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The Final Flag

Reno, Nevada, has been home to the world’s fastest motorsport since 1964. Each September, it becomes the one place on the globe where all types of aircraft compete in a daring test of airplane and pilot, racing for gold in the desert. But, 2023 marked the last time.

The Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority decided that the races could not continue at the Reno-Stead Airport (KRTS), owing to regional growth planned in the surrounding area. Being its last year, the 59th Reno Air Races saw a massive boost in attendance from both pilots and spectators. The week was full of memorable moments, leaving racers and observers hopeful and excited that the National Championship Air Races will continue for years to come.

I have attended the event for the better part of 20 years, always as a spectator. But this year I was able to achieve a lifelong dream and be part of a crew. Thanks to pilot Lee Oman and his wife and crew chief, Marion Wagner, I joined T-6 Race 69 Eros. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to Reno and let me realize a goal decades in the making.

Lee and Marion
Oman and crew chief Marion Wagner [image courtesy Maria Morrison]

Fly Low, Fly Fast, Turn Left: A History of Reno

In nearly 60 years, the races may have seen it all. Asking any of the old-timers will yield endless stories. In my 23 years, I have attended 18 Renos, with the exception of 2001, 2020, and three years missed in college. Many racegoers have similar lineages, with unbroken streaks of attendance and unwavering support for their favorite team.

Family 2014
Morrison with family in 2014 [image courtesy Maria Morrison]

The races were first hosted in Spanish Springs, Nevada, by Bill Stead. Two years later, they moved to the nearby Stead Air Force Base (KRTS).
Through the years, the racers honed their craft, and new pilots were trained. Dago Red, a P-51 piloted by Skip Holmes, set the Unlimited speed record around the pylons at 507 mph in 2003. Off the course, Lyle Shelton and Rare Bear set a 528 mph speed record, which was broken in 2017 by Steve Hinton Jr. and Voodoo at 531 mph.

Over the years, classes have been dropped and added, regulations updated and changed. This year welcomed six classes—STOL, Formula One, Sport, T-6, Jet, and Unlimited—as well as military and heritage displays, vendors, and airshow acts.


While fans can watch from the grandstands, the heart of the races is in the pits. This is where each team spends the week and where the public has the unique opportunity to be up close with machines that are World War II veterans, world-record holders, or equipped with the newest and best engines—or all three combined.

Race 69: Eros

For many race crews, planning begins 364 days beforehand. For Race 69 Eros, it started in late August. Two weeks before Reno, I was lying in the grass in Sequim, Washington, as Oman and I removed the flaps to clean and repaint them.

Sequim is a coastal town on the Olympic Peninsula, northwest of Seattle, and is only a 15-minute flight from my home airport. I asked if he wanted some help getting ready for the races, he said he did, and I came over the next day. Parking my Super Cub next to the mighty Texan was instantly humbling.


Eros needed some extra care before Reno, since sitting near the salt water is unkind to the 75-year-old metal. We took off nearly every panel on the plane, spiffing and servicing what was needed before Oman made the trek to Reno one last time.

Our efforts were rewarded when the aircraft passed its technical inspection on the Thursday prior to the race, a two- to three-hour process to ensure safety and compliance with race rules. There are a whole host of potential modifications to a T-6 to make it go faster. A shortened exhaust pipe. No filter on the intake. Flush rivets. Bondo, foam, tape. A smaller tailwheel. To race in the “Classic” category—akin to the Bronze—the aircraft must be completely stock, with none of these racing modifications. We were in the Silver, where modifications were allowed but safety standards still needed checking.

By nature of the class, T-6 racing puts an “emphasis on strategy and pilot skill rather than raw horsepower,” according to the Reno Air Races website.

Oman is a fantastic pilot and knows the T-6 well after decades of flying in this class. Each aircraft has its limits, though, and Eros consistently places around the bottom of the Silver, which doesn’t bother Oman one bit. Sometime later in the week, I confided in him that I had dreamed about being on the team of a Reno race plane since I was old enough to understand what one was. He laughed. “Let me know when you get on one. This isn’t a racer. This just drives around the course.”

Lee and Eros
Lee Oman and Eros [image courtesy Maria Morrison]

The Last Week at Reno

I arrived Saturday to bustling pits full of aircraft. In a week and two days, it would be empty again. Our setup was relatively simple, and the aircraft performed as expected on the flight down. Barring a mechanical anomaly, we don’t plan to perform any maintenance or even open the cowling during the week. Some of the pits, especially among the Unlimiteds, become weeklong pop-up mechanic shops. The desert heat was inescapable, and I stocked up on coconut water. Every morning began with draining and restocking the cooler—water on top for immediate access, and Coors Light on the bottom for evenings. We then put up the canopy to grant necessary shade and stripped Eros of its two covers to reveal what Oman considers to be the prettiest paint job on the ramp.


