The Sound of September (Reno 2003)
by Karen Morss
pilot. It’s time for the Reno National Championship Air Races, where the
best of the best match their skills for eight grueling days in the desert. It’s
hard to imagine a more beautiful site than race planes lined up for the
morning’s first flight. The crisp dry air. The golden brown mountains. A
sky as blue as blue can be. The sunlight reflects off the polished planes,
ready to do battle at fifty feet over a six-mile oval course. The crews have
spent months getting ready for this moment. The pilots brief one last time
before engine start.
I paste an angel on the plane’s tail. A little extra luck. Dave has raced at
Reno for 24 years but this year is special. His dad, Martin, passed away
last July and he’s flying his new Legacy completed with his inheritance.
We named the plane Martin’s Legacy and dedicate the race to his father.
Now mind you, this is the plane he told me he would never race, it’s his
work plane and not set up for racing. But things change and Dave’s a
racer, so here we go again. He looks forward to this all year. He’s a great
pilot but anything can happen at Reno so I hold my breath and say a
prayer to the race angels. The engines roar to life - the sound of
September – and the planes taxi out for the start of the Silver Sport
Class Race. Dave’s in 4th position but I’m getting ahead of myself. This
started a week ago.
The 1st Sunday
I drive up to Reno with our support equipment and the all important team
cookies. Dave flew in Saturday morning but there’s a problem with tech
inspection so I bring the logbooks to resolve the issue. The inspector is
surprised that Dave built the plane, issued the Airworthiness Certificate
for the plane and licensed the plane. Dave’s a DAR (Designated
Airworthiness Representative) for the FAA so this was a non-issue but
we need the proper paperwork to make our case before we can qualify.
Dave flies Martin’s Legacy on the course for the first time. We don’t have
a race prop or ADI or a spray bar to keep the engine from overheating.
We installed a supercharger from Aero Supercharger Solutions two
weeks ago, so making horsepower is not a problem. As it turns out, using
it is. We know going in that we can’t compete in the Gold Class but the
grumbling has already started that Dave’s sandbagging. There’s even a
story on the Internet at Aero-News.com. The plan is to fly Martin’s Legacy
in the Silver and a late entry, Rick Schrameck’s Legacy in the Gold. He’s
also flying Jim Cook’s YAK 9 in the Unlimited Class, part of Sean Carroll’s
YAK racing team but that’s a whole ‘nuther story. He was scheduled to
fly the deHavilland Comet replica in the Golden Age Racer demo until a
last minute cancellation, which was really too bad for all concerned.
Larry Lechner from Colorado broke both ankles. Dan Borgstrom from Sweden is in intensive
care. This is the part of Reno that scares the daylights out of me. We see the new Reno ad
on TV for the first time. ‘Flying 40 feet above the desert and at any moment it could all hit
the fan.’ I don’t know about that line. Last year’s tag line was ‘A Race to Remember’ but what
I remember is our good friend Tommy Rose who was killed in Friday’s Gold heat race when
something on the tail failed. We’ll miss Tommy and his kindly southern ways. Just before that
final race I told him to be careful out there. He replied, “Don’t you worry none, Miss Karen.
I’m just out there to have fun.”
A beautiful morning dawns at Reno as I make the first of many pots of coffee in the Sport
Class Hangar, our home for the next week graciously provided by the local company, ERA.
This is my favorite time to catch up with old friends and make new ones. The pressure builds
later in the week, but for now, everything’s perfect. I keep an eye out for hungry
crewmembers that inevitably work through lunch. They appreciate the treats and goodies.
Dave flies Rick’s Legacy for a practice lap and clocks 303 mph. Because of Dave’s other
commitments, Rick wants Dave to qualify and have Rick Vandam fly the race.
In the afternoon, Dave takes the Yak 9, Anya, up for the first time. Everything checks out
fine and he’s happy to be back on the Unlimited course. Over the past 24 years, Dave has
competed in Formula One for 17 years, and 5 years in Biplane and Sport class. He loves it
all but his heart belongs to the Unlimiteds. Something about those big old warbirds just gets
his heart pumping. It all gets my heart pumping. I paste angels on the tails of both Yaks and
Legacys so he’s covered no matter what he flies. That night on our way back to the hotel,
we pass the sign for the Countess Dandini Garden. For nine years I have been pestering
him to take me to see these gardens, maybe this year.
