After dramatic footage spread like wildfire earlier this week of Dreadnought’s engine failure at the final National Championship Air Races at Reno, fans were fairly mortified. Some worried it could spell the end of the crowd-favorite racer that has chugged around the pylons at Reno for four decades.
Dreadnought, the flagship of the Sanders race team, is a fixture at the Reno Air Races. Since the heavily modified Sea Fury’s first race in 1983, it has been a constant menace to the souped-up racers who gathered each September at Stead Field (KRTS) to race for the Sunday Unlimited Gold. In the words of Matt Russell, longtime race enthusiast, “Dreadnought kept everyone honest. Without ‘The Buick’ in the field, there was considerably less pressure to push the racers to the limit. That ship kept everyone motivated.”
Chatter between fans and Dreadnought crew in the pits at Stead makes it clear that after the Mayday call during qualifying this year, Dreadnought’s engine is toast. “You can push on the prop if you want, but it won’t turn,” one mechanic told a fan. After landing, the crew pulled the oil screens and found slivers of metal likely indicating the master rod bearing failed. The damage was such that the crew didn’t even bother opening the cowlings. Dreadnought was down for the remainder of the race. While fans hoped desperately for a miracle—a Pratt & Whitney R-4360 race engine materializing was beyond the pale of the miracles one might encounter on the ramp at Reno.
This race engine has been on Dreadnought for 15 years; the crankshaft was installed in the prior engine that ran 13 years before that. Needless to say, 28 years of life on a crankshaft in a racer is remarkable—but it was apparent Dreadnought’s caretakers are concerned the failed master rod bearing could have caused irreparable harm to the beating heart of the beloved racer.
In a radial engine, the master rod is a connecting rod from the crankshaft to a piston, and the connecting rods to all the other cylinders bolt to the master rod. The crew was quick to point out that had the master rod actually failed, the damage would have been absolutely catastrophic. “There would have been cylinders all over the race course,” a mechanic said in conversation with a fan.
Crew members said Dreadnought will remain on display through the remainder of the event and will be trucked home for repairs after the Sunday Race. The Sanders team has a trailer set up for Sea Fury racers. They’ll pull the wings, mount Dreadnought on the trailer in a pretty aggressive bank angle to meet roadway restrictions, and it’ll head home a bit more humbly than it arrived.
“You’ve not seen the last of this bird, not by a long shot,” fans were told. Wherever the next iteration of unlimited air racing happens to come along, we’re sure the distinctive gray racer will rejoin the ranks and push the field to race all the way to the finish line on Sunday.