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Tue, Sep 18, 2007

Clean Racing Brightens Reno Weekend

Events Move Forward After Tough Week

by ANN Correspondent Matthew Russell

"Poignant" may be the best word to describe the finale of the 2007 Reno National Championship Air Races. Pilots, crewmembers, and fans wrapped up a tough week Sunday with clean, fast racing. After an accident-marred week of qualifying, wherein three race pilots lost their lives within four days, the races came to an end on a more upbeat note.

In what could only be described as an upset, airline captain John Penney took Unlimited Gold from 2006 champ Mike Brown. Penney, flying crowd favorite Rare Bear, streaked past Brown’s September Fury and held a dominant lead. After pursuing Rare Bear for a couple of laps, Brown’s engine failed and forced him to make a precautionary landing, which he executed in expert fashion.

The action was not over, however.

After winning the race, Penney reported his throttle was stuck partially open, and he could not slow the Rare Bear down for landing. Orbiting Stead Field at about 10,000 feet MSL, safety pilot Steve Hinton (in the T-33 pace jet) took a closer look as Penney burned off fuel.

As they circled, Hinton and Penney calmly discussed options for landing, as tens of thousands watched without breathing. Penney opened his canopy and executed a flawless deadstick landing. The sink rate was such that he lost about 5,000 feet from the downwind leg to final approach.

During the victory celebration, new Rare Bear owner Rod Lewis proudly announced, "I think it’s safe to say the Bear is back!" On the ramp, fans struggled for a chance to congratulate Penney and Hinton on their spectacular displays of airmanship under pressure.

Excitement also ensued in the "Super Sport" class this year. Though often described as "the future of air racing," expectations for Sport Gold in 2007 were lower than usual given the notable absences of John Parker’s Blue Thunder and Darryl Greenamyer’s Race 33. However, this attrition set the stage for a showdown between the exotic, equally-matched NXT racers of Jon Sharp and Kevin Eldredge.

Eldredge jumped out to an early lead, but ran into lap-traffic about halfway through the race. Sharp, ever the strategist with a number of Gold wins under his belt, flew high and avoided the traffic jam. Once out front, Sharp made no mistakes and sailed to victory. Michael Dacey, in his super hot (and rare) Questair Venture, placed a strong third.

The heavily revised Jet class was made much more interesting by the acceptance of different jet models. This year two L-29s, a T-33, and even a T-2 Buckeye were added to the requisite fleet of L-39s. Crowd members responded well to the excitement this created, and the Jet Gold class was riveting.

In Saturday’s race Lockheed T-33 pilot Lee Griffin encountered a handling problem which indirectly forced him to start at the back of the pack Sunday. Despite having qualified 23 mph behind the T-33’s staggering 525 mph, T-2 Buckeye pilot Rich Sugden leveraged his Sunday pole position to hold off all challengers.

The Biplane Gold race was taken by Chris Ferguson in Miss Gianna. David Hoover won the International Formula One class flying Endeavor, and Dennis Buehn in Midnight Miss III took the T-6 Gold.

A number of symbolic gestures -- such as missing-man formations and ceremonial "final laps" -- were conducted Sunday. In its own way, the tightly knit air racing community publicly paid tribute to aviators lost earlier in the week.

Perhaps the most meaningful gesture of all was the will to press forward and succeed in the face of abject tragedy. Spectators flock to the Reno National Championship Air Races not only for the excitement, noise, and technology, but for the startlingly bright reflection of human spirit that seems to accompany the sport.

In a display not even words can capture, the spectacle of air racing perfectly explains why people dream to become pilots.

FMI: www.airrace.org (complete results)

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