Reno air races feature top pilots, amazing planes |

Reno air races feature top pilots, amazing planes

Four-time Champion, Steven Hinton Jr. of Chino will be the man to beat in "Voodoo," a highly modified World War Two vintage P-51 Mustang.
Photo by Tim O’Brien |

A new twist is brewing for race fans as the 51st annual National Championship Air Races takes the course at Stead Field near Reno, Nev.

With 14 of the most radical piston-powered airplanes entered in the Unlimited Class, top pilots will push hard on four-time champion, Steven Hinton Jr. in “Voodoo”, a highly modified P-51 Mustang as powerful as “Strega”, the P-51 in which Hinton Jr. earned his three consecutive championships prior to 2013.

The stakes this year lie with Strega’s original owner, Bill “Tiger” Destefani climbing back into the cockpit after Matt Jackson’s labored attempt to catch “Voodoo” last year.

Big Iron fans will remember that Strega did not qualify in 2013 due to a mechanical error, which saw Jackson racing his way to the gold in slower heats, unable to catch Hinton Jr. in the end who averaged speeds of 482.074 MPH over Jackson’s 474.926 mph.

Not only has the tenacious Destefani emerged from retirement, he also announced plans to solidify Strega’s legacy as an 11-time champion in recent press conferences, stirring arousal from anxious fans.

“All of this makes for great publicity,” said Jim Booth of Grass Valley, himself a veteran participant and pace plane pilot. “But you have to consider the racers that aren’t being talked about. Namely Rare Bear, Precious Metal and Czech Mate, who all arrived with as many refinements. Race #86, Czech Mate, the big motored, short winged Yak-11 flown by Sherman Smoot will really be the one to watch.”

Tuesday’s qualifying runs appear to favor Booth’s opinion. With Hinton Jr. in Voodoo currently at the top at 479.267 mph, Rare Bear and Czech Mate are close behind at 476.856 mph and 456.234 mph respectively.

Destefani and Strega posted a curious sixth place at 381.048 mph, fueling comeback speculation while Precious Metal has yet to qualify.

What can only be said for certain when it comes to the Unlimiteds is it’s really up in the air until Sunday’s Gold Championship. Destefani and the Strega crew were busy installing an all new full-race Merlin engine on Wednesday.

In other classes, returning champion Tom Aberle of Fallbrook flying “Phantam” is currently on the pole with a record shattering speed of 274.091 mph in the Biplane Class of 14 entrants.

Steve Senegal of San Bruno is top qualifier with new record of 267.289 mph in the Formula One Class flying “Endeavor” with 14 entrants.

The Jet Class is fielding 17 entrants this year with Phil Fogg of Tualatin, Ore. currently at the top in “Fast Company” at 486.093 mph.

The ultra-competitive AT-6 Class has 16 entrants and currently shows Dennis Buehn, of Fallon, Nev. as top-qualifier at 243.177 mph.

The largest number of participants by far is in the Sport Class featuring 32 planes with John Parker of Reno, Nev. at the top in “Blue Thunder II at 383.009 mph. Sport qualifying heats were marred on Monday however, when Class founder, Lee Behel, 64, of San Jose died in the crash of his experimental GP-5 racer “Sweet Dreams” while attempting to qualify.

In addition to racing, Reno/Stead Airport will host top names in aerobatic and exhibition flying to include the U.S. Air Force Raptor Demonstration Team, Patriots Jet Demonstration Team, Jeff Boerboon, David Martin, Melissa Pemberton, Mark Peterson, and a first for the event, a UAV Drone Challenge.

The 51st annual Reno National Championship Air Races and Show will be held Today through Sunday at the Stead Airport located 10 miles north of Reno. General and reserved seating tickets can be purchased at the gate. For more information visit

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