Unlimited Air Racing Dead?

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mcrae0104

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It’s been discussed in the past, but I think perhaps we’ve reached an inflection point. The Reno Unlimited purse no longer seems to attract anything but stockers. It’s a far cry from what it was only a few years ago, let alone 10, 20 years +. Witness today’s outcome, with places 1-3 taken by the Sanders’ stock(ish) Sea Furies.

I like the Sanders family and everything they’ve done to keep warbirds alive, so I’m not complaining about them. But DQing what is arguably the only race plane—Miss America—for high flying (which was no higher than past years) is about the last nail in the coffin. I don’t see Miss A coming back, Voodoo’s retired, Sherm no longer wants to tempt fate flying Czech Mate, Tsunami languishes in reconstruction, Rare Bear seems forgotten by its owner, and Tiger can’t seem to be bothered to field Strega again.

On a brighter note, IF1 seems as strong as ever, and Sport Class is perhaps as fast as ever with great performances from Jeff Lavelle, Andy Findlay, Jim Rust, and sprited competition from Kevin Eldridge. Time will tell whether these other classes can carry the event. I hope we will soon see Sport Class eclipse the 450+ mph performance of the Super Mustangs of yesteryear—maybe there is another golden age around the corner.

Is this sport doomed to die, or is this just the point where it’s no longer viable to modify warbirds relative to the purse?
 

rv7charlie

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They rewrote the unlimited rules years ago when it looked like some modern light alternative designs were about to start challenging the fatcat warbirds, to outlaw everything except the big iron. Looks like the chickens have come home to roost.
 

Voidhawk9

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The big mistake was changing the Unlimited rules to essentially lock out everything but warbirds. Now that those are getting more rare and expensive, the Unlimiteds are dying.
Sport Class is where it's at now. They are not even close to realizing the full potential allowed for in the rules - expect to see more power and more speed from them in coming years - you ain't seen nuthin yet!
 

Hephaestus

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That and insurance costs...

Hangar scuttlebutt is one of the local sonerais paid a heavy insurance bill just to race... Weeks race coverage was almost double my annual premium.

Trent Palmer made a comment about insurance costs keeping him out of stol drags.

If it's that bad on the small aircraft - imagine the cost on a warbird
 

TFF

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The value is restoring them into warbirds. They use to be $50,000 used airplanes when a new Bonanza was $80,000. Yes they turned into millions, but planes like Miss American were first built when they were “cheap”. Seafurys twenty years ago were dirt cheap like a couple hundred thousand dollars not the million one is today. I think it’s sad and I’m not opposed to a bunch of stock planes running around, but that’s going away too.
 

mcrae0104

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I appreciate and agree with the comments regarding rule changes keeping "scratch-builts" out of the Unlimited class. However, what I was getting at is that the existing super-modified planes are staying home, presumably (and in some cases, explicitly) because the prize money isn't worth the effort and cost of racing.

I would like to see more competition in a few areas:
  • Already-existing modified warbirds that are sitting out. Unfortunately (as TFF alluded) these planes are worth more to convert back to stock (e.g. 232).
  • New designs for the Unlimited class (e.g. Tsunami or others). It's a really expensive proposition to do this, though, and doesn't make economic sense, even if you win several years in a row.
  • New designs for the Sport class. I don't quite buy the argument that Unlimited rule changes have stifled innovation, since we see good progress over the last decade in the Sport class, but they're still not threatening the lousy gold Unlimited times we have seen for the last couple of years. I would love to see a purpose-built Sport class racer that isn't carrying all the frontal area of a Legacy or Glasair or NXT.
Do you think we will see any of the above without finding a way to increase the purse?

Also, what is your opinion on this: Does the STOL Drag dilute the purse, and help to kill the traditional race classes, or does it bring more spectators (a rising tide lifts all boats)? I am sure lots of folks like it, but how many are actually spending their money to travel to Reno to see it? Although it's a fun event to watch, I definitely would not lay out the cash to go see this, so I see it as a bit of a distraction, but what say you?
 

Voidhawk9

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we see good progress over the last decade in the Sport class, but they're still not threatening the lousy gold Unlimited times we have seen for the last couple of years.
Sorry, how do you figure that?
Only ONE Unlimited racer (Dreadnaught) was faster than the top FOUR Sport Class racers this year. One!

And the Unlimiteds have a wider course, which should allow for higher speeds as well.
 

Victor Bravo

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The STOL guys don't invite pylon racers to their events, and the pylon racers should keep themselves more or less separate from STOL competitions.