We usually get at least one cold, overcast windy day at Reno and today’s the day. After a
fretful night (for me), Dave makes a decision. If Vandam’s going to race the plane, he should
be the one to qualify it. Rick doesn’t have much stick time in the plane and needs all he can
get. Even though it means giving up his chance to race in the Gold, Dave says it’s the right
decision for the team but I know he’s disappointed. He wants another go at Mr. G in Race
33. Last year, Darryl Greenameyer’s race speed (328.967 mph) beat Dave’s record by less
than 1 mph. He really wants a shot at regaining the lead.
Dave qualifies Martin’s Legacy at 243.805 mph, slow, but conditions are difficult with wind
gusts to 30 mph. Everyone’s slow and we’re in the middle of the pack in the Silver group.
Our beautiful MT propeller, which performs so magnificently in cruise, can’t cut the mustard
in race conditions. I explain that to anyone who’ll listen but the sandbag story continues.
Darryl qualifies later in the day at 347.616 mph to take first place. He says he’s making over
600 horsepower so we figure he’ll either blow up or win the Gold.
A beautiful sunrise and light winds mark the start of another good day at Reno. As we pull
into the parking lot, I look up to see a gaggle of geese head south just as a formation of
F16s fly overhead. One of those memories you treasure forever. All the planes must qualify
today or they are out of the race. Only a few qualified yesterday in the cold, windy
conditions. Dave says, “Pressure makes diamonds”.
Rick Schrameck’s Legacy blows a piston during the qualification run. All hands pitch in to fix
the problem. It makes you proud to be part of racing when you see how competitors lend
parts and tools to help each other get back in the race. Usually, it’s Dave who blows up so
we’re familiar with the drill. Most inspiring part of Reno in my book. They have to get the
plane fixed and qualified by five o’clock. They make it with no moments to spare and qualify
at 302 mph. Vandam tells me he’s beginning to wish Dave was racing 88 but I don’t believe
him. You can tell he’s having fun.
We head back to the hotel but Dave surprises me when he takes the Dandini Garden exit.
Now you must understand, after nine years, these gardens have taken on mythic
proportions in my imagination. I imagine the Countess created waterfalls and pools amid a
luscious, green landscape. We follow the signs but the only thing we find it the sign for the
overflow parking area. We are surrounded by typical desert landscape. If this is the garden
we can’t distinguish it from the roadside terrain of Route 80. Dave shakes his head and
laughs as we head back to the Hilton. Perhaps some things are better left to the imagination.
Days start early at Reno with pilot briefings at 8am sharp. No brief, no fly. The planes for the
Silver heat take their positions at 8:30. We have one too many planes in the Sport hangar
and do a lot of juggling to get Martin’s Legacy to the ramp. One of my jobs at Reno is to time
Dave’s lap speeds and relay that information on a discreet frequency. Someone has race
control tuned in as the planes form up behind Peavine Mountain and we hear those
wonderful words, ‘Gentlemen and Ladies, you have a race.’
Today the plan is to test rpm settings between 2400 and 2900 to see how it effects his
speed. It doesn’t. He can go a couple laps at 264 mph but then the engine starts to run hot.
He backs way off and finishes 5th. Meanwhile Arnie Luters tries his best to get past Vicki
Cruse but she beats him by seconds. These two put on a great show all week.
In the Gold heat race, Darryl almost laps the entire field while Rick Vandam in Race 88 has
to abort his takeoff run with fuel flow problems. Such are the ups and downs of air racing.
We arrive early to find bags of sand at each wheel of Martin’s Legacy. We get a good laugh
but know better. This morning he gets off to a fast start, tucked in right behind Earl Hibler’s
Glasair Baby Doll. These two have been flying formation together for 20 years and it shows.
They’re having a good time and I call his lap speeds at 269.482, 268.566, 268.283,
268.976. Then I see Dave pull up and off the course. A master alarm was going off and
Dave thought it was fuel flow. He looked over to check his temps and saw that he was
redlined. He promised me that he would not blow up this engine so it was race over for 99. If
he’s going to run at the front of this pack, we need a different prop. I track down Joe Nelson,
the OEM Sales Manager for Hartzell and explain our plight. Unfortunately, Joe doesn’t have
any spare Scimitars with him, the beautiful Hartzell racing propeller that helped Dave win
three Gold Championships in the factory Lancair 4.
