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Reno Air Races Photo Report - Unlimited Gold Final 2004
Reno-Stead Airport
September 19, 2004
Air Race Photo Report
Story & Photos by: Birgitta Nurmi
Additional Photos by: Neal Nurmi

CLOUDS OVER PEAVINE
The Story of Unlimited Gold Race Sunday, September 19, 2004

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The atmosphere in the Unlimited pits was one of quiet tension. Even a casual observer could detect the restlessness just beneath the surface. Crew members stood around in small groups, hands in their pockets. Fragments of muffled conversation drifted through the chilly air. Some ambled around the planes with a rag or screwdriver in their hands doing a bit more polishing here and there, or checking just one more thing…

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The main topic of conversation was the weather. Mike Houghton, President and CEO of the Reno Air Racing Association (RARA), later explained "The weather started going bad for us on Saturday morning. It got cold. And people don’t like cold weather. So the whole weekend ended up being a very unusual weather pattern, bitter cold because there was humidity in the air". Mike continued: "As we were watching the weather develop on Sunday, we could see off over the mountains, some snow squalls, isolated little cells that you could see around but as they were moving our way, they were becoming a bit ominous".

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At around 12.30 p.m., the "Dago Red" pit suddenly came to life as Dan Stout hopped on the tug and called "Roll out!" Some of the other Unlimiteds, "Voodoo" and "September Fury" were already out and waiting on the ramp. Planes were parked on the ramp in helter-skelter fashion, meaning, wherever there was a free spot. Something felt different. The usual drill, if anything can be taken for granted at the Reno Races, is that before the Sunday Unlimited Gold Race, the Unlimiteds are pulled out in front of the enthusiastic crowd. Each pilot and plane is introduced to the fans. However on this particular Sunday, there appeared to be uncertainty. Nobody seemed to know what was going on. Groups of people huddled on the ramp trying to stay warm. The fashion statement of the moment consisted of serious gloves, hats, scarves and whatever winter coat or jacket could be found.

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Back in the RARA office, Flight Operations Director Bill Eck had already initiated conversations with other officials. Mike Houghton explained that "As the weather was continuing to deteriorate, our concern was to complete the Unlimited air racing for the day. The solution that Bill (Eck) came up with was to swap the Unlimited racing with the jet racing. That would require consensus among the three groups; the Reno Air Race Association (RARA), race control and the affected class. In this case there were two classes affected, the jets and the Unlimiteds".

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At 2 p.m. RARA decided to send a scout plane out to get a better handle on what was happening out there. At 2.15 p.m. Pilot Rick Vandam took his L-39 up into the foreboding lead gray sky.

Meanwhile the crews and pilots waiting on the ramp kept an anxious eye on the clouds coming over the southwestern mountain range and moving rather quickly in the direction of Stead Field. There was beyond a doubt, some serious precipitation in those clouds. The pilots and owners started to gather in a group for a meeting.

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At 2.20 p.m., Rick Vandam radioed that the storm cell seemed to be building and this information was relayed to the group on the ramp. Among them was Art Vance, the president of the Unlimited class, Bill Eck, chairman of Operations; the air boss Jeff Turney and the pace pilot for the Unlimited class, Steve Hinton. The decision was made based on considerations for safety to switch the races. The Unlimited race would go ahead and that the jets would race afterwards.

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The whispers spread quickly on the ramp that the Unlimiteds were to start up. People started asking, "Where is the "Rare Bear"?" as the "Bear" was the only Unlimited Gold racer that had not yet joined the cluster of aircraft on the ramp. Some people seemed to know that the "Bear" still needed to fuel and its crew was busy loading nitrous. By 2.30 p.m., the "Rare Bear" arrived on the ramp. Without much ceremony everyone got to work. Engines came to life. It started to snow. Wet snow. The Grumman Bearcat joined the four P-51 Mustangs ("Dago Red", "Voodoo", "Ridge Runner" and "Miss America"), three Seafuries ("September Fury", "Dreadnought" and "Fury"), and one Yak ("Czech Mate"), as they taxied towards the runway. Steve Hinton in the Lockheed T-33 serving as the pace plane completed the group of planes preparing for take off. Today there was to be no introduction to the fans. Instead the focus was on outrunning the weather.

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3.10 P.m. The aircraft launched.

Out on the pylons, the pylon judges and photographers were in awe about the spectacle that unfolded before their eyes as they stood shivering in a rainstorm, cameras covered in as much plastic as they could find. Veteran photographer Neal Nurmi who was on pylon 8 during the race, described the experience as follows: "One of the great sensory experiences of my years of photographing Reno, was standing there in the freezing downpour with these incredible machines approaching out of the crud and wailing over our heads. We could see them across the east side of the course, then they would almost disappear down the "Valley of Speed" (between pylons 6 and 8), then pop out of the fog again and scream past. Absolutely amazing! I still can’t believe these guys were up there at 480 mph. in that stuff!" Hard to believe indeed because "that stuff" also really tore into all the airplanes’ beautiful paint jobs. Leading edges suffered greatly.

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Pilot Skip Holm flying "Dago Red", has yet another story to tell. At the onset of the race, he immediately became aware that he had two problems. One, as already noted by the photographers, was poor visibility on the course around pylon 7 due to heavy rain. The second problem was a fogged up canopy due to the low temperature combined with high humidity. Skip being Skip, he quickly developed a "wipe and fly" routine. That fogged up canopy, a wet glove and a rag that got dropped, merged with the details that he had to attend to while racing one of the fastest Mustangs in the world. For the rest of us mere mortals, this is a truly unimaginable feat.

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Skip passed the checkered flag at Home Pylon in first place. As the sun peeked through the storm clouds, he taxied in front of a jubilant crowd. "Dago Red" was followed by the "Rare Bear" in second place. Yet as Skip climbed out of the cockpit, a hush settled over the crew and a few assorted others who had gathered around. Within minutes there was an explanation. Crew chief Bill Kerchenfaut shook his head and announced quietly "We cut a pylon". He added, "Skip couldn’t see". Some of the crowd moved to the Rare Bear to congratulate John Penny and his crew. But the real joy didn’t seem to be there either. We all know that racing is racing and first place is first place but this race left everyone to wonder: What impact did the weather have? That is a question that can not ever be answered. The September 19, 2004 Unlimited Gold Race will just have to be the story about the day that the clouds came over Peavine…

Story and photography by: Birgitta Nurmi
Additional photography by: Neal Nurmi

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