I of course understand why an airshow promoter would want the STOL guys to show up, it puts asses in the grandstands, but it cannot and should not "dilute" the racing purse. It should be a completely separate purse, from a completely separate sponsor bank account.

The unlimiteds have slit their own throats, and as much as I loved to go watch the races years ago... they are now reaping what they have sown. The airplanes are way too expensive, and (as I've said previously) IMHO every time Miss America or Rare Bear is in a "real" air race it's a Russian Roulette game of whether it will be lost forever.

I'm so sorry, but the vintage unlimited racers should not be blasting around the course at 80 or 100 inches of manifold pressure any more. Flybys for the crowd at 50 inches... sure. "Legacy" flights with the Bearcat next to a race Glasair... sure. Does Mr. Petty drag the #43 Plymouth out of the museum and put it head-to-head against today's NASCAR racers?

Unlimited Air Racing was heading toward dead when the warbirds became seven figure rarities, it had no discernible pulse when the efforts to televise (and promote it like Indy and LeMans) failed, and it was pronounced double-dead when they turned it into an invitation-only event.

These wonderful national treasure airplanes will thankfully be paraded around at 1/3 power at airshows for many years, just like old punch-drunk former heavyweight boxers and retired baseball players and botox'ed old movie stars are still seen on "Dancing with the Stars", and "Celebrity-Where Are They Now?" TV shows. For heaven's sake I just saw Joe Namath on a TV commercial for some Senior Citizen medicare life insurance commercial... I mean the same Broadway Joe with the Playboy bunnies hanging off his arm !
 
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mcrae0104

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Only ONE Unlimited racer (Dreadnaught) was faster than the top FOUR Sport Class racers this year. One!
I see your point, although I think it is silly that the second UL time was not listed because he was DQ'd. I would argue that at least two Unlimiteds topped the four fastest Sports, and the average of the UL gold is still close to 20mph faster than the average of the Sport gold.

However, UL times over the last two years have been pathetic compared to recent years past. This is not because they're keeping out scratch-built planes; it's because the best Ulimiteds are sitting on the sidelines.

I agree with the spirit of what you're saying. Sport class seems to be the future since Unlimited is practically dead due to a lack of participation. And I think we could see even better Sport times with purpose-built Sports instead of hopped-up Glasairs and Lancairs.
 
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mcrae0104

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...the vintage unlimited racers should not be blasting around the course at 80 or 100 inches of manifold pressure any more.
I'd like to see more like 130, but I'm not paying for them, other than the price of a pit pass. :)

If the planes are national treasures, Uncle Sam shouldn't have let them go for pennies on the dollar. But their present owners seem to agree that they are too valuable to race, hence the death of the class.

"The king (UL) is dead! Long live the king (Sport)!"
 

BJC

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And the Unlimiteds have a wider course, which should allow for higher speeds as well.
They have been flying the same course recently. About 7 miles.
but what say you?
Wow, what an invitation!

Look at all other forms of motor sport racing: they survive on sponsorships. Aircraft racing never will draw enough sponsorship to make racing a profession (i.e., profitable) with a single event each year. It likely is too late (declining spectator base) to achieve that.


BJC
 

Kyle Boatright

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I appreciate and agree with the comments regarding rule changes keeping "scratch-builts" out of the Unlimited class. However, what I was getting at is that the existing super-modified planes are staying home, presumably (and in some cases, explicitly) because the prize money isn't worth the effort and cost of racing.
I highlighted the important words. If you wanna go fast in the Unlimited world, you're gonna spend 6 figures on an engine that might last for a season (a week) or two at Reno. And as several have pointed out, a flying (stock) Mustang or Bearcat is pushing a value of $5M. With the risk inherent in racing, that's a lot to put on the line for basically a pretty trophy. After that, you get into demographics. The folks who can afford a Mustang today aren't the same adventurous folks who bought 'em for $10K back in the 60's and flew like their hair was on fire.
 

TFF

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Race engines for Mustangs are getting hard to find. So many have already been blown up when they were just surplus out of the crate, that restorers compete for the parts. A local had a Seafury for ego trips. He kept blowing up engines. After he blew up the second overhaul, it sat for two years recovering from two $80,000 engines that lasted 20 hours each. No break in, just burry the throttle. He sold it at a big profit but not enough to buy a Mustang. The ego needs the Mustang to be in the proper warbird club, so he got out. The planes sitting around burned the candle too deep. Owners can’t afford an engine just to fly. They already ate up half their retirements racing. Probably set up as a company too so there is IRS fun to be had too. Sponsorship can’t ever go as deep as auto racing, but as a kid it would make Wide World of Sports which is where they put lots of car racing in the day. At that point it was about even, but one race a year is not much of a billboard. The closest I have seen them was when they went East of the Mississippi in the early 2000s. It all went bad for one telephone pole that the city entity would not move for safety. One race weekend and done.
 