We continue to be blessed with spectacular weather and Saturday offers more of the same.
Dave wants to see how far ahead he can get on the start. It’s not easy to pass in air racing
and the lead will be all that separates him from the pack on Sunday. Earl Hibler bumped up
to the Gold after Friday’s win. After one lap, he plans to pull back and play with Arnie and
Vicki. ‘I won’t get in their way but we’ll give the crowd a good three-way race’. I help him strap
in and give him his pre-race kiss, then walk away to give him some space. He needs this
quiet time to get into race mode. He listens to Loose Screw by the Pretenders on his CD to
help him focus.
Joe Nelson, from Hartzell, walks up with a mischievous grin. ‘I thought about it last night and I
think I have an idea to get Dave a prop. We’ll ask Lancair if we can borrow the one on the
factory demonstrator.’ What a great idea, why didn’t I think of that? I run back over to the
plane to tell Dave that Joe has an idea to get him a prop. With that, they give the signal for
engine start so I back away. Later, Dave tells me he had no idea what I was talking about
(par for the course) and wasn’t sure if Joe was proposing to give him a prop or sell him a
prop or when all this would happen. He put it out of his mind and concentrated on the task at
The planes start down the shoot and Martin’s Legacy leaps to the front and pulls away from
the competition. I clock his first lap at 264.782 but more important, he’s got a ten-second
lead on the field by the time he reaches the grandstands. I radio the news as he passes
home pylon and he pulls back to save the engine. Along the ramp, I hear more sandbag
grumbles. For the next five laps, Vicki, Arnie and Dave put on a great show and finish in that
order with less than a second separating them. I’m thrilled to see a woman win the race. Go
Dave heads off to the YAK to find out if he’s racing today. I take off for the Lancair booth to
find Kim Lorentzen, Lancair Sales Manager, and beg for a prop. Dave’s worked with Lancair
since 1985 and flew the factory Lancair to 1st place positions in ’98, ’99 and 2000. He’s
done many of their first flights and holds numerous speed records in Lancairs. She
promises to get right back to me with an answer.
I go off to find Dave and explain what’s going on. He’s in an Unlimited briefing but when we
get back, Kim’s made a decision. We can borrow the Hartzell prop from the factory
demonstrator. We promise not to hurt the prop and Joe Nelson goes even further and
commits Hartzell to replace it if we do. Hartzell and Lancair come through for us again. It
wasn’t the Scimitar but it was a three-blade blended airfoil propeller with a whole lot of bite.
Gordon McConnell, a friend from Rick Schrameck’s team, helps me move the plane from the
Lancair booth to the Era hangar, no easy feat on a crowded Saturday afternoon.
We park the plane next to our pit and Dave, Gordon and Steve Lorentzen, Kim’s husband,
proceed to remove our prop and put on the big, beefy Hartzell. Joe Nelson we love you!
Now, we have a real chance to win the Silver. I expect the sand bag grumbles to get even
louder but believe me, none of this was planned.
We go out to watch the Gold heat race just in time to see Darryl blaze to the lead. I wonder if
he’ll lap the field today. Suddenly, smoke pours out behind his beautiful racer. Race Control
calls those fateful words, Race 33 you’re trailing smoke and Darryl pulls up. His three
daughters are here to see him race for the first time. The looks on their faces say it all. It’s
so scary. You don’t know if there’s smoke in the cockpit or what exactly is happening. Darryl
pulls the power and makes a beautiful landing. The crowd roars their approval and Rick
Vandam wins the race with a speed of 304.021.
Andy Chiavetta, Race 33 crew chief, starts the tear down on Darryl’s engine. The folks from
Lancair tell him to let them know if there’s anything they can do to help. Rick Schrameck is
thrilled with his win but he’s also the first man over to Darryl’s pit to offer assistance. Seems
only fair since the situation was reversed last year and Darryl lent us parts to get back in the
race. It will be a really long night for Race 33. Where is the SPEED channel? Where is
ESPN? Where is Fox Sports? For the life of me, I don’t understand why these races don’t
get top coverage. A quarter of a million people come to watch so obviously it’s more than
just the racer’s families who are interested. This is the fastest motor sport on Earth. Wake
up you guys! Just wait till my screenplay gets made into a movie! I told Darryl I want Paul
Newman to play his role but he tells me Walter Mathau would be a better choice.
