The renewed interest in warbirds—the four-day Reno air show drew a crowd of 150,700 this year—has led to a huge appreciation in value of the old planes; the price of a restored Mustang has skyrocketed from $70,000 five years ago to $500,000 today.
Destefani bought his P-40 from Harrah's Automobile Collection in Reno for $130,000 in 1984; it's now worth at least $700,000. Destefani has had so much fun restoring his planes—and has done it so well—that other owners have commissioned him to restore their warbirds. His hangar at Minter Field has become the site of a business called Warbirds Unlimited, which has two restorations currently underway. Each will be a long and profitable project, and each will help pay for Destefani's own racing operation—which is the class of the field, complete with a red 18-wheeler to haul Strega to races.
"The average Joe thinks it's a multimillion-dollar program," Destefani says, downplaying his operation. "But it ain't bleep. That's a $5,000 trailer we fixed up ourselves. We don't have any hard dollars in the deal, it's all from the ingenuity of the team. If we need something, we build it. It's just the way plowboys do things."
Not every daybreak finds this plowboy on the farm. Special mornings will find him 5,000 feet up in his P-40, looking down at the hot-pink sunrise over Bakersfield. It's his favorite spot on—or above—earth. "Nobody there, no strings, no place else you have to be," he says. Destefani might poke along looking out the canopy and thinking about nothing more than how much he loves it when his feet are off the ground.
Or he might get the urge to hotdog in his flying tractor. Then he slides the stick forward and dives to build his speed to 300 mph. He pulls the stick back and feels the G's as the plane bottoms out and begins its climb. His heart will accelerate with the engine as his time machine climbs, up, up, up, past vertical. . . then he relaxes the stick and eases off the throttle, allowing the engine to smooth out. The plane turns on its back, gracefully, hanging upside down in the middle of a giant arc over the farmland a mile below him.
This is when Tiger really feels alive.