June 12, 2007

The Fastest Piston-Engine Things in the World

OK, take everything you've learned about auto racing and throw it out the window (except for that universal rule stating "more money buys more speed")... this is very different, but will stir your soul in much the same way.

There's nothing like watching a small group of America's most talented, financially-secure adrenaline junkies compete for glory at the Reno National Championship Air Races each September. This relatively unknown sporting event draws about a quarter-million insane fans from around the world, and the event lasts one week. Circuit speeds of up to 507mph per lap have been timed, as several modified warbirds push (and often breach) the limits of hotrodding technology to traverse the 9-mile oval course as quickly as they can. Who are these people? Quite simply- I think the pilots and owners are the guys and gals (and former astronauts) who are simply bored to death by silly horse racing.

But 4500 horses produced by 18 nitrous-breathing cylinders, pulling a lone man? Yeah, that seems to do it for them. And that's also what it takes to hold the 3-kilometer world speed record (for propellers) at 528.329mph. Meet Lyle Shelton's Rare Bear, a highly-modified Grumman F8F Bearcat (the WWII-era spiritual father to the F-14, if you will) that has been setting speed and altitude records (and winning Reno) since the 1960s.

During the course of the off-season (which pretty much encompasses 50 weeks of the year), the Bear was sold to a new owner and is having a ground-up rebuild (not her first, mind you), which includes a fresh racing engine. The work should be done in time for Reno, which is the only thing that matters in the minds of Rare Bear fans around the world.

True air racing (not that Red Bull junk) has no dollars generated by mega-sponsors or TV rights. It is self-propelled by the participants and the frightfully loyal (albeit small) fanbase. There is no other motorsport quite like this. Some of the races have well-sorted finishes, while others are so close you can't breathe until it's over. The view from the grandstand is unbelievable, though it helps to have a pair of binoculars. People come from all over the world to see it just once. You should, too.

All images Copyright 2007 Axis of Oversteer.
All Rights Reserved.

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