A teen-ager with a cigarette fixed to his lip walked alongside the elderly World War II fighter plane and called out: "Hey, who owns this thing?"
"No. 3," said a voice from the aircraft's innards.
"Where's he from?" someone else asked.
"No. 4," the voice said.
"Why do people do crazy things like this?" the teener muttered.
"No. 16," answered the voice.
A spectator who couldn't bear to watch the young man's puzzlement pointed helpfully to a blackboard posted alongside the old P-51 Mustang. On the board was chalked "40 Answers to Dumb Questions." No. 3 was "Gunther Balz." No. 4 was " Kalamazoo, Mich." No. 16 was "Honi soit qui mal y pense," which another bystander helpfully translated as "Don't bother the monkeys when they're trying to get Gunther's plane in shape."
The scene of these arcane rites was one of those parched and abandoned Air Force bases scarring the Western desert with bomber-length runways that surely must baffle scientists on Uranus and Pluto. The occasion was the ninth annual running (or flying) of the resurrected Reno National Championship Air Races—for propeller aircraft only—an event reviving a sport that was moribund from 1949 to 1964 because it was killing off pilots and spectators alike. Now, thanks to a tough lawyer and air-racing enthusiast named Stanley Brown and some equally inspired colleagues, the races were alive and kicking and roaring and coughing and splatting at a decibel level even higher than the Lexington Avenue subway. For three days the racers turned the gambling-and-marrying town of Reno into the world capital of interrupted conversations, and the old air base north of town into a farrago of din and flash.
There were planes in forest green and soda-pop orange and lemon-peel yellow, and stripes and crescents and swirls and checks, and even a few in camouflage paint to heighten nostalgia. The aircraft ranged in size from tiny Formula I racers that looked like airplane models up to "the big iron," World War II-type fighters that race in the spectacular Unlimited Class. There was even one sleek little blue-and-white gull-winged racer dubbed Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which figures.
Gunther Balz, No. 3 on the Dumb-Answer board, is a 40-year-old manufacturer and oenophile and self-described "half-fast" inventor whose own racing P-51 bears a nonflashy coat of gunmetal resin to hide the rivets. The tall, blue-eyed Balz, a graduate of MIT, is so intimidated by speed that he drives a tiny Honda automobile (top speed, 65 mph) and suffers nervous indigestion every time he races his Roto-Finish Special, named after his company back home in Kalamazoo (and nicknamed by his competitors "Old Roto-Rooter").