Sunday saw G-testing for the class. Every pilot has to go around four to six laps to prove they can handle the associated G-forces. The T-6s all started up together, but six at a time lap the pylons. Three rows of six Texans and Harvards were pulled onto the ramp.

This day immediately cemented itself as one of the most exhilarating in my aviation life. We were in the middle row, and all around me T-6s had come to life. The wind whipped across the ramp, dust particles pricking my skin. I understood why Oman said not to wear a hat. When Race 69 started, it barely added a decibel to the din. It took all my willpower to stay focused on the start as a Mustang and two Sea Furys race around the pylons. For all my years at Reno, I’d never been this close to an Unlimited race, and certainly not from a sea of T-6s.

Oman will be the first to qualify Monday morning, a slot he requests every year. “It’s not going to get any faster,” he says. Some crews wait to qualify as long as they can, taking every last measure possible to reduce drag. This is why, when the airplane goes out onto the ramp, there is a final, abbreviated tech inspection, ensuring that none of the drag-reduction rules were violated during the night.


Oman has previously clocked in at 211 mph, Eros’ top speed. That year, the T-6 class was overfilled, and the two slowest aircraft wouldn’t reach the heats. He pushed it for all he could. Most years, there is enough space for everybody, and Oman sees no reason to burn up an engine and more fuel.

The ritual continued. I stood behind the wing, chatting and ready for anything that he may need last minute. Four minutes before the start time, the first engine cranked up. We focused in. I walked to the front of the wing. He put on his helmet. He signaled to remove the chocks. Oman gave the start signal, whirling his finger in the air, and I responded in kind. Hand on the fire extinguisher, I watched as the prop spun and the Pratt & Whitney R-1340 roared to life. Unlike yesterday, the noise was not drowned out but instead filled the desert air.

I watched from the other side of the K-rails as Oman qualified. Pilots can take one or two qualifying laps. On the back of the course, they call race control, saying, for example, “Race 69 wants the clock.”

When Wagner and I met him back at the ramp, she’d brought a water bottle. The combination of the Reno sun, greenhouse canopy, flight suit, and required focus make cold water a necessity. Back in the pits, with Eros wiped down, the day was done.


“It felt about 200,” he said casually. He clocked in at 195.158 mph, making it around the 4.826-mile course in 1 minute and 29 seconds. The rest of the T-6 class qualified on Tuesday. The whole day long there was never more than a 10-minute gap in airplane noise as every aircraft vied for the pole position.

These qualifying times determine the lineup of the heat races to come. Oman says it takes about a 5 mph difference to pass the T-6 in front of you. That’s hard to attain, and the start order can mean everything.

Despite the obvious competition, the importance of the Reno family is made clear throughout the week. The term is not just tossed around, but embodied. From jokes and stories to mechanical assistance, there is no doubt that the week is as much reunion as competition.

The opening of the races to the public arrived on Wednesday with all its festivities: airshow, military static displays, heritage aircraft, and rows of vendors. Knowing it’s the last year, people flocked to the races from all corners of the country and beyond.


Our Wednesday began at 5:30 a.m., when the three of us left the hotel and headed to the airport. Before the sun came up, the pit was set up and Oman headed off to the pilot briefing. Wagner and I walked down the flight line to watch the sunrise, something we end up doing every day for the rest of the week. Slowly, the airport came to life.

Thursday, Friday, and Saturday brought more races, as well as the T-6 Drag Race. The one-lap spectacle begins from takeoff, with the aircraft lined up abreast on the runway. They departed and banked immediately into a left turn around the first pylon. The evenings come with parties in the pits, live music, margarita bars made out of airplane parts, and screenings of racing moments from the past.

My favorite part of each day happens in the afternoon, when Oman climbs up on Eros’ wing, radio in hand, to watch the other T-6 races. He invites me up and I stand next to him, leaning against the canopy and watching as they descend together. He narrates the race for me, describing the start sequence and every subsequent move. He notes when a pilot takes a turn at a bad angle, makes a good pass, or executes a move unique to his individual flying style. Oman not only knows the class and the airplane, but he knows the people. He adds analysis to the excitement of the race, providing knowledge gained through years of experience.

Sunday was the last day of the Reno Air Races—ever. The change in the atmosphere was notable. First, the crowd was enormous. Following the weekday attendance numbers, the Reno Air Racing Association (RARA) urged weekend spectators to buy tickets online and find parking away from the airport. By Sunday, the crowds were pushed up against the concrete barriers, the lines for bottled water took 15 minutes, and the official merchandise had long since sold out.


