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.
250 and counting
Reno 2017 marked Dave’s 37th year competing in the National Championship Air Races.
To say I am proud of him would be a huge understatement. If everything went right, he
would end the week with 250 races at Reno. No one in the history of air racing, even comes
close to that number. Dave flew up on Friday and I drove up Sunday. Kent Rhodes, our
crew chief, and Madeleine Kenny, both our dear friends, arrived Monday to crew with us for
There were 40 planes entered in Sport Class this year, that’s a record for the class. For the
first time ever, RARA raised the speed limit on the T6 course (Sport Bronze & Medallion) to
275 mph for the 4.8 mile course. Dave was excited about the opportunity to race on the
short course in his Legacy. He figured a qualifying speed of 250 would give him that
chance. This year RARA would return to the FAI standards for course measurement (point
to point vs. gps theoretical) so all the speeds were 5-10 mph slower than previous years.
On Monday, he did just that and qualified 22nd at 251.670 mph; that put him in the Bronze,
on the short course. Happy guy.
Tuesday and Wednesday, Dave led practice sessions. We had a lot of rookies this year
and he took time to offer counsel and guidance to anyone who asked. Tim Silva joined us
Thursday and provided excellent video equipment and support. You can watch my race
video here. Reno 2017 Morss Sport Silver video
Dave started 4th in Thursday’s heat race. He figured the three Glasairs ahead of him would
be able to hold a tight line on the small course. He made a great start and managed to pass
all three planes. Now could he hold them off? On the small course he would be making 180
degree turn at each end of the course pulling 4g’s as he came around pylon 5. I was on the
radio with him calling his times and intervals and he was pulling way ahead so he backed off
a little. We had three more races to go. I may have yelled ‘Push It’ on the final straightaway
as Rick Vandam almost caught him at the home pylon. About a quarter of a second
separated them as they crossed the finish line. But he held on for the win and we got our
first fire truck ride for the week.
For those of you who haven’t been to the races, the winning pilot and their crew, family and
friends, ride in an antique fire truck with a bell ringing and siren wailing the whole time as
the fans cheer and salute the winners. It is a lot of fun especially when you get to Section 3,
the most devoted of all air race fans. The fans score you and we were thrilled to receive so
many 10s. We all stood up and bowed to them to thank them for their support.
Sport Class raced on three different courses this year. That means the only way to move
up to the next group (i.e. Bronze to Silver) is through attrition. With so many planes racing,
you figure the law of averages, someone would break. What we did know is that the only
way we could move up was to be first in the next race. Dave made another great start on
Friday and flew a beautiful line. I was giving him his speeds and intervals. He started pulling
back after the third lap as his lead built up. Rob Monaghan owns Greenstreak. He’s a good
friend and the Sport Class announcer. During the race, he wondered if Dave’s Legacy was
getting a little long in the tooth (his is the 4th Legacy built) as he slowed up. He managed to
hold off John Flanagan in Greenstreak by 2 seconds at the finish. And we got to ride the
fire truck again!
Saturday was a beautiful day and we had the pole. Rick was flying Greenstreak and he and
Dave would battle it out over six laps and finish just 2 ½ seconds apart. And we got to ride
the fire truck again! Our bowing and waving was improving with each ride. On the way
home, Dave mused about the great week of racing but opined, ‘I haven’t passed anybody
all week. I want to pass somebody.”
Early Sunday morning Dave got a text message. Kevin Eldredge had withdrawn, Race 42,
Relentless. Kevin had been chasing a fuel flow problem all week. That meant everyone
moved up one position. Dave went from 1st in Bronze to 9th in Silver. We drove out to the
field excited to be racing in the Silver. When I looked at the pairings, I said to Dave, “you
can probably get 7 and 8 at the start but I don’t think you can catch Pete or Sean and
Tom.” He smiled and said ‘Watch me”, a very uncharacteristic response. I think that ‘long in
the tooth’ comment was still bugging him.
It was a beautiful day at Stead for the final day of racing. We were really happy to move up
because that meant the Bronze race would be better and the Silver, too, with any luck. The
Medallion race was up first. There was an incident during the formation and the race was
called. Thank goodness, no one was hurt and the planes landed without incident. I must
send a note to Sister Mary Joseph and thank her for the ongoing prayers of the Carmelite
nuns. They dedicate all their prayers during race week to the safety of the pilots.
The Bronze race was outstanding with a really close 3 plane finish. At the end, Rick
Vandam in Greenstreak, held off Eric Hanson and Scott Gusakov to bring home the win.
Meanwhile, we got the plane and cameras set and ready to race. Dave was busy with
briefings all morning so I didn’t see him again until just before we pulled out of the hangar.
He was happy and relaxed as he put on his special Sunday flight suit. I was nervous and
excited. After a quick hug and pre-race kiss, we walked out with the airplane to the flight
line. He reminds me, “I won’t need speeds, just intervals.” After 22 years I still find it hard to
breathe when he races. Today was no different.
The planes took off and flew behind Peavine Mountain to form up and enter the chute. Ten
planes, flying in formation, coming down the chute is an awesome sight to behold. Dave
was tail-end charlie, so easy to spot. The pace plane pilot, Andrew Findley, congratulated
Dave on frequency for his 250th race at Reno, that was quite an honor. Then, those words
he waits for all year, “Ladies and Gentleman, you have a race.”
He made a fantastic start and passed Kirk Murphy, Ben Fouts and Pete Zaccagnino before
they got to the Valley of Speed on the back of the course. He flew high and tight on Tom
McNerney and Sean Van Hatten for two laps. Then I heard Tom call, “99 you’re clear.” With
that I took a deep breath and called his interval, 2 seconds, 2 seconds. Meaning Tom is two
seconds behind him. Four laps to go. My heart pounded as I watched those final laps. I
knew I was a witness to air race history. I must admit I had tears in my eyes and a lump in
my throat as I called his intervals for the final laps. And before you knew it, it was over. He
finished 4th with a race speed of 265.174 and he passed five planes. It took me a few
moments to regain my composure. As I got to his plane, he had just climbed out and had a
big grin on his face, ‘What’s that about long in the tooth?” I gave him a big kiss and a hug.
The Sport Class Awards are held privately Sunday afternoon just before the banquet. I was
there to present Vicky Benzing with the Race Angel for the Fastest Woman in Sport Class. I
created this trophy three years ago to honor Lee Behel, a man who loved fast women.
Colleen Keller won the award the first year and Vicky has won it the past two. I am so proud
of the ladies of Sport Class. Vicky set a new record for Fastest Legacy Qualifier and won
the Rocketeer award. Chiwami Takagi-Reid finished 3rd in the Silver, just ahead of Dave, a
big move up in her new plane. We missed Jessy Panzer this year but she'll be back.
The Fastest in Type were given out next. Every year the planes get faster. Then, the Lee
Behel Memorial Award for the pilot who has made the most contributions to air racing. As
they began to describe the recipient, my heart stopped. For his 37 years of racing, for his
endless guidance and advice for other pilots, for his participation in every Sport Class race,
and PRS from day one, for being an iconic air racer representing the very best of the
National Championship Air Races, the award goes to Dave Morss. I’m tearing up again as I
type this. Dave is a remarkable man and it makes my heart burst with pride and joy that he
was honored in this way by the class.
Thank you to everyone who is part of Sport Class, you truly are ‘Our September Family’.
Until next year or as Dave says, 355 days and counting.
PS Dave has at least another 50 races at other race venues over the years racing in IF1
and Biplane classes.