The future of Unlimited air racing

Help Support HomeBuiltAirplanes.com:

FranklinRatliff

Banned
The disaster at Reno is not the first time that racing officials have had to consider whether keeping a motorsport on its present course is a path to extinction. Unlimited hydroplane racing went through it. Top Fuel drag boat racing went through it. NASCAR went through it. The result was organizers were forced to admit fundamental change could no longer be avoided, and to give creative people and inventive engineers and scientists the opportunity to introduce innovations that changed the direction of the sport.

In the case of Unlimited hydroplanes and Top Fuel drag boats, the introduction of enclosed cockpits and driver capsules were innovations that turned all the existing boats into museum relics, but saved the sport. With NASCAR, it was introducing seats and head restraints that brought safety practices up to modern standards.

Just as the era of open cockpit hydroplanes and drag boats passed, the era of Unlimited racers as we know them has passed. I see a future for Unlimited air racing. I do not see a place for WWII airframes in that future. Unlimited air racing will be a lot safer with airplanes that are built from scratch to go 500 mph.

Aside from the project to rebuild Tsunami, other airplanes that can be considered as prototypes for future Unlimited racers are David Rose’s RP-4 and the Pond Racer (although in the case of the Pond Racer I think that project might have developed with less trouble if they’d used a pair of big block Chevys). Just as Unlimited hydroplanes moved away from WWII piston engines to gas turbines, I believe there is also a place for turbines in Unlimited air racing. If Unlimited air racing can be made more affordable without sacrificing performance, this could lead to growth that brings in new teams and bigger fields.

Well-Known Member
Just as the era of open cockpit hydroplanes and drag boats passed, the era of Unlimited racers as we know them has passed. I see a future for Unlimited air racing. I do not see a place for WWII airframes in that future. Unlimited air racing will be a lot safer with airplanes that are built from scratch to go 500 mph.
You will never get to the same safety level as Formula 1 or comparable sports. 150-200 mph is about the limit you can design a crash-safe structure for. A typical Reno racer (unlimited) has 50 (!) times the kinetic energy of a Formula 1/Nascar, running at full speed and the two sports you compare it to will virtually never have a frontal impact, they always go roughly parallel to the "hard surface", being the water or the circuit.
Even a ballistic trajectory could bring a 500 mph aircraft over 3 miles from the course. Including some "flying" during crashes you'd have to evacuate an area the size of my country to be perfectly safe for spectators. Air racing (or aircraft for that matter) are inherently more dangerous.

I agree with your other comments though. Turbines, preferably limited to one make (PT6, one certain version) would make racing a lot safer. The weight limit for the unlimited is downright silly, if you call your class "unlimited".

Going 400 mph with the Nemesis NXT is, from my point of view far more impressive than going 25% faster on 10 times the horsepower and probably also 10 times the budget...

FranklinRatliff

Banned
My point was the organizations sanctioning Unlimited hydroplane and drag boat racing were willing to obsolete all the existing boats if that meant the sport surviving instead of going extinct.

Autodidact

Well-Known Member
Well, I'd like to see them keep the piston engine requirement, turboprop seems like an incremental step toward pure jets and the speeds possible then will demand artificial stability augmentation. Pistons will ensure that speeds are kept to a level that can be handled by mechanically actuated control boosting (servo tabs and whatnot). I agree, WWII airframes should not be used, not because they're inherently unsafe - a scratchbuilt is going to be safer? - but because new airframes can make this a more interesting and mainstream sport with more money involvement and more public interest. It is entirely possible for air racing to be just as popular as it was during the 1930s.

What if they put the spectators within the course instead of outside of it? Or perhaps you could disperse the crowd into small pockets separated by relatively large open spaces so as to statistically reduce the chance of injury?

jlknolla

Well-Known Member
Unlimited Air Racing cannot survive without the Warbirds in Unlimited Gold my opinion.

There is nowhere near the level of interest from the General Public to attract the sponsorships needed to develop and feed a new breed of racing aircraft. Unlimited Gold is a niche competition that has rewritten rules several times to keep the few shoestring one-off competitive aircraft from actually competing.

And what of the monsters in Sport Gold? They are pushing 400 mph, literally 30-40% faster than they were designed for. Should we ground them too?

Formula V, hasn't held a race since '09 I think.

