Carbon DreamsA week in the life of Reno Sport Class Racing
Do you believe in race angels? I do - and at the 37th National Championship Air Races, held at Stead Field in Reno, Nevada, (September 11-15, 2000) I had plenty of opportunity to see them at work, up close and personal, in the Sport Class races. Introduced in 1998, the Sport Class is open to kit planes with engines of 650 cubic inches or less.
My husband, Dave, has been racing at Reno for 21 years, and racing with Lancair for 10 years. He left for Reno a week early to set up the airplane’s telemetry equipment on loan from Rick Schick at Microsoft. The plan was to broadcast a race in real time on the Internet on Ultimate TV.
At Reno 2000, Dave would fly Race 99, a new, factory-built Lancair IV, in Reno’s Sport Class. It would replace the 10-year-old Lancair IV prototype, N409L, in which Dave won the 1998 and 1999 Sport Class races and the 1990 “Reno Prop Throwing Contest,” when one of the two blades on the airplane’s truly “experimental” prop flew off at the hub. Ol' 409 held together, got him down, and proved the incredible strength of that carbon fiber airframe.
We named the new IV racer Carbon Dreams, and Dave got his favorite race number, 99. Teledyne Continental Motors contributed a special TSIO 550 race engine. Primed, super turbo-charged and ready to race, the TCM guys had built it on their own time at night and on weekends. Hartzell contributed the magnificent three-blade, scimitar race propeller. Everything was looking good.
Driving to Reno the following Monday, I called Dave about an hour outside of town to report my progress. He told me not to hurry. “We’ve just blown up the engine.”
During a test flight the ADI (alcohol direct injection) pump system, which controls detonation at very high power settings, had apparently failed, causing the number two cylinder to literally get blown off, and the debris trashed all the cylinders. The Lancair Racing Team had a lot of work ahead of them.
The standard TCM TSIO 550 is rated at 350 hp, and over the years we’ve proven that it’s a tough and reliable engine capable of delivering quite a bit more power by boosting manifold pressure. In true racing spirit, this year we were pushing the power envelope and asking the engine for a lot more power, and we knew that alcohol direct injection would be necessary to prevent detonation.
We flew in N409L as a standby, but it was not in race configuration. Team Lancair disassembled Race 99’s engine and confirmed that the damage was extensive. The crew went into action immediately and figured out what it needed to do, what parts it required, and how it was going to complete all the work before 5 p.m. on Wednesday, the qualification deadline.
Phone calls located parts and started them toward Reno, and the Lancair IV pace plane, owned by Bob Wolstenholme, jumped over the mountains for more parts. After two long days and nights, we pushed Race 99 onto the ramp at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
Dave did a run-up and taxied into position. About a quarter of the way down the runway he pulled the throttle to idle and aborted the takeoff. We weren’t ready for a qualification lap - yet. Manifold pressure was the problem. There wasn’t enough of it. And the turbos were shot.
Devastation doesn’t adequately describe our emotions. Here we were, the defending two-time champions who held all the records for the class, and it appeared that we were not going to be able to qualify. To make things worse, Lancair is a major sponsor of the Sport Class, and the company’s founder and president, Lance Neibauer, was arriving Friday to watch the races for the first time in 10 years.
Sport Class President Lee Behel was on the ramp with Team Lancair, and he’d been cheering us on while we rebuilt the engine. Really wanting us in the field, Lee called RARA (Reno Air Racing Association), which runs the event, and pleaded our case. Given the situation, we hoped we could qualify as late as Thursday morning. RARA gave us a reprieve and granted a makeup qualification attempt at 8:10 a.m. on Thursday. (Thank you Lee. Thank you RARA.)
During another late-night session, 409 donated its small turbochargers (among other things) to replace the ones we’d blown up. Never giving up, the Lancair Racing Team (people from three companies, including several customers) worked late into the night and started early each morning. After a few precious hours of sleep, at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday the team met at the hangar that stored the Sport Class racers. It was locked.