BJC

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Relentless is, for all practical purposes, a purpose built racer, yet remains uncompetitive with the Glassairs & Lancairs.
Every time that Jeff’s Glasair III blows away the competition, I remember Orion’s (RIP) paper criticizing Tom Hamilton’s airfoil selection and have a good chuckle.

Wrt Rentless, it currently is described as a single seat airplane. Has Reno Air Racing changed the Sport criteria, which required a two seat airplane?


BJC
 

Steve C

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They changed the 2 seat rule after Sharp went through the trouble of making NXT fit two people. It may have been changed to allow the GP5. Timing was about right.

400mph is no joke. These guys are getting a lot of hp out of those engines at 80+ inches mp. Getting them to survive seems to be the number one key. Pretty exciting we had 3 that were pretty close in performance this year.
 
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mcrae0104

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Relentless is, for all practical purposes, a purpose built racer, yet remains uncompetitive with the Glassairs & Lancairs.
Sharp's Nemesis NXT proved very competitive, the first to achieve 400+ mph speeds on the course, and has won Sport gold. Relentless, though an identical airframe, has been plagued by engine troubles. The normally-aspirated O-720 fielded in 2019 could obviously not keep up with O-5XXs running more than twice atmospheric pressure. This year Eldridge ran a twin-turbo'd Lyc IO-540 (though I do not know at what MAP) and clearly it fell short of what Sharp was able to achieve in Nemesis. I would not fault the airframe.

That said, an NXT airframe is BIG, with lots of wetted area compared to a Legacy or Glasair. As a wide, two-seat airframe (despite the fact that Kevin has it set up with a single seat in the middle), I wouln't call it a dedicated racing design any more than I would a Glasair.

Has Reno Air Racing changed the Sport criteria, which required a two seat airplane?
There is currently no requirement for two seats; I do not know if this was required in the past.
 

rv6ejguy

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The difference between Nemesis and Relentless has mainly to do with engines, props, testing and preparation. Sharp scientifically and methodically approached every aspect, had the Lycoming factory engineers and engines behind him, with a good team of experienced people, was prepared well advance of the event and tested each mod extensively, well before the event. Andy Findlay likewise and in the years when Jeff has done it this way, he's won too. Jeff being most impressive with a smaller group helping and more Sport Class wins than anyone.

Starting prep a month before Reno is no way to win against people who take it much more seriously. My good friend used to crew on Relentless which this year was going slower than it did in 2007. Negative progress compared to the top 3.
 

TerryM76

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I cringe at the thought of discontinuing the unlimited race but ultimately it should happen just to preserve those icons of history. I have had the privilege at being at Reno and seeing Strega, Rare Bear, Super Corsair, Pond Racer, Dreadnaught and amazing pilots such as Lefty Gardner, Howard Pardue, Bob Hoover, and others. I will never forget the emotionally stirring sound of those aircraft coming in the course. I might not remember what it sounds like today but I do know that is something I will never hear again with such impact. The only other thing that can compare to such a deep emotional impact would be the sound of a howling Lockheed F104 off in the distance.....

VB makes some excellent suggestions so that we can preserve a bit of the glorious past.

I know this isn't the right venue for this suggestion but I think, and its just my thought, that it is time to bring turbo-prop powered aircraft into the race. Might find a few off-the-shelf aircraft, powered by PT-6 or TPE331 powerplants that could strike up some renewed interest. How many Rolls-Royce Dart engines are out there that could be shoehorned into an airframe without twisting it into a tragic mess and then proceed to go around the race course at blistering speeds?

I shared the video footage of the last 15 minutes of yesterday's Gold race with my class of future aircraft mechanics. Three of them actually nodded off............how's that possible? I felt my heart rate coming up as I watched Miss America and Dreadnaught blasting around the course....and I watched it yesterday and already knew what the outcome was going to be.
 

don january

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After watching the demo flight of the F35A Lightning I asked myself what if 7 of those went around an 8 mile course around pylons ? then I suppose the 450-500 mph wouldn't seem so great. Maybe that's were air racing is heading ? I'd like to see 5 stock Mini Max or SSSC type craft like Pops built to make some laps just to make the sport reachable for all pilots without owning a bank.
 
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