It is one thing to take an aircraft with a known pedigree and incrementally improve on it based on nearly 50 years of experience - creating a new aircraft capable of the same, or more, from whole cloth is entirely something different. I can think of less than half a dozen one-off or purpose built race planes that COULD have competed at the Unlimited Gold level, don't think any of them are still around, let alone competing.

This is a sport with limited appeal to a very dedicated cadre of followers - it cannot, in my opinion, survive a major change to the rules or a call for new airframes.

If you ground Rare Bear, and Strega and Dreadnaught you can pack it in as far as Reno is concerned. Sure Biplane racing is cool, but it won't bring in $87M. How many here even know about the SARL? Yes Unlimited Hydroplanes are complex, so is an Indy Car or the Car of Tomorrow at NASCAR, but they all pale in comparison to the thoroughbreds that began their lives as instruments of war 6 decades ago and which have carefully, thoughtfully and lovingly been modified to create the fastest motorsport on Earth. Travelling at 8 miles a minute with freedom in 3 dimensions is hazardous and involves energies that are unimaginable on flat ground or even in the water. I am sympathetic to those who have lost loved ones and friends or who may still be recovering, I truly am (you can't be in aviation as long as I have and not have lost friends - my most recent was this Spring), but making a knee-jerk emotional reaction is simply not appropriate. You simply cannot design a course or an aircraft to prevent what happened last week and still maintain even a shred of what Reno, and especially the Unlimited Gold, represents. In pure mathematical terms, it was a nearly unimaginable accident, with a statistically meaningless possibility of occurrence. Single accidents for Rally Car races when they get off course can kill as many spectators, and yet people still go. It is called informed consent - allowing an adult to choose, for themselves and their dependents, how to spend a sunny afternoon, and what risks to accept. Don't try and tell me that it has never occurred to someone that being in close proximity to races (boats, horses, cars, skiers, and yes airplanes) is 100% without risk - hell, I have ridden on Roller Coasters at Disney that have killed people. I have actually had to seek shelter at RC flying events, and been tempted to do so more than once at airshows as well, based on what appeared to be happening. This is part of the excitment and yes risk, of living life. To paraphrase Dennis Leary, life's tough, wear a helmet. skier Well-Known Member As far as how well tested WWII aircraft were, I read a book last year by one of the test pilots on the Corsair. Before the military would accept them they had to bring the Corsair up to 36,000 feet, enter a vertical dive to terminal velocity, and pull out at 9gs. I think these aircraft can withstand the stresses of racing. autoreply Well-Known Member A couple of remarks. The WWII era fighters are not designed for racing. They were designed for combat, which has vastly different requirements. On top of that, many things we know now weren't known then and most of the capabilities we have now didn't exist then. Determining the flutter speed on a Mustang was a matter of diving until it happened. Now we can model flutter and know the limits and variables. Ditto for fatigue, transonic effects, interfering flows and the like. Racing your aircraft and gradually "expanding the envelope" I would consider a pretty bad idea, especially if you've already stretched it that far. You can do that on a bicycle, but on an aircraft failures are all too often instantaneous and deadly. As for Reno, not sustaining itself without unlimited? I don't know. The same was heard when formula 1 dumped the 1500 HP turbocharged engines. There's not a single sport that has attracted so much new sponsor money (around 40 billion US$ since then) or audience since then.

Franklin might have a point, if air racing doesn't adapt, the public's reactions might very well be so negative than in the long term air racing is a thing from the past. Check my country is you think I'm overly pessimistic. What happened here will eventually happen in the US too...

topspeed100

Banned
We had WW II type racing in Finland after the war with hastily painted Me-109s at UTTI AF base. I think they run outa spare parts in AF pretty rapidly and all 109s were grounded in the early 50ies. Remember reading that Ernst Heinkel was pretty "pissed off" cause his He-100D wasn't given another change...he said it could have beaten Me 209 R speed by 25 km/h even as it was if used same altitude as the Messerschmitt did.

I recall the unlimiteds have 4500 lbs minimum weight limit ( Pond Racer was under this )...otherwise Thunder Mustangs and NXTs would have flown there already. Twin engine Chevy block racers sound cool...like pod racers of the Star Wars epic !