We ran around frantically trying to find a key but had no luck. At 7:45 a.m. we got creative. With 10 people grunting, we pushed enough on the hangar’s 100-foot-long door so one of us could squeeze an arm inside to hit the button and raise the door. We had 25 minutes to put the cowlings back on Carbon Dreams and get Dave on the runway. With no tug in sight (it was probably with the folks who had all the keys), we pushed the plane up the ramp to get to the taxiway... a very long push.
As Dave took off, someone mentioned that this would be his first flight in Carbon Dreams. All went well, and he qualified at 325 mph, second in the field. Hallelujah! We were in the race, but somehow, somewhere, we had to find another set of “big boy” turbochargers. Thankfully, we had two days to figure that one out.
Laced with holes, grooves, and dips, this runway was in terrible condition as far as race planes are concerned. After making a beautiful dead-stick landing, a rut caught the airplane’s nosewheel, breaking it off, and the Venture skidded for some distance. Just as we thought he was going to make it, the plane flipped upside down. Dave escaped with a few scrapes and bruises, a testament to the Venture’s strength and the pilot’s ability. But the beautiful race plane was destroyed.
Several seconds later, Race 71, another Venture flown by Mike Dacey, hit some turbulence, breaking the landing gear up-lock. The gear came down, and Mike declared a Mayday. The pace plane confirmed that the Venture’s gear was hanging straight down, with the main wheels together, obviously not locked in full down position. Because Dave Anders’ flipped Venture had closed Runway 14, Mike had to circle until the race was over before attempting a landing (which was successful and didn’t damage his plane).
Then Lou Meyer in Race 69, the Thunder Mustang, told Dave that Carbon Dreams was trailing smoke. When the cockpit filled with smoke, Dave declared the heat’s third Mayday - before the races had reached the back course! With the engine still running, Dave was able to land on the one remaining runway. Met by his disappointed teammates, the team returned to the hangar for another long night.
Digging into the problem, it turned out that the new, bigger ADI water pumps we’d installed needed a 15-amp circuit breaker, not a 5-amp breaker. When the breaker blew, the pumps quit. And we already knew what happens when the ADI quits - two more blown cylinders, bringing the week’s total to eight.
With more parts arriving the next morning, another long night of tear down and rebuild saw Team Lancair ready to race again on Friday morning. Race 99 didn’t quite have matching cylinders; it was sort of a hodgepodge, with the best of the old, some new, and lots of hope. But Carbon Dreams was wearing its new race cowling that fit the TCM TSIO-550 like tight jeans. We also scrounged up another “big boy” turbocharger to replace the ruined one. And Discovery Wings Channel installed its camera in the cockpit to film the race. So once again, we were ready to go racing, and race we did.
On the home straightaway, an imaginary line keeps the racers at least 1,000 feet from the crowd. It’s called the “deadline,” and crossing it is a bad thing. Dave realized his mistake as he came roaring into that last turn at far too sharp of an angle. To keep from crossing the deadline, he put both hands on the stick and pulled. Despite the 7-G turn, Carbon Dreams cut the deadline.
Not giving up the race, Dave finished the remaining five laps and built a 25-second lead over the next plane, Lou Meyers in the Thunder Mustang. But the mistake was costly. Even with the 24-second penalty he was still the fastest, but the deadline cut automatically moved him to the last starting position in the upcoming Gold heat race.
But we’d finally flown the course, the ADI was working, and the engine was running beautifully. The team breathed a big sigh of relief and left the hangar at a reasonably early hour after the obligatory oil change and cylinder check. But we also wondered how Dave would go about getting by everyone else in the Gold heat from the back of the pack.
Disappointed with his performance, Dave did something about it. He studied the Discovery Wings Channel video to analyze the course and spot those new pylons. On Saturday, we were out of the hotel by 6 a.m. We got to the field and he climbed into the new Lancair Legacy that was on display, flew the chute and course entry, and found his correct course checkpoints. He’d not make the same mistake twice.
