Sep 19th, 2023

Goodbye to the Reno Air Races

Posted in Aviation News

An American aviation classic, the Reno Air Races, are saying goodbye.  Not a complete goodbye, but a goodbye, for now, to its location since the 1960s, Reno, Nevada.  But the story does not end there.

The Beginning

Like so many aviation advances, the Reno Air Races were started by a World War II veteran, Bill Stead.  Stead loved airplanes and loved racing, so why not combine the two, he thought.  Just as they did in the days of the Cleveland Air Races prior to World War II.  So, in 1964, he invited friends to join him at a dirt strip in Spanish Springs, Nevado.  At a place called Sky Ranch Airfield, which boasted a runway barely 2,000 feet long.  The Reno Air Races were born.  The event was a success and Bill had his friends return in 1965.

The event took a big step up in 1966.  Stead Air Force Base, just north of Reno, closed down and was turned over to public use.  Ironically, Stead AFB had been named for Bill’s brother, Croston Stead.  Croston was killed while mock dog fighting in a P-51 Mustang.  Stead AFB became Reno Stead Airport and was the new host of the Reno Air Races.  Now the race had long concrete runways, a control tower and lots of ramp space. 

The Race Itself

Over the years the races have developed.  The airplanes are clocked in miles per hour, versus knots.  There are now 2.5 days of qualifying.  Then there are 4.5 days of heat racing in six classic aircraft categories.

  • Unlimited
  • T-6
  • Biplane
  • Formula One
  • Sport
  • Jet

A seventh category was added in recent years.  It is the STOL Landing event. 

The Course

What makes Reno such an ideal location for the event is the geography.  Reno is in an open desert area with mountains surrounding the desert basin so that spectators have an unobstructed view of the course.  The races are conducted over a course that varies in length depending on the category of aircraft.  The course is laid out through a series of pylons. Aircraft are required to fly around the pylons and are restricted by the altitude at which they may fly.  There are judges on the ground ensuring that the aircraft indeed circle the pylon.  Generally, aircraft fly six laps around the course.

Unlimited Gold

For many the ultimate race of the week is the Unlimited Gold.  The Unlimited aircraft (all of World War II or Korean War vintage) take not six, but eight laps around the pylons for a total of 62.81 miles.  The Kentucky Derby is the marque event on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, it is not the only horse race that day, just the biggest and the most glamorous.  So, it is with the Unlimited Gold. 

The Crash of 2023

Unfortunately, the final Reno Air Race was concluded with a crash on the final day.  The crash occurred after the completion of a race.  Crashes are not frequent at the race, but much like other motorsports (e.g., NASCAR and Indy Car) they do occur from time to time.  This year’s crash claimed the lives of two pilots and forced the cancellation of the remaining races on Sunday.  This next statement is not to sound calloused.  However, as the CEO of the event stated on Sunday, “We know it could happen to any one of us.  As pilots we assume it won’t happen to us, but we know it could.”

Leaving Reno

Sadly, this will be the last year that the Reno Air Races are held in Reno.  Reno airport authority officials cited the regions’ growth concerns for their decision to no longer allow the races to be held in Reno.  Organizers have posted a fitting thank you to Reno for their support through the years. 

Happily, organizers are not dropping the checkered flag on the event entirely.  There will continue to be Reno Air Races, they just won’t be in Reno.  There is an excellent interview on possible locations that the organizers are looking to as future sites. 

Rumor has it that six locations have made bids to host the event.  My pilot friend, Jak has been on the ground there this week, I am hoping that he can come back with more intelligence on the situation. 

Here is the irony to the whole location dilemma.  The Reno Air Races aren’t even officially named the Reno Air Races.  Their official name is The National Championship Air Races, but everyone calls them the Reno Air Races.  Will the Reno name stick if the races move to, let’s say, Yuma Arizona?  Or who knows, maybe they will return to their original home, Sky Ranch, Nevada. 

The current plan is to hold just an air show at the Reno Stead Airport in 2024 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Reno Air Races.  Then move to the new site in 2025.  There, “The world’s fastest motor sport”, will continue. 

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