A Canadian Trip to the 1991 Reno Air Races

By Mike Davenport, EAA 89102

Back in 1991, my friend Jim McRae and I decided to drive from Vancouver, Canada, to Reno, Nevada, to see the 28th National Championship Air Races and the associated air show. The races featured many well-known pilots, like three-time winner Lyle Shelton in Rare Bear, Bill Destefani in Strega, and Skip Holm in Tsunami. A totally new design, the Pond Racer, made its debut. This composite twin designed by Burt Rutan was flown by Rick Brickert. Powered by two six-cylinder automotive racing engines, this unique airplane fostered hopes of defeating the much larger warbird racers.

Rutan’s Pond Racer

The daily air show included such then-current notables as Jimmy Franklin and Johnny Kazian, Joann Osterud, Leo Loudenslager, and of course Mr. R.A. “Bob” Hoover.

Jim, a longtime volunteer at sports car races and a frustrated race driver at heart, drove his new Honda Civic while I navigated. This was the same division of talents that we had refined during long cross-country trips in his Champ. There was slightly more trepidation in the Honda than in the Champ, however.

We drove straight through to Reno and checked into the Peppermill hotel and slept the sleep of the just and exhausted. I had stayed at the Peppermill numerous times in the past while in Reno on business, and while the hotel had the features of familiarity and good rates, it was also the unofficial hotel for some of the race teams.

After breakfast the next day we bused out to the race venue at Reno Stead Airport, where we purchased the necessary passes including the obligatory pit pass. It was as necessary to get into the pits as breathing for two aviation nuts. Besides that, we knew one of the Unlimited racers, and who knew what might come out of that.

A longtime friend of Jim’s was former BC Lions football player and warbird owner Jerry Janes. Jerry and his crew had brought his No. 20 Hawker Sea Fury, Cottonmouth, for the race week, and, as luck would have it, his pit was next to Lyle Shelton’s No. 77 Bearcat, Rare Bear. Lyle won the Unlimited race on Sunday and set a new race record of 481 mph in the process.

Jim wangled our way onto Jerry’s pit crew, and we were promptly given the “vital” task of polishing the Sea Fury. Polishing this beast to a high gloss would, of course, make a huge difference in the win potential. The Sea Fury is a big plane, and the task was made more challenging by the amount of oil deposited by the 2,700-hp Curtiss-Wright R-3350-26WD. This task occupied us for most of the weekend. Very little other work was needed as, according to the crew chief, Russ Popel, “You have to come ready to race, otherwise stay home.”

Polishing Cottonmouth
Looking good after polishing.

With the original 2,480-hp Bristol Centaurus engine, the Sea Fury had a top speed of more than 400 mph, and with the more powerful Wright it should be competitive in the Bronze and maybe even in the Silver races. This particular aircraft was one of 35 built for the Royal Canadian Navy and still had the wing-folding feature, a fact I would be reminded of much later in the weekend.

The race weekend proceeded with the usual suspects winning their respective classes. Rare Bear won gold on Sunday followed by Strega and Tsunami. The highly touted composite Pond Racer suffered an engine fire, and Rick declared a mayday, pulling up and out of the race. John Muszala flew “our” No. 20 Sea Fury to a sixth-place finish in the Silver race as Jerry had come down with a bug on Saturday.

Starting up Cottonmouth.

Late Sunday after the end of the Gold race as I was focused on cleaning the last of the oil off of the side of the fuselage, I was surrounded by the noise and bustle of the crew as they packed up preparing to go home. Suddenly, it started to get dark, and I detected movement overhead. I was startled and dropped to the wingwalk, fearing that something was about to fall on me. It was the outer wing panel folding up and over me. Sheepishly I got up and finished my task, thankful that no one had spotted my brief moment of terror.

The ride home on the following Monday must have been uneventful, or perhaps I was too tired to care. It was an exciting weekend and an exceptional opportunity to see the races from the inside.

The crew assembled in their team T-shirts.

Cottonmouth Sea Fury History:

  • Hawker-Siddeley Aircraft Ltd., Dunsfold, 1957-1963.
  • Federal Republic of Germany, Bonn, April 5, 1963-1974.
    • Registered as D-CACE.
  • Doug Arnold/Warbirds of Great Britain Ltd., Blackbushe, October 1974-1976.
    • Registered as G-BCOV.
    • Arrived from Germany on October 11, 1974.
  • Mike Stow, Blackbushe, September 1976-1985.
  • Richard S. Drury, Goleta, California, June 1985-1987.
    • Registered as N613RD.
    • Flew as RN VX302/43D/Iron Angel.
  • Jerry C. Janes & Assoc. Inc., Rockford, Illinois, August 1987-1994.
    • Registered as N51SF.
    • Rebuilt with Wright R-3350 powerplant.
    • Flown as race No. 20 Cottonmouth.
  • Stan Musick/Musick Aircraft Corp., Brownwood, Texas, December 1994-1995.
  • John Diley/Fort Wayne Air Service, Fort Wayne, Indiana, February 4, 1997-2000.
  • Paul Z. Besterveld, Van Nuys, California, December 21, 2000-2002.
    • Flown as RAN 103.
  • Stuart Aviation Inc., Wilmington, Deleware, January 28, 2004-2006.
    • Flown as Conch Fury.

Cottonmouth is now under restoration by Meier Motors in Germany, re-registered D-CACE.

This article is featured in Bits and Pieces, EAA’s newsletter for builders and aviators in Canada. Subscribe here >>

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