Tim Adams

      Motorsports and Aviation Photography

National Championship Air Races - Reno, NV 2008

The Unlimiteds

The Unlimited class is the fastest class that races at Reno. As you may have guessed, they have few rules. There are only two, the aircraft must be piston powered, and it must weigh more than 4500 pounds empty. From the inception of the National Championship Air Races, WWII era fighter aircraft have dominated the class. Speeds of just over 500 mph can be reached by the top contenders.

Most fans and race historians generally agree, that 1991 featured the most exciting and best Unlimited Gold racing ever. We all have been waiting a long time to see anything approaching the level of racing that took place in 1991. Well, I think most agree, that the wait finally ended in 2008. The top four contenders were separated by just over 5 mph. The racers in order that they qualified were, Dan Martin in Dago Red, Mike Brown in September Fury, Bill (Tiger) Destefani in Strega, and John Penny in Rare Bear. The top qualifying speed was 474.143 mph.

As Friday dawned, race fans waited in anticipation for the Gold Heat 2A. They were not disappointed. Mike Brown was able to pass Dan Martin and take the win in September Fury, with an average speed of 469.754 mph. The top three were again separated by only 7 mph. Tiger finished fourth, hanging back at just over 446 mph. Was Tiger sandbagging? Only time would tell.

The crowd was buzzing Saturday morning after what happened Friday. We have all been waiting so long to see racing like this, not just a parade around the course with only one healthy plane. All of the top four contenders made it through Friday healthy. Anticipation was even higher now, for Gold Heat 3A, Saturday afternoon. To say we were again not disappointed would be an understatement. All four of the racers stepped up the pace. Dan Martin, after losing a trim tab on Dago Red's rudder, came back to pass Mike Brown on the last lap to take the win and inside position for Sunday's final. Dago Red's race winning average was 472.772 mph. Once again the top four were separated by a mere 5 mph. Tiger moved up to third in this heat. For the first time since anybody could remember, we had four healthy planes headed into Sunday's final. It looked like anybodies race.

Unfortunately Sunday could not live up to the hype for all the racers. John Penny in Rare Bear suffered a blown engine, and was forced to land before completing the race. The top three racers left, put on one heck of a show. Tiger was able to get by Dan Martin, and Mike Brown and hold on for the win. The winning average speed was 483.062 mph, Dan Martin in Dago Red finished second, just ahead of Mike Brown in September Fury. Dan's average speed was 474.305, while Mike's was 473.816. To top it all off, they all were able to fly home to California with their race engines still in the airplanes. This is something that had not happened to often in recent years.

Tiger's seventh Unlimited Gold win capped off an amazing career. It had been eleven years since his last win. Tiger has said that Strega will be back, but with pilot Steve Hinton Jr. at the controls.

This was really an amazing year to be at the races, we can only hope that future Unlimited races can hold up to the standard that 1991, and 2008 have set. If you would like to see detailed results from this, and all of the past years National Championship Air Races, please visit, www.airrace.org

Please enjoy the gallery below filled with images of these amazing aircraft, as well as some of the people that make the class what it is.


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