By the first turn Dave had a 7-second lead interval. Speeds were down because it was windy, but things were looking good, and Carbon Dreams was way out in front, which is usually the time to throttle back a little and bank some engine insurance. Then came Lap 3.
“Race Control, Race 99, Mayday,” Dave radioed as he pulled off the course to convert speed into altitude. “Roger 99, what is the problem?” “I think I lost part of the cowling or gear doors.”
With Dave clear of the course, C.J.Stevens, flying with Bob Wolstenholme in his Lancair IV-P pace plane, checked Carbon Dreams’ gear doors and cowling - and found everything perfectly intact. Dave landed and taxied to the ramp.
On closer inspection, on the under side of the right wing we found that the taped-on flap gap seal was missing. Dave said that when the tape was being ripped off it caused a vibration so violent he couldn’t read the gauges, and it broke his oxygen gauge. Nothing else was broken, so we went back to work figuring a new way to tape the gap seals. But we were still in the race!
Under the Reno rules, when a racer is unable to complete a heat race, the airplane reverts to the last race speed for the next pairing. Carbon Dreams’ Friday race time was good enough to put Race 99 in the pole position for Sunday’s final, the Gold Championship Race. Considering everything that had happened during the week, the Lancair Racing Team was in business.
As the racers came down the chute, Race 99 was screaming. Dave immediately pulled in front of the field and by the first lap had a 4-second lead interval over Race 69, the Thunder Mustang. I clocked Carbon Dreams at 334 mph (earlier in the week it had clocked a 342-mph lap). The racers were really moving around that course and Dave kept gaining 4 or 5 seconds a lap for the first three laps. By Lap 4, Race 99 had a 20-second lead - maybe time to back her down just a little.
It was about then that I noticed that Dave had pulled up to fly a higher course line and slowed to about 320 mph. But that was okay. He lapped the last-place plane on Lap 5. On Lap 6 he lapped two more planes. On Lap 7 Carbon Dreams took the checkered flap and pulled up to exit the course.
Whew! Then, over the radio, we heard those haunting words for the third time that week - “Race Control, Race 99, Mayday.”
Race control gave Carbon Dreams priority landing clearance, and Dave taxied it back to an ecstatic team. This time it was the left flap seal. It began to rip loose in the fourth lap, which explained Dave’s higher course line. “The shaking seemed about the same, so I figured it might be the gap seals again,” Dave said. “I decided I’d try to ride it out and finish the race, provided it didn’t get any worse.”
It didn’t, and the Lancair Racing Team has won its third consecutive Sport Class Gold Championship and set a new final race speed record in the process - 328.045 mph.
At the awards banquet, Team Lancair already had its sights on the 2001 National Championship Air Race to be held September 13-16. What were we going to do about those flap seals? How would we beat Daryl Greenamyer in his hopped up Lancair Legacy or Jon Sharp in his new Sport Class racer, NemesisNXT?
(As an aside, Jon Sharp, flying an SX-300, was the first plane Race 99 lapped in the Gold race, and we kidded Jon’s wife, Tricia, when she hollered in good-natured fun that this was the first time anyone hap lapped the former Formula 1 racer in a race.)
More than 200,000 people attended the Reno Air Races, but I don’t think any of them were as happy about the outcome as the Lancair Racing Team. Thank you race angels.
We, too, have learned much from Reno racing. Even with blown up engines, we’ve learned firsthand, the wide margin of reserve built into the stock Continental engine. Airframe drag, that constant nag, can be closely examined. We’ve located a couple of points that seem to produce some amazingly high levels of drag energy on our already very slippery airframe.
And it’s quite possible that we can incorporate some devices to mitigate that drag, thereby further increasing performance for every Lancair IV owner. In all, Reno racing is some exciting stuff, but I was exhausted from holding my breath so many times during that week of racing.
- Lance Neibauer
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