If you’re like me and would not consider missing the Reno Air Races every September, you have to have noticed the increasing popularity of the sport class. The Reno Air Races have survived for years with only four classes of competition: sport biplanes, Formula One, T6 and unlimiteds—the latter, by far, being the top draw of all.
In the last decade, however, the Reno air races has elected to offer more variety by expanding the number of race classes to six, adding the jet and sport classes. This has introduced a new dimension to northern Nevada and attracted people like Mike Jones to the annual aviation extravaganza.
The sport class was created in 1998 in an attempt to bring air racing to the high-performance homebuilt world. The new class opened up closed-course pylon racing to kitplanes such as Lancair IVs, Glasair IIIs, Questair Ventures, Thunder Mustangs, Swearingen SX-300s, Berkuts and a variety of other quick experimentals. The rules for participation are simple: to be eligible for competition, at least five kits of the model have to have been sold, power has to be prop and piston, and engine size can’t exceed 650 cubic inches.
Perhaps to some pilots’ surprise, the little sportplanes immediately began recording lap speeds in excess of 300 mph. Dave Morss won the first gold race in 1998, flying his Lancair IV at 335 mph, and lap speeds have gradually marched up to 350 mph since then.
As owner of a prize-winning Glasair III, Mike Jones of Fullerton, Calif., couldn’t resist the temptation to see what his airplane could do in competition with a dozen other homebuilts when Reno premiered the sport class in 1998.
Jones might seem an unlikely speed freak. He’s a soft-spoken man who owns an interior design company, Jimmy Jones Interiors, in Garden Grove, Calif. His firm has specialized in commercial businesses and high-end private homes since 1973. You might more logically expect to see Jones wearing a three-piece suit in a corporate boardroom than working on a racing airplane in jeans and a T-shirt.
In fact, Jones is a chameleon. In the workaday world, he fits well into the corporate mold. On weekends, he definitely qualifies as an adrenaline junkie. When he’s not working on his airplane, you might find him riding a Honda Blackbird, an 1,100 cc, 165 hp motorcycle that can leap from zero to 60 mph in less than three seconds. Jones has been fascinated by speed all his life.
He began flying in 1983 specifically because he wanted to build and fly a homebuilt airplane for both business and pleasure. “I was excited about building some kind of airplane; I didn’t know what, but I figured I should earn my pilot’s license before starting any building project,” comments Jones.
He first decided to build a four-seater and dedicated three years and some 2,700 man-hours to constructing a Prescott Pusher. That first homebuilt was nearly complete when a man from Austria came along and offered to buy the project to use for installation of a turboprop engine. Jones sold the Pusher and elected to step up to the faster Glasair III in 1988.
He spent six years building his experimental hot rod, finishing in 1994, and the result of his craftsmanship was a series of awards from every competition he entered. He took Grand Champion honors at the Phoenix Copper State Fly-In in 1994 and won Grand Champion again at both Oshkosh and Sun ’n Fun in 1995. Jones’ Glasair III also captured the Wright Brothers Award at the Dayton Air Show in 1996.
Best of all, though, the slick, innovative, Ted Hamilton design helped satisfy Jones’ need for speed. “The Glasair III is such a fast and quick-handling airplane, it was a natural after my experience with the Prescott Pusher,” Jones explains. “I discovered a whole new world of performance with the Glasair.”
Jones also discovered a new sport and experienced considerable success in his early air-racing experience. “Before the Reno races, I had flown in a number of races in the Rutan-inspired class known as the Rutan And Composite Enthusiasts series—R.A.C.E.,” remarks Jones. “These started out as events for the huge number of Long Ezes, but were gradually expanded to encompass other classes of homebuilts. The races aren’t pylon events in the classic sense, but are comparatively long-distance out-and-backs over courses of 100 to 120 miles. They’re run in remote sections of Nevada and Utah, places like Jackpot, Mesquite, Wendover and Kanab.”
Jones says, “We make flying starts, often eight to 12 airplanes at a time, run out 50 to 60 miles and return to the starting point by a slight dogleg to avoid the next wave of outbound traffic. We can fly at whatever altitude we wish, but we must cross the finish line above 100 feet.”
|Prize-winning sport-class racer Mike Jones spent six years building his Glasair III, which included modifications both inside and out. The result of his efforts yielded him a series of awards at several racing competitions.|
Prize-winning sport-class racer Mike Jones spent six years building his Glasair III, which included modifications both inside and out. The result of his efforts yielded him a series of awards at several racing competitions.
