Even if the results are often predictable and there might not be wingtip-to-wingtip combat, the Sport Gold final is one of the most anticipated contests at the National Air Races. Gold races are the money races; it's where there's nothing left to save, reputations are made and scores settled. In Sport Gold highly modified engines in experimental racers are pushed to what is hoped is their rpm, pressure and temperature limits and left there for 48 suspenseful miles. Many don’t make it, and to stand among the gathered crew chiefs huddled in their designated viewing area is to be among the quiet and anxious.
It was no different yesterday afternoon when Jeff LaVelle opened school with his sorted, strong, and reliable Glasair. It’s not quite correct to say he cruised to victory, unless you believe Glasair III’s routinely cross country at 383.397 mph, but LaVelle started first, led every lap and taxied in without crew chief Grant Semanskee needing to lift the top cowling to find out what was left.
John Parker, who said he was going to win or “bring it home broken” brought it home broken. His wailing, nitrous-assisted Thunder Mustang II certainly made a race of it, stalking LaVelle at close range for the entire race, then expiring right at the finish. Kudos to John and crew chief Mike Cummings for blowing the engine a mile past the finish line—that’s knowing your machinery. John posted a 371.333 mph race average. Unofficial word was John’s airplane survived the mayday landing without further injury, as did John, but the team was self-sequestered post race so the extent of the team’s set-back was unknown at our deadline.
David Sterling had third all to himself at 357.421 mph. The fastest Lancair Legacy all week at Reno, David’s speed and reliability is more impressive as he keeps a low profile at the races, pitting in a quiet back corner of the main Sport hangar and performing what maintenance necessary somewhere around dawn. It’s easy to unconsciously pass by his buttoned-up Legacy in the hangar, but impossible to ignore his on-track performance.
Andrew Findlay’s goal entering the Gold final was to keep his Lancair ahead of Lynn Farnsworth’s similar machine. This was the closest on-track action in the Gold final. Both teams had supplied the drama during race week, Farnsworth seemingly always starting at the back due to penalties and having to consume his engine running up through the pack, while the army of orange-clad, Stihl-sponsored Findlay crew pulled two back-to-back all-nighters changing cylinders after a malfunctioning ADI controller early in the week deeply wounded their IO-550 Continental.
So Findlay settled into fourth with Farnsworth holding station just far enough back to not raise suspicion until the penultimate lap. That’s when, perfectly timed, Farnsworth moved in for the kill and Findlay, racer that he is, rather than bowing to a beheading bumped the go-lever forward another tick. It proved just that little bit his scored and scuffed cylinders could not take, moving Farnsworth to fourth at 350.011 mph and Findlay to mayday.
The final three positions were taken by the sunrise-reliable naturally-aspirated Sport Gold contestants. Kevin Eldridge, demonstrating the adage there’s no replacement for displacement in a slippery airframe, had this group covered at 320.961 mph in his ACE-cylindered, Lycoming IO-720 derivative powered Nemesis NXT. Bob Mills, who was seemingly everywhere at Reno, notched sixth at 317.965 in a Thunder Mustang, and Peter Balmer took seventh at 306.743 mph in his Thunder Mustang.
With Unlimited participation currently waning at the races due to finances and politics, Sport Gold is even more obvious as the future of the sport. Relevant, modern and marketable, Sport racing is also approachable to regular Joes at the entry level and a real playground for the better funded teams at the Gold level. To put it in perspective, LaVelle and Parker would have finished fifth and sixth in the Unlimited Gold race run on the same day.