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There is no simple explanation of what a respectable buinessman and patent holder like Gunther Balz is doing in a zany sport like Unlimited air racing. "Gee, I wish I knew," Balz says in the ingenuous manner that serves to conceal his erudition and sometimes to psych his opponents into taking him too lightly. "For years I resisted flying. I said, I'm not gonna break my neck. Then my dad took it up in his mid-50s, and he said, 'Gunther, as long as I've got this airplane, why don't you learn to fly it?' In the air, I had two immediate reactions: I was scared, and I was enjoying myself. So I bought a racing plane, and then I bought another. I'm still scared right up till I get buckled into the cockpit, and after every race I have a little ritual. I jump out of the plane as fast as I can, and I practically faint from sheer terror at what I've done. But I'm still enjoying myself. Is that normal? I don't know. When I figure it out, I'll put the answer on the chalkboard."
If Gunther Balz sounds a trifle, uh, different, then consider some of the other 100 or so pilots who raced at Reno for $81,000 in purses. Since there are hardly any legitimate air races left ( Reno's was the only major event for Unlimiteds this year), one no longer sees the greasy, red-eyed professionals who, in Novelist William Faulkner's words, "...wanted just enough money to live, to get to the next place to race again." Nowadays an air racer must have an outside income, like Cliff Cummins, M.D., of Riverside, Calif., who drives a souped-up P-51, wears Lederhosen on the flight line and looks like a young Harpo Marx, right down to—or up to—his hairdo. He also is a noted radiologist.
Then there are "Bearcat Fats," a 270-pound investor named John Church who races an immaculate, navy blue F8F-2 Bearcat; and "Mr. X," a major airline's chief pilot who flies somebody else's racer and hopes to God his company does not find out; and Howie Keefe, a 51-year-old Los Angeles advertising executive who still wears his Navy cap bearing scrambled eggs and gold pilot's wings; and Jack Sliker of Wadley, Ga., who crop-dusts all year to save up for the races, sometimes has to be advanced gasoline money for the trip home, and whose on-the-ground crew is said to consist of a crescent wrench jammed into his back pocket.
"Normal human beings?" says the race director, Jerry Duty. "No, they're not normal human beings or they wouldn't be here. But who likes normal human beings?"
Partly as a result of Duty's proficiency and partly as a result of meticulous planning by Chief Judge Stan Brown and his staff of hyperenergetic businessmen, the Reno races rang up eight consecutive years without a fatality or injury. "We've had our Maydays," Duty said, "but—knock wood—we've brought 'em all back alive every year." But this year he didn't knock wood hard enough.
The first heat of the Unlimited races brought a baleful omen. Howie Keefe, in his Miss America, began a routine pass over the top of Lyle Shelton, a DC-8 pilot from Cypress, Calif. flying a beautiful purple-and-white F8F Bearcat, The Phast Phoenix. Just as Keefe's red-white-and-blue Mustang lapped onto the Bearcat at something over 400 mph, Shelton began to climb into him; the result was a near collision that had the crowd gasping. "Oh, they missed by two, three feet," Jerry Duty said, his eyes blazing with anger. "It adds spice to the races, but it's the kind of spice we can do without." At a meeting later, Duty reminded all the pilots at the top of his lungs: "Don't move into any space you haven't cleared or you'll do your racing someplace else." The message was received.
The winner of the first Unlimited heat was the undisputed super-plane of the Reno races—and, indeed, the fastest propeller-driven aircraft in the world—Conquest I, a highly refurbished F8F Bearcat that once was clocked at 483.041 mph. Its owner, a Mach 3 test pilot named Darryl Greenamyer, was sitting out this year's races as a result of several unappreciated feats of dangerous derring-do while winning last year's event. Greenamyer's Bearcat had appeared in the Reno races eight times and won seven (losing only in 1970 when the wheels refused to retract), and this year it was being flown ferociously by a dashing NASA pilot named Richard Laidley, who is a Ph.D. in geology on the side. After experts watched rookie Laidley warm up in spine-tingling rides at pylon heights, word went out around the field: "Conquest I absolutely can't lose." Said Jerry Duty: "Darryl's gonna have his revenge."
Gunther Balz, wearing a Dave Wottletype fatigue cap and suffering from his usual vapors, won the other Unlimited heat race at a speed of 395.590, which was eight mph slower than Dr. Laidley's time. So the eventual winner seemed more than ever foreordained, at least to everyone but Balz. But then Balz knew something. The sly wine collector had been indulging in a classic technique of racing—sandbagging.
"Last year I qualified at 419 miles an hour," Balz explained later, "and that's still the National Air Race qualifying record. But my speed told everybody how fast my plane was and who to beat in the finals, and they went out and did it. This year I held my qualifying speed way down—393.75—and I never used more than 90% throttle when I won my heat race at 395.59. Even at that, I tore about four feet of surface off the fuselage. There's a lot of G forces out there. It's scary."
The day before the big race, which was the grand finale of the meeting, a smarmy-looking mechanic explained to a group of insiders on the apron, "Laidley can't be beat."