Eros was towed out for the final time onto the ramp. Wagner, on the wing, kissed her husband and turned on the camera inside the cockpit to film the race. I pulled the chocks at Oman’s signal then stood by with the fire bottle as the propeller turned in a spout of smoke and started running. The race featured passing and lapping, and Oman ended up in fifth place. He was happy. The goal of the week, he repeatedly emphasized, was to make it to the banquet Sunday night—and have some fun along the way.

Me Smiling
The author in the T-6 cockpit [image courtesy Maria Morrison]

Someone has to ride in the airplane at all times when it’s being towed to step on the brakes if needed. As Eros was towed for the last time, I was in the front cockpit. It was a surreal moment, and I felt like a combination of Tom Cruise and Miss America.

A few hours later, the last day of racing in Reno would be abruptly cut short by tragedy. A landing accident following the Gold race took the lives of two T-6 pilots, Chris Rushing and Nick Macy. Flying Baron’s Revenge and Six-Cat, respectively, the first- and second-place winners of the race collided. They were fantastic pilots but, more significantly, beloved members of the Reno community, and their loss felt deeply in the pits. Racing accidents have killed 24 pilots and 10 spectators over Reno’s history.

The final Sunday evening banquet was a somber affair. There was a lovely video tribute to the races, a speech from CEO and chairman Fred Telling, and the presentation of awards. Oman went up to receive his Silver plaque. Bardhal Special took home the Unlimited Gold, with Hinton recording his eighth Reno win.

Pilots, crews, and friends stayed in the big hangar long past dark. The grief surrounding the racers’ deaths did not pass quickly, but there was a steady undercurrent of resolve. There are dangers in this sport—and tragedies. But the pilots still love it, and they keep coming back.


The Future of the Races

Monday was time to go home. In fact, the first draft of this piece was written on the flight from Lake County to Lebanon, crossing Oregon northbound. The back of the T-6 is beyond roomy (rule No. 1 is to not drop anything), and clouded skies provided the perfect scenery for writing.

Writing this article
The author composing this article in the cockpit [image courtesy Maria Morrison]

Before landing on cross-country trips, Oman always does a roll. It’s meant to wake him up and make sure he is ready for the Texan’s squirrely landing.

As we rolled our way into Oregon and then Washington, I had plenty of time to reflect on the races.

Although Reno is finished, the fate of air racing is far from sealed. There are six bidders for the next location of the National Championship Air Races (NCAR): Casper, Wyoming; Buckeye, Arizona; Pueblo, Colorado; Roswell, New Mexico; Thermal, California; and Wendover, Utah.

Finding a new spot is a difficult task. There must be enough long runways. Open space for the nearly 9-mile Unlimited and Jet courses. A ramp that can handle dozens of airplanes, vendors, grandstands, and people. Hotels and a city that can accommodate racers and spectators.

The new NCAR, expected to begin in 2025, will not be the same. The races are not just about racing, or even just about airplanes. For many, my family included, there are decades of tradition surrounding the annual pilgrimage to the desert. People have made their best memories and lifelong connections. Tested themselves and their machines. Made money, earned trophies, won titles, and lived lives.

My first Reno was when I was 10 months old in 2000, though my mother would argue that her 1999 appearance, eight months pregnant, ought to count. My dad has been coming since 1980. It has been a massive part of my life. It was always my favorite week of the year, beyond worth missing school picture day for (I’m not in a single class photo from preschool to senior year). I remember sitting in the pits with Bill “Tiger” Destefani in 2017 as he showed me all the spark plugs Strega had gone through that day. I wanted to stay all night. Reno has been the best place to reconnect with old friends, create and keep traditions, and share the love.

Maria Morrison and her father sit in a Mustang in the pits, circa 2004.
               Morrison and her father sit in a Mustang in the pits, circa 2004. [courtesy Maria Morrison]

Although the races will continue and I am eager to keep being part of them, there is something that will be left behind in Reno that we must bid farewell. I wear a belt buckle from the Bucket of Blood Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, where my family would go every year to see wild horses and read tombstones, a fantastic place we never would have visited were it not for the Reno races. My sister and I can play a decent hand of blackjack after all the mornings spent debriefing games from the night before. Every block of Reno’s downtown Virginia Street holds a precious memory.

The RARA organizers were given the difficult task of bringing a decades-long event to a conclusion, and I am somewhat familiar with their struggle through concluding this story. This is my final interaction with the Reno Air Races, and though I will continue to wear my fading Reno shirts until they unravel, fewer and fewer people will recognize the logo. For those who do, I hope it never loses its significance.

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the JAN/FEB 2024 issue of Plane & Pilot magazine.

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