From the tiny Formula 1 class racers that lap the short course at more than 250 mph to the anything-goes unlimited class where pilots go more than 500 mph just 50 feet off the ground, going fast is the only goal.
The 47th annual National Championship Air Races kick into high gear this weekend at Stead Field outside Reno, Nevada. The event started in 1964 when World War II pilot Bill Stead organized a race in the high desert of Nevada, resurrecting a sport that had largely gone missing since the last of the great Cleveland air races in 1949.
Air racing had been one of the most popular spectator sports before World War II, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to events nationwide. Back then, the quest for speed pushed aviation innovation with manufacturers often developing several new designs each year in a quest to win races.
These days, everything old is new. World War II-era aircraft have dominated the field since 1964. With the exception of the recent jet class, highly modified fighter planes from the 1940s consistently have been the fastest planes in Reno. Last year’s winner in the unlimited class was Strega, an extensively modified P-51 Mustang and a crowd favorite. It was the airplane’s eighth championship title, but the first for the young man in the cockpit, Steve Hinton Jr.
Hinton is favored to win again this year, and we caught up with him as he prepared Strega for this year’s race.
Hinton grew up around airplanes. Not just any airplanes, but racing airplanes. His father is a two-time Reno champ long involved in aircraft restoration at the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, California. He’s also flown in several movies.
“First time I was at the air races I was two weeks old,” Hinton, 23, says. “So at a young age, it was part of my life.”
Despite the exposure to high-horsepower exotic aircraft, Hinton took the same path many pilots follow when learning to fly. After starting lessons at 15, he soloed in the tried-and-true Cessna 150 on his 16th birthday.
Hinton is the first to admit the family business has provided opportunities not available to every aspiring pilot. But he probably put in many more hours in the shop by the time he flew an airplane than most pilots as well.
Steve Hinton Jr. and Steve Hinton Sr. – Photo: Dan Whitney
“At the museum, everybody starts at the ground floor” he says. “The attitude isn’t, ‘Oh you’re Steve’s son, we’ll check you out in the P-51 Mustang right now.’”
Along with one of his good friends, Hinton spent many after school hours restoring a vintage two seat Luscombe after it had been in storage for years.
“I was flying that every day after school, so I was building time pretty quick,” he says.
Eventually Hinton put in enough time working on a vintage Stinson L-5 to get some flying time in the slightly larger airplane. From there the schedule was much the same as it might have been for a young pilot getting ready to fly in World War II. Except Hinton was just 17.
From the 185-horsepower L-5, he moved up to a modified 450 hp Stearman. By 18 he was flying the more advanced T-6, and by 19 he had been checked out in the P-51 Mustang. At each step along the way Hinton put in long hours in the shop working on each airplane and learning about them before he ever flew in any of them.
At the same time he was getting checked out in the museum airplanes, Hinton was graduating from high school and applying for college like most teenagers his age. In the end the choice was fairly simple. He chose Cal Poly Pomona for two reasons.
“First,” he says, “they started the third week in September, so I knew it wasn’t going to conflict with the air races. And it’s close to the Chino Airport, I could still work and graduate in four years.”
Steve Hinton Jr. looks over Strega at the Reno Air Races – Photo: Tim Adams
All the time he was learning to fly and learning about the mechanical side of airplanes, Hinton always had the air races in the back of his head. During a visit to Reno when he was 15, he spotted Strega and made it his goal to one day race it around the pylons.
“I went home and dug through the attic and found dad’s pictures and old memorabilia and just plastered my walls with it,” Hinton says. “Not surfers or girls or anything, airplanes.”
Six years later Hinton raced at Reno for the first time. He attended rookie school, something every aspiring air racer must do, and raced a stock P-51 in 2008. His qualifying speeds in the 1,500 horsepower Mustang were around 350 mph.
By 2009, he’d landed the an opportunity to race the same airplane that adorned his bedroom walls — Strega. His official qualifying speed in Strega was nearly 490 mph with several lap speeds topping 500 mph.
“Before last year I had never been above take off power in a Mustang,” Hinton says of his first flights in Strega.
In addition to a highly modified airframe that includes chopping nearly 5 feet off of the wingspan and a streamlined fuselage to gain every bit of speed, Strega’s Rolls Royce Merlin engine produces twice the power of a stock Mustang.
Typically the 1,649 cubic inch supercharged V-12 puts out around 1,500 horsepower at 60 inches of manifold pressure and 3,000 rpm.
“In race power we’re in excess of 130 inches and 3,400 rpm,” Hinton says.
That’s good for more than 3,600 horsepower and can send Strega streaking over the desert at well over 500 mph. Of course, he’s doing it from an altitude of just 50 feet.
“It’s actually a lot easier to fly the race course at 500 mph than 400 or 300 mph,” Hinton claims. “You don’t have to fly a straight line so much from pylon to pylon, you can really get a nice curve going.”
With just one year of racing under his belt, Hinton was a bit of a surprise winner last year. He says he learned the most about racing through talking with other racers including his father, and a lot of hours in the hangar with veteran Reno air racer Bill “Tiger” Destefani who is also the owner of Strega. Hinton also learned a lot watching a lot of racing videos studying the lines other pilots flew and visualizing what it might be like to fly the course (see map below).
Each plane qualifies by flying around the nine pylons on the course alone, similar to car racing. Based on the qualifying races the pilots and planes are divided into groups, usually six or seven airplanes, and fly head to head in heat races starting on Thursday. The slower planes, about 320-330 mph for the unlimited class, fly together in the bronze category. The gold races are reserved for the fastest qualifiers that are closer to 500 mph.
Pilot follow strict rules taught in the mandatory rookie school that dictate how to fly wing tip to wing tip at such speeds and maintain a line without cutting off or endangering the other racers. They are also taught how to handle mechanical or other emergencies during the race.
After a pair of heat races in each of the gold, silver and bronze groups, the finals are set for Sunday. The Breitling Unlimited Gold race is the championship race and is the last event held each year.
It might seem stressful to have to keep track of more than 3,000 horsepower trying to pull an engine apart while flying at over 500 mph just a few dozen feet above the rocky desert and just a wingspan or two away from the competition, but Hinton says like so many things, time slows down a bit and you find a rhythm.
“It’s not stressful at all and you do find that zone real quick, especially when you’re in the lead because you have the luxury to fly your own line in clean air,” he says. But “you are constantly watching everything on the airplane.”
With air racers being pushed to the maximum, preparing them well is just as important as flying them well.
“It’s a maintenance hog,” Hinton says of Strega. “Easily a few hundred hours per flight hour.”
Strega during an engine runup – Photo: Ryan Coulter
Taking a short break from working on the airplane, Hinton says most people never see the maintenance side of air racing. He and a crew of four or five people have spent seven days a week for months preparing Strega and another P-51 for the race. The engine will get a complete overhaul after just 20 hours of flying, but Hinton says it looks like it has closer to 1,000 hours of wear when they pull it apart.
It’s a plenty of long hours, but for Hinton, the reward is those few hours of thundering speed every September.
Heat races started Thursday and so far Hinton is looking good to defend his title. He qualified on the top of the time sheets again this year with a speed of 484 mph. But rival P-51 “Voodoo” is close behind at 479 mph. This year’s races look to be tight between the two vintage fighters. The championship race takes place on Sunday and live updates can be found here.
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