BMX racing may be the most diverse sport in America. I can think of no other sport that attracts this broad a participant pool. Three feet tall boys and girls, teenagers, middle aged folk, moms, dads, and even the over 50 year old crowd all have popular divisions to race in. I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised. I mean, one of the first great thrills most of us experience is learning how to ride a bicycle, and many of us continue to ride throughout our lives. After noticing the diversity of the competitors the first day, I just had to try to do a portrait essay the second day. This was a fun day full of surprises and happy colorful characters.
Every September in Reno, Nevada, at the Reno Stead Airport, fans, pilots, and their crew gather for the fastest motorsport on earth – the National Championship Air Races. A seven-day event consisting of acrobatic demonstrations and accelerating divisions of air racing around 50 foot pylons with a 250 feet altitude ceiling over a fixed racecourse surrounded by mountains. The most competitive racers are typically highly modified WWII fighters that carry air speeds in exceed of 500 MPH on portions of the roughly 8.1 mile per lap course.
The most popular class is the Unlimited, where the main restriction is that planes must be piston powered and propeller driven. There are 3 heats – bronze, silver, and gold. Pilots qualify the first day and then are placed in the appropriate race based on their qualifying times. The winner of each race is given a choice – accept 1st place and the prize money, or receive a place to race in the heat up but forfeit the prize money. Theoretically, a pilot could start out in bronze class and work his way up to winning the gold class. However, that racer would have put much more stress on his engine than a racer who got to start in the gold heat.
Thom Richard has flown Precious Metal at the Reno Air Races since 2011, and each year he did so in a stronger plane. Responsible for the continued success is an all volunteer team consisting of a retired NASA engineer, a Top Fuel mechanic, jet mechanics, and other aviation professionals. With a new engine head full of high tech modifications, a new cooling system, and an electronic fuel ignition system the team had high hopes for the 2014 race season. Everything was made functional literally just in time for the big race, but they had no time to tune the plane before it had to be flown to Reno. PM made it to Reno with no issues. A few days later, Richard had to qualify his plane for one of the three-race heat, bronze, silver or gold. However, disaster struck! Once he applied race power, the engine stalled and Richard had to preform a miracle to get him and the plane back on land in one piece, which he somehow did. Besides the monumental task of figuring out what was deathly wrong with PM and fixing it, without a qualifying time, PM had to start from the back of the bronze class.
It was determined that at the high altitude of Reno, the fuel pump for the new electronic fuel injection system was unable to provide the system with enough fuel at high power. With no time to diagnose why this was happening, the team had to resort back to using the old carburetor. After all this PM started in last place of the bronze class. Slowly but surely PM won every race it competed in and forfeited wining that class to move up a class. The team did so all the way until it reached the grand race of the event, the Unlimited Gold Final, where it had to once again start from the very back. Richards flew PM all the way into third place, and the announcer verified the result. An hour later, as the team was celebrating its best result ever, a ruling was handed down that PM had crossed the FAA established showline on lap 2, (an imaginary line) that marks the outer boundary of the race course, thereby disqualifying the team. Richard was outraged. He swore he did no such thing, and he had definitive IN COCKPIT-STABILIZED FOOTAGE of the whole race to prove it. However, the committee insisted that the ruling was final and could not be appealed. Later that month, the contest committee organizers released a statement assuring race fans that changes will be placed into effect to address the situation in the future. Team Precious Metal vowed to return to Reno in 2015 with an even stronger plane.
Tucked neatly inside the Kissimmee Warbirds Museum lies a one-of-a-kind highly modified WW2 era P51D mustang named Precious Metal. Over the past four years its owners and a small group of volunteers have reengineered just about every piece of this airplane with only one purpose in mind, to win the Unlimited Class of the Reno Air Races. Every year the team has more radically modified the aircraft and been more competitive at Reno.
Here are a few facts and figures to give you an idea of how badass this engineering marvel is. Precious Metal is powered by a 12 cylinder 37 liter Rolls Royce Griffon engine that is supercharged and connected to a custom made counter rotating prop assembly. Fully tuned and in race conditions it is capable of 90 inHg of boost, over 500 mph and at a cost of $5K worth of 160 octane gas per hour! Let that soak in for a second! This is by far the fastest sport in all of motorsports…
Lucky for me, the Kissimmee Warbirds Museum is located just a few miles from my house, and after being introduced to the team by a mutual friend, I was welcomed in with open arms. Documenting the team’s progress turned into a personal project for me. Next will be my coverage of the 2014 Reno Air Races.
First she gave up her career to support her husband as he became the 2006 World Series MVP. Then he left baseball to help her start a women’s sci fi apparel company, which has become a multimillion-dollar success. Read the full story HERE. I was honored to photograph them in my first story for Sports Illustrated. This opportunity came courtesy of Brad Smith, SI’s Director Of Photography, who I had the pleasure of showing my print portfolio to at the 2013 Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar. HERE is wonderful advice for anyone wishing to one day get a similar opportunity. Also, for you fellow photo geeks I used a D4, 50mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.4, Profoto 7A, 2 x 7B, 3 x Pro7 heads, Proring, 8′ x 8′ scrim, magnum reflector, a 3’x 4′ RFi soft box, a 3′ RFi octabank with grid and a 1’x 3′ RFi soft box with grid.