Last edited:

Dana

Super Moderator
Staff member
As far as how well tested WWII aircraft were, I read a book last year by one of the test pilots on the Corsair. Before the military would accept them they had to bring the Corsair up to 36,000 feet, enter a vertical dive to terminal velocity, and pull out at 9gs. I think these aircraft can withstand the stresses of racing.
If you tried that in a WWII fighter, you'd run into what back then was called "compressibility", which we now know as Mach effects, when the airflow starts to go supersonic over parts of an aircraft not designed for it. Typically this results in loss of control and thus the loss of the aircraft... and the pilot.

-Dana

Place a half full glass of water before a pessimist, optimist and an engineer:
The pessimist says the glass is half empty.
The optimist says the glass if half full.
The engineer says the glass is larger than it needs to be.

FranklinRatliff

Banned
With the crowd inside the course, that would mean the airplanes are never on a trajectory where their momentum carries them toward the crowd.

FranklinRatliff

Banned
With props, both turbine and piston engines have the same performance limits imposed on them so it is not a sure thing a turboprop would be faster than a piston.

skier

Well-Known Member
If you tried that in a WWII fighter, you'd run into what back then was called "compressibility", which we now know as Mach effects, when the airflow starts to go supersonic over parts of an aircraft not designed for it. Typically this results in loss of control and thus the loss of the aircraft... and the pilot.
I was just reporting what I read in a book. It's a good book, I would highly recommend it to anyone:

This Exciting Air by Boone Guyton

Amazon.com: This Exciting Air: The Experience of a Test Pilot: Boone T. Guyton: Books

FranklinRatliff

Banned
Unlimited Air Racing cannot survive without the Warbirds in Unlimited Gold my opinion.

There is nowhere near the level of interest from the General Public to attract the sponsorships needed to develop and feed a new breed of racing aircraft. Unlimited Gold is a niche competition that has rewritten rules several times to keep the few shoestring one-off competitive aircraft from actually competing.

And what of the monsters in Sport Gold? They are pushing 400 mph, literally 30-40% faster than they were designed for. Should we ground them too?

Formula V, hasn't held a race since '09 I think.

It is one thing to take an aircraft with a known pedigree and incrementally improve on it based on nearly 50 years of experience - creating a new aircraft capable of the same, or more, from whole cloth is entirely something different. I can think of less than half a dozen one-off or purpose built race planes that COULD have competed at the Unlimited Gold level, don't think any of them are still around, let alone competing.

This is a sport with limited appeal to a very dedicated cadre of followers - it cannot, in my opinion, survive a major change to the rules or a call for new airframes.

If you ground Rare Bear, and Strega and Dreadnaught you can pack it in as far as Reno is concerned. Sure Biplane racing is cool, but it won't bring in \$87M.

How many here even know about the SARL?

Yes Unlimited Hydroplanes are complex, so is an Indy Car or the Car of Tomorrow at NASCAR, but they all pale in comparison to the thoroughbreds that began their lives as instruments of war 6 decades ago and which have carefully, thoughtfully and lovingly been modified to create the fastest motorsport on Earth. Travelling at 8 miles a minute with freedom in 3 dimensions is hazardous and involves energies that are unimaginable on flat ground or even in the water.

I am sympathetic to those who have lost loved ones and friends or who may still be recovering, I truly am (you can't be in aviation as long as I have and not have lost friends - my most recent was this Spring), but making a knee-jerk emotional reaction is simply not appropriate.

You simply cannot design a course or an aircraft to prevent what happened last week and still maintain even a shred of what Reno, and especially the Unlimited Gold, represents. In pure mathematical terms, it was a nearly unimaginable accident, with a statistically meaningless possibility of occurrence. Single accidents for Rally Car races when they get off course can kill as many spectators, and yet people still go.

It is called informed consent - allowing an adult to choose, for themselves and their dependents, how to spend a sunny afternoon, and what risks to accept. Don't try and tell me that it has never occurred to someone that being in close proximity to races (boats, horses, cars, skiers, and yes airplanes) is 100% without risk - hell, I have ridden on Roller Coasters at Disney that have killed people. I have actually had to seek shelter at RC flying events, and been tempted to do so more than once at airshows as well, based on what appeared to be happening. This is part of the excitment and yes risk, of living life.

To paraphrase Dennis Leary, life's tough, wear a helmet.
Just a few days ago at the Bonneville salt flats, a two-wheel drive car powered by a single turbocharged six liter engine was timed at 442 mph through the flying mile and clocked exiting the mile at 462 mph.

