto the course. Kyle has the binoculars and tells me, ‘He’
s got it, Karen’. I hear Rob Monaghan, the Sport Class announcer, say ‘It looks like
Dave finally got him this time.’ I start breathing again and watch Dave fly a great race
bringing home the Bronze championship with a lead of almost ten seconds at the home
Dave finishes with a race speed of 271.699. Earl’s speed in the Silver was 269.740. Tom
finished with a speed of 266.944. Dave shook hands with Kyle and Justin. Their hard
work had paid off. We finally got a ride in the Fire Truck and enjoyed every minute of it.
We bowed down in front of the Section 3 fans paying tribute to the best fans in air racing.
Sport Class had more entries this year (by far) than any of the other racing classes, 34
total. This was the 15th year of racing (not counting 2001). During this time Dave has
won the Gold Championship three times, the Silver Championship twice and the Bronze
twice. In a testament to the ever-increasing speeds of Sport Class, in 2003, he won the
Silver with a speed of 272. Ten years later, same plane, he won the Bronze at 271.
At the Awards Banquet Dave says, ‘I think we’re going backwards but I’m still having fun.’
By the time we finish eating, I can barely keep my eyes open. Adrenaline overload is
taking over. He asks me if I want to go, ‘Let Kyle and Justin pick up the trophy. They
deserve it.’ Amen. Thanks guys!! It was a great week of racing and we hope we’ll see
you out there next year.
PS Colleen Keller had an outstanding week of racing and finished 4th in the Silver with a
race speed of 286.813. She flew some of the best races of the week in epic three way
battles. Congratulations to Team Poncho for an outstanding event!
PPS Vicky Benzig finished 7th in the Silver with a race speed of 276.376. She also raced
in the Jet Class and finished 6th in the Gold with a race speed of 425.547. Vicky was
selected Rookie of the Year in Jet Class. Way to go Vicky!
A special thanks to the Sisters of the
Carmelite Monastery in Des Plaines, IL.
They offer their prayers for the pilots at
Reno during the week of racing.