The exhilarating sport of air racing (cont.)
It's a sun-baked June afternoon in Windsor, Canada, and Lamb is in his hanger at the tiny Windsor International Airport, which has been transformed into racing headquarters for the air race in Windsor that is three days away. The Red Bull Air Racing series was launched in 2005 and there are currently 15 pilots competing from 12 countries (there are two from the U.S., Kirby Chambliss and Michael Goulian). Each pilot is supported by a technician and team manager. But unlike other motorsports such as NASCAR and Formula One, where the quality of the team is vital, this is very much an individual sport where success or failure can be distilled into one fundamental question: How much risk are you willing to take?
This is the subject that Lamb ponders as he sits on a chair next to his yellow-and-black race plane. He grabs a sheet of paper that bears a diagram of the racing course over the Detroit River, which separates Canada from the United States. "This sport is 50 percent machine and 50 percent man," says Lamb, 53, who lives in Oxfordshire, England. "It's all about aggression and precision and how far you're willing to push it and take chances. You've got to pick your line through the course and commit to it. I'll study this course map for hours and hours."
The roots of air racing can be traced to Reims, France in 1909 when, six years after the first flight by the Wright brothers, the first race was held. Aviation as entertainment gained in popularity after World War I when hundreds of former war pilots flew WWI surplus biplanes from farm to farm across the American and European countryside, offering rides in return for a nickel hamburger or gasoline. Often sleeping outdoors under their wings at night, these original barnstormers -- so named because they would brazenly fly through barns -- raced and performed tricks such as walking to the edge of their wings while in flight.
But it wasn't until 2005 that air racing had a formal series. Two years earlier Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz, who owns several pilot licenses and has a fleet of personal planes and helicopters, approached promoter Bernd Loidl with the idea of creating a global air racing circuit. Loidl, who had organized motocross competitions throughout Europe, spent more than a year meeting with pilots and aviation experts at the Red Bull headquarters in Salzburg, Austria, trying to figure out the best way to put on an air race that would fire the imagination of the masses. Loidl was adamant that the series had to be safer than the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nev., which are held each September. At Reno, an amateur event, six to eight pilots race side-by-side against each other in jets around a 12-mile course at an altitude of 75 feet, reaching speeds as high as 475 mph. But this is deadliest race of any form in the world: In 2007 at Reno, three pilots died in crashes; another perished in '09.
"We didn't want to be like Reno," says Loidl, who is now the CEO of Red Bull Air Racing. "Safety is paramount to us, which is why we only race one plane at a time. But we've found something, because we're growing rapidly. Last year we had 3.5 million spectators see races live and another 270 million from around the world watched on television. We had nearly a million fans show up at Rio de Janeiro earlier this year. Our goal is to become the most popular form of motor sport in the world, and I think we're getting there."
On June 4 at Windsor more than 40,000 fans lined the Detroit River to watch a practice session. At just past 2 p.m., the planes began darting through the 15 gates and pylons, a stream of white smoke spewing out of the belly of each aircraft as it navigated the mile-long obstacle course. The pilots pull as many as 12 Gs (meaning they weigh 12 times their usual body weight) during their runs that last a little over one minute; a commercial flight, by contrast, rarely pulls more than 2 Gs. To avoid losing consciousness in the cockpit, pilots take short, quick breaths and clench as many muscles as they can when they make their acrobatic, gravity-defying turns to prevent as much blood as possible from rushing out of the brain. Red Bull pilots often give toned-down rides to VIPs and reporters, and some pilots will tell you -- not for attribution -- that they secretly relish making their passengers pass out, if only for a moment, to underscore the physical conditioning it takes to flourish in this form of air racing.
Ten minutes into the practice session, Hannes Arch, the 2008 World Champion who has won the last three air races, blasts onto the three-dimensional track. But just seconds later, he turns too tightly between pylons, loses control of his aircraft, and falls to within three feet of the water. On the riverbank, thousands of fans scream. But Arch suddenly ascends a few feet, then smashes through the top portion of a breakaway pylon. With the sail-like material of the pylon draped around his left wing, Arch flies back to the Windsor airport. He's visibly shaken as he climbs out of his cockpit. "That," he says, "was scary."
A racing pilot is only as good as his confidence level. Every pilot has a video specialist who, while standing on a tall building near the racecourse, will record every opposing pilot's line through the course. When the rival pilots saw Arch's mistake on video, they knew they had an opening. The sport's top gun was wounded -- mentally. "He'll be thinking about that for a long time," said Lamb. "Close calls haunt you and cause you to naturally become more cautious."
Indeed, the next day during the second practice session Arch is uncharacteristically slow -- he's seventh on the speed chart -- while Lamb posts the fastest run of the afternoon. Lamb is the favorite heading into race day, which boils down to three sessions in which the pilots are allowed only one run: in the first the fastest 12 pilots advance; in the second the fastest eight move on; the fastest four make the finals. "The pressure builds as race day goes on because you know some guys hold back early," says Michael Goulian, who lives in Maynard, Mass. "You take more chances the closer you get to the finals. And then once you're there, it's time to let it all hang out. You know, some guys do this because they say they want to be free as a bird and all that. Not me. I just want to beat everyone's ass."
With more than 110,000 fans gazing into the overcast sky for the finals, Arch, who had endured three virtually sleepless nights after his near-crash, puts together a flawless run. He makes his Edge 450 aircraft look like a humming bird squirting through the course. When he crosses the finish line, the crowd erupts when his time flashes on a large video screen: 1:05.96, a course record. "A great run," Arch says later. "Recovering mentally from my big mistake was hard."
The final racer of the day is Lamb. Midway through his flight, he's ahead of Arch's time, which prompts the crowd to belch another roar. The race's PA announcers, who are sitting at river's edge, breathlessly describe Lamb's run as a thing of beauty, as the perfect flight. But then, in an eye-blink, Lamb commits one costly blunder: His right wing clips the top of a cone in a gate, which is a six second penalty. "Oh no," an announcer yells. His words echo up and down the river as Lamb crosses the finish line and then disappears into the horizon. Arch wins.
"I was looking ahead to the next turn and I just lost my concentration," Lamb says an hour later, sipping a glass of red wine in the Red Bull High Flyers Club set up along the river. "The smallest things mean so much in this sport. But I'm going to get those buggers in New York."
Shortly after saying this, Lamb closes his eyes and imagines he's on the course over the Hudson. With his arms stretched out wide like wings, he sways back and forth as if he's in the cockpit, hurtling through the turns. He's smiling softly. If you didn't know any better, you'd think Nigel Lamb, who had just lost the race, was the happiest man on earth. "I am," he says quietly, "especially when I'm up in the sky."