A glorious day for racing, warm with light winds. The crowds fill the grandstand early for the
final day of racing. When we arrive, Race 33 is out on the ramp doing a run up. A good sign.
It seems that the Lancair factory demonstrator has offered up more than just the prop.
There’s a sign on the plane probably put there by the same guy who delivered the
sandbags. ‘Don’t let Lancairs share hangars. They eat their own.’ In the pilot briefing,
someone asks Darryl if he got Lancairs permission. He says Dave told him it was okay which
gets a good laugh.
We push out early to hook up our camera equipment to record the race. My heart is
pounding and I can barely breath. Earl Hibler has bumped up to the Gold race but Kevin
Eldridge, Race 42, has bumped down to the Silver. He’s been running fast all week and will
give Dave a run for his money since he has the pole. It’s really hard to pass in air racing so
Dave has to make a great start if he’s to have any chance of winning this race.
The planes take off, Dave’s in fourth position. They form up behind Peavine Mountain. In
addition to the race angels, I say a prayer to Martin. The only time he saw Dave race he
won. I hope he’s watching now. We can hear the planes before we can see them. Then
suddenly, there they are strung out like beads of pearls across the sky. We hear CJ
Stephens in the pace plane. ‘Formation looks good. Gentlemen and Ladies, you have a
The throttles go full forward. The engines and props scream as the planes dive into the
Valley of Speed. Dave has moved into third position when they disappear on the horizon.
When they reappear, he’s got the lead. Race 99 comes screaming in front of the crowd to
start the clock as he passes home pylon. Just this once, I really hope he kicks butt. If you
know Dave at all, you know he doesn’t know the meaning of holding back. This is a full
throttle air racer at his best and once he takes that lead, he never looks back. For six
glorious laps he leads the pack. I burst into tears when he takes the checkered flag with a
ten second lead. Did you see that Martin? Thank you, Race Angels.
One of the many great traditions at Reno is the winning race team gets a ride in an antique
Fire Truck in front of the grandstand. We invite Joe Nelson and the Aero Supercharger
Solutions team to join us. We want Kim to come too but can’t find her in the crowd. People
cheer and applaud along the grandstands as the firetruck rings the bell but you know when
you arrive at Section 3 with the fans decked out in bright orange shirts. These folks are true
air race aficionados and we stand up to salute them. In turn we’re thrilled with the high
marks they award our effort.
On our way back, we drop Dave off at the YAK for the Bronze Unlimited race. I grab my timer
board and head back to the YAK. On my way, I stop in the Lancair booth to celebrate with
Kim. Without the support of Lancair and Hartzell, we would not have won that race. In fact,
we would not have won any Sport Class races without their support.
In the Gold Race, Darryl holds off a spirited challenge by Rick Vandam. Darryl didn’t realize
Rick had caught him until he radioed he was passing on the right. Rick takes the lead and
Darryl is in second place for the first time this year. It doesn’t last long. Darryl finds a few
more inches of manifold pressure and regains the lead. We hold our breaths and hope the
engine stays together. It does and he wins the race by two seconds. The crowd goes wild
and Darryl’s daughters and Andy look relieved and thrilled at the same time. I know the
We decide to skip the banquet. I’m getting a cold and we’re both exhausted, mentally and
physically. After an early dinner, Dave and Gordon decide to go racing. The Hilton has a go
cart track that they can’t resist. Gordon’s wife, Helen, does the sensible thing and hits the
slots. I head for the room and a long, hot bubble bath. The next morning as I pack, Dave
looks out the window and watches the sun rise over Dandini Gardens. He turns to me and
says wistfully, ‘Only 357 days till Reno.’ I can hardly wait.
Both Formula One pilots are well on the road to recovery. We hope to see them back next
year. I just watched the cockpit tape of the Silver Sport race which I’ve set it to music and
plan to send it to John Travolta with my screenplay. Dave’s off racing at Thunderhill this
weekend so I have time to finish. What can I say, the man just loves racing. When he’s not
racing planes, he races SCCA Formula V, those little open wheel racers. When your
husband’s a race pilot, you remember September with mixed emotions but the strongest of
them, pride. Those most thrilling and inspiring eight days come just once a year. Thank