Jones began competing in the R.A.C.E. series in 1994 and he has won the Super Glasair Class Championship every year since. “Those races are fun because there are usually only one or two turns on the course and the circuit is long enough that there’s rarely much traffic around the turns,” says Jones.
Jones’ entry into pylon racing at Reno in 1998 helped initiate the class. “As much as I loved the R.A.C.E. series, the Reno Races were a little intimidating. I always regarded the Reno pilots as supermen, and I never thought I’d be joining them, but when the opportunity arose, I jumped at it.”
During that first year of sport-class racing, there were only 13 airplanes competing for top honors, but since Jones became class president in 2003, the class has expanded considerably. Some 23 airplanes participated in the 2004 races, and this year, Jones says there will be 30 airplanes competing for the Gold.
Just as in the R.A.C.E. series, the sport-class president’s airplane has done well at Reno. Wearing race #10 and named Warp Speed Wanda, Jones’ Glasair III won the Silver race in 1999 and placed second in the 2000 Silver event, circling the 6.3-mile course in only about one minute and 15 seconds. “At Reno, where density altitude is usually at least 7,000 feet, twin-turbocharged airplanes such as Darryl Greenamyer’s Lancair Legacy and John Parker’s Thunder Mustang will probably always outrun those of us who fly behind normally aspirated engines,” says Jones. “With the help of blowers, they’re pulling as much as 600 hp from those engines, whereas we’re not getting more than 350 hp, so unless they have mechanical problems, it’s unlikely we could win. But that’s all a part of racing.”
Warp Speed Wanda is one of several airplanes in the sport class that enjoy sponsorship from Lycoming. In Jones’ case, Lycoming replaced his airplane’s stock IO-540 engine with a high-compression version of the IO-580 powerplant. Accordingly, Jones has Warp Speed Wanda running well over 300 mph down the straightaways. “Lycoming supports both normally aspirated and turbocharged entrants in the sport class because it’s one way of improving the state of the art. They sponsor my normal breather and Jon Sharp’s turbocharged racer. The improvements they try on our airplanes that work well, improve power and turn out to be reliable very well may show up on production engines a few years down the road.
“Since starting racing at Reno six years ago,” continues Jones, “I’ve increased my lap speeds by about 30 mph with a combination of Lycoming’s innovations and some aerodynamic tricks of my own. At Wendover last year, I ran 309 mph to win the event, and I’m lapping at almost 300 mph at Reno.”
Things happen fast at a mile every 12 seconds, often wrapped over to 60 to 70 degrees of bank, pulling gust loads of 4 G’s to 5 G’s in the low-level turbulence, and Jones learned quickly that he needed to react instantly if things went wrong. “In one case, I was coming down the chute at the start of a race when a part of the cowling came loose. I immediately pulled up off the course to the inside and finally landed on a back runway. I don’t even want to think what would have happened if the cowl had come off at that speed,” speculates Jones. “Another time, I had a throttle malfunction that prevented me from powering back to maintain formation during a start. Again, I had to land immediately.”
The process of updating and improving the airplane never ends, although despite his success, Jones says he’s more conservative than some other racers who have totally dedicated their airplanes to racing. He’s currently working on a cold-air induction system to boost horsepower, and also is in the process of moving the airplane’s CG farther aft to improve the speed.
Jones flies his airplane quite often for business, and he says that puts some constraints on how far he’s willing to go in modifying the airplane for racing. “Unlike some of the guys,” chuckles Jones, “I have to fly the airplane home after every race. That gives me a strong incentive to make certain the airplane is running at the end of every race. As much as I love speed, I can’t afford to literally go for broke.”
“Still, I’m pretty happy with how well the airplane has done,” smiles Jones. “I can pretty consistently beat all the other normally aspirated entrants. The only racers that consistently beat my race #10 are just a few of the turbocharged entries, and I’ll sometimes win races against a few of them, too.”
In only six years of competition (the 2001 event was cancelled following 9/11), the sport class has become a fan favorite, and Jones says it also has attracted more sponsorship to Reno than any other class. The price of admission certainly isn’t cheap, but pilots willing to dedicate a few hundred thousand dollars to a high-performance homebuilt airplane now have the opportunity to go racing.