Autodidact

Well-Known Member
One problem with turboprops is that substantial amounts of thrust are developed by the exaust. Some clever guy will sooner or later get a 15,000 lb st jet engine and put a prop on the front that doesn't really add to the performance and have a claim that he is within the rules.

Well-Known Member
With the crowd inside the course, that would mean the airplanes are never on a trajectory where their momentum carries them toward the crowd.
Those planes are still flying. Even a minor input (like loosing a trim tab when banking) could change their course enormously.
One problem with turboprops is that substantial amounts of thrust are developed by the exaust. Some clever guy will sooner or later get a 15,000 lb st jet engine and put a prop on the front that doesn't really add to the performance and have a claim that he is within the rules.
And that's where putting in a standard engine would make sense. Much lower cost (compared to a highly tweaked engine) and a zillion times more reliable as the pistons now racing. With the PT--6A66/67 or so spectacle would still be guaranteed. Never going to happen I guess :depressed

FranklinRatliff

Banned
Those planes are still flying. Even a minor input (like loosing a trim tab when banking) could change their course enormously.

And that's where putting in a standard engine would make sense. Much lower cost (compared to a highly tweaked engine) and a zillion times more reliable as the pistons now racing. With the PT--6A66/67 or so spectacle would still be guaranteed. Never going to happen I guess :depressed
Standardizing the engine would still allow plenty of creativity with the airframe. Unlimited hydroplanes use a T-55. With restrictions on fuel flow and the governor that keep the engine running within factory specs, boats have run an entire season on one engine.

jlknolla

Well-Known Member
Put the spectators inside the course and they can only watch at best half the action (or half the crowd only sees the back of the course and misses the finish, why go?) - and you either make the course significantly larger or they are at the same or greater risk, and perhaps even more isolated in terms of first responders and travel to medical facilities.

At 500 mph, covering 1000 feet takes 1.4 seconds - in a flat or glancing impact, engine blocks, which weigh north of 1200 lbs, can travel a thousand feet or more, like a giant metallic skipping stone. While we should always strive for perfect safety, we simply have to acknowledge that you can never truly and fully eliminate risk, we can only minimize it to the maximum extent possible.

Want 100% safety, fine, choose to watch it on TV, from the comfort of your couch at home - but leave me and others the freedom to go see, hear, feel and smell it for ourselves, live. Nobody makes anyone go to theses events, again, it is the concept of informed consent.

Like all flying, this is a hazardous undertaking for the pilots. And like all racing, this is a hazardous undertaking for spectators.

These planes are covering a mile every 7 seconds, they weigh two to three times as much as the NASCAR Car of Tomorrow, and are going 2 and half times faster, as I said before, the energy involved is not comparable to race cars or hydroplanes. With freedom in all 3 axes and the kinetic energy available at 500 mph, the eventual point of impact from any possible departure from controlled flight is literally unpredictable beyond the current deadline and course layout approach.

Don't get me wrong, there are some great guys out there working on some very cool one-off race planes not based on Warbirds, including our own Orion and a guy down here in San Diego among others - and I would love to see these creations allowed to compete, and hopefully be competitive - but no attempt to-date has been successful, there is a reason Warbirds dominate this event. The Pond Racer barely qualified for Unlimited Silver and never completed a race to my recollection before killing Rick Brickert.

If you look at Formula 1 and Formula V Air Racing which follow the concepts being suggested by some for Unlimited, there is nowhere near the level of excitmement and interest as exists for Unlimited Gold, partly because the planes are so much smaller, and partly because they are significantly slower. Add in a drive to place the action FARTHER away from the crowd, and it will be like watching paint dry. 'Hey did you see the white spec pass the black spec?' And I like the Formula 1 and Formula V concepts, a guy of 'average means' could still get into either event and possibly be competitive.

The Sport Air Racing League guys are doing very well, and are posting some great speeds and driving innovation, but they are not 'spectator' events. Current piston record is 348 mph in a Lancair IV.

Making rules changes in the emotional wake of a truly freak accident is not the right answer. More or different rules are not needed and would not have prevented this tragedy. Let us mourn those lost and injured, but we must resist the urge to make knee-jerk reactions.

FranklinRatliff

Banned
Look at the American safety record for airshows. Regulations ban any maneuvers that point the airplane toward spectators. Doing the same thing in air racing means either putting the crowd inside the course, or putting the grandstands in the middle of the straights.

Galloping Ghost was the THIRD incident and SECOND fatality involving an elevator trim tab failure on a P-51.