Racing airplanes at speeds up to more than 500-mph around an oval course just 50 feet above the northern Nevada desert is not for the faint of heart. Taking place every September for the last 56 years, The Reno National Championship Air Races is also the only place on the planet where airplanes race head-to-head.
This September, the air races will not be returning amidst a global pandemic and this was not a decision that was made lightly by their team back at the end of June. The fact that these airplanes race head-to-head also means that the pilots who fly need to have a rare combination of talent, passion, resources, and willingness to put themselves and their airplanes on the line for little to no financial gain or fame – just bragging rights. Fans get to watch propeller-driven airplanes and jets race at high speeds for the love of competition, aviation, peer recognition, and adventure.
The Reno Air Races were first held in the year 1964 and signaled the return of pylon air racing to American after a 15 year gap when the famed Cleveland National Air Races ended in 1949. Pylon air racing is an aircraft race in an oval-track style around a course marked by 50 foot high pylons. The event has done nothing but grow since its inception. Over 100,000 now attend the week-long event each year and both racers and fans alike refer to the gathering as their “September Family”.
“It was a heart-rending decision,” Reno Air Racing Association (RARA) Chairman, Fred Telling, acknowledges. “We waited as long as we could, trying to explore some alternatives but in the end we really had no choice but to cancel it.”
Between the crowd logistics, state mandates, and employees on furlough it just didn’t make sense for the event to happen in 2020. RARA notified the various racing class organizations, event sponsors, volunteers, and the public in succession. Their response was overwhelmingly positive, many not surprised but most were sad to see it temporarily go.
The cancellation’s impact on the event is significant because Reno’s income comes from attendance (slightly less than 50%), sponsorship, and donations, with a number of RARA staff being laid off to limit overhead. Nevertheless, the races will return next year with a similar racing and airshow format. The September 15 – 19, 2021 event will be highlighted by Unlimited Class racers (largely modified ex-WWII fighters) and the increasingly popular Sport Class of general aviation sport planes capable of over 400 mpg on the large 7.9 mile course. The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team is slated to appear along with other beloved military displays.
Last year was the best time I have had at the Air Races so far. I was allowed to hang out at a pylon during the races! It was very exciting as the planes roared so near to the ground. Definitely exhilarating! The National Air Races are by far my favorite annual event in Reno. I am greatly looking forward to the event next year.
In the meantime, RARA is crafting plans for an online virtual event content similar to what EAA has presented with its AirVenture event. The Races’ title sponsor, power-tools maker, Stihl Inc, remains onboard as do most other sponsors and the community including the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority.
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