Situational Awareness: Final Flag At Reno

air race
Credit: RARA

Despite the news, it’s looking like the chance to down a pulled pork parfait while being serenaded by a screaming chorus of R-1340s, Merlins and IO-540s could well continue. 

In March came word that this year’s National Championship Air Races, set for Sept. 13-17, will be the last held at Reno-Stead Airport (KRTS). That decision by the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority was a surprise to many, though not all, and is the culmination of a series of setbacks, some tragic, as well as evolving local demographics.

Held annually in the “Biggest Little City in the World” since 1964, the races are the largest globally and the only such event in the United States. A combination airshow, street party, trade fair, class reunion, grand bazaar, gape-fest and cacophonous competition, the “World’s Fastest Motor Sport” each year draws some 120,000 attendees whose dining, wining, gaming and more richly reward their Renoite hosts. 

Tony Logoteta, COO of the Reno Air Race Association (RARA), references a 2019 study by the University of Nevada-Reno that reportedly puts the event’s economic impact on the region at $100 million. Even in a tourist town bristling with glistening casinos, that’s a big-time jackpot.

So, why would a city of 270,000 spike such an economic engine? For reasons stated and not. The airport authority, which operates both KRTS, a general aviation facility, and airline-served Reno-Tahoe International, cited “challenging economic conditions, rapid area development [and] public safety” among its motivations. Unmentioned was a more onerous money issue and related matters of liability and notoriety. 

As to the economic challenges worrying the airports’ operator, those exist pretty much everywhere, unfortunately. And while the Reno area is certainly growing, its development is more steady than sizzling. 

Regarding the safety of residents and visitors, that’s a constant concern among all communities. But the KRTS races raise that to a special level. After all, launching high-performance aircraft in wing-to-wing, high-speed, high-G heats flown close to the ground involves unique risks. Moreover, the machines are operated by pilots, some long past their youth, who are exposed to such conditions infrequently— and possibly only at Reno. 

And all this takes place in close proximity to thousands of people watching from grandstands, the tarmac, parking lots, and others who are strolling the vendor midway or consuming show delicacies like deep-fried pickles, corn dogs and peanut butter bombs.

That combination of factors has proven deadly in some years. The worst was 2011, when a P-51 Mustang racer crashed, killing the pilot and ten spectators and seriously injuring another 70. In addition, individual race pilots were killed in accidents last year and in 2014. Trauma and the sudden death of visitors are not occurrences with which any city wants to be identified. 

However, since such things do happen, the airport authority had for years added a rider to its regular insurance to cover race days; according to Logoteta, that premium was modest. Meanwhile, by agreement, RARA had to take out its own policy. 

However, in 2022 the authority was denied the rider and, accordingly, insisted RARA obtain the extra coverage in addition to its own policy. That added roughly $500,000 to RARA’s insurance bill, bringing the total to “just shy of $1.3 million,” says Logoteta, and put the races at a financial loss. He expects that figure to increase further for this year’s series and hopes it won’t exceed 10-15%.

Regardless, the death of Aaron Hogue when his L-29 jet crashed last year seems to have been one tragedy too many. The decision by members of the airport authority to put an end to racing at KRTS—reinforced by the fatal B-17/Kingcobra collision last November at a Dallas airshow—means the facility can return to normal operations year-round, which many airport-based pilots welcome. And although there’s speculation that an overnight cargo carrier might begin operations there, a representative for the airport authority said no such invitation has been extended. 

Logoteta reports RARA had been exploring other sites for limited races by different aircraft classes as a way of leading up to the national championships. Now that site search has taken on an urgency to find a new home for the big event itself. He says that effort so far “has been pretty encouraging,” with several airports and municipalities expressing interest in hosting the championship series. 

And while it’s possible that a competition could be held in 2024, Logoteta is doubtful that a new location could be made ready by then. More likely, he says, is RARA hosting a regular airshow at KRTS next year and then relaunching the races —complete with grand bazaar, curley fries and a celebratory pork parfait—elsewhere in 2025.

William Garvey

Bill was Editor-in-Chief of Business & Commercial Aviation from 2000 to 2020. During his stewardship, the monthly magazine received scores of awards for editorial excellence.