You have to love an event dedicated to perpetuating the world’s most thrilling aviation experiences: high-speed air races. And the passion that fuels it. Roughly 2,500 volunteers help pull off the National Championship Air Races at Reno. Those volunteers must be in high gear now with the race fast approaching.

From September 16-20, Stead Airport just north of Reno will be the place to be. As it has been since the race began in 1964.

Over the years, aviation greats such as Bob Hoover, Clay Lacy and Steve Hinton Sr. have participated.

Fighting for Survival

In spite of that rich history, many wondered whether the Reno Air Races, dubbed “the world’s fastest motor sport,” would come back after the 2011 crash that took the life of pilot Jimmy Leeward and 10 spectators. My dad, aviation photographer Paul Bowen, was at the race and witnessed the tragedy and is one of the many who’ve gone back and supported the event.

“The air races themselves picked right back up without a hitch. It’s just as big a thrill today as it’s always been,” Bowen says. “The crowds have been building back nicely.”

Crowds pack the stands at Stead Airport
Crowds pack the stands each September at Stead Airport to watch the high-speed air races. Photo: Paul Bowen.

The Reno Air Racing Association confirms that the race has had its challenges since even before 2011 to attract sufficient crowds. Over the last couple of years, ticket sales have come very close to where they were before the recession. Growing overall attendance is still a goal. In June, Chairman of the Board of Directors John Agather announced that this year would be pivotal for the race, “Attendance is a key factor for our success.”

Reno Air Race CEO Mike Crowell says they’re ramping up their efforts to get more people from the Reno community – especially younger people.

“We’re creating educational experiences for school-age kids,” he says, “and we plan to bring in as many as 3,500 students on field trips. We think once they’ve experienced this super-charged atmosphere, they’ll be wanting to come back – year after year.”

Reno Air Races champion Steven Hinton Jr.
Current Reno Air Races unlimited gold champion Steven Hinton Jr. Photo: Paul Bowen

Aiming for a Younger Crowd

In an effort to increase attendance, event organizers hope to appeal to a broader audience. Those who attend with historical and military interests will enjoy the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) Tora, Tora, Tora Airshow. For the millennials, the overall adrenaline rush of the race plus the addition of the Breitling Jet Team from Switzerland, the largest professional civilian jet formation team.

These days, too, the action has shifted to a new generation. Hinton Sr. held the world speed record for 10 years and set records at Reno. Now his son, Steven Hinton Jr., is the pilot to beat. Junior became the youngest ever to win the Reno unlimited-class championship race at age 22 in 2009 and has won it multiple times since.

The finale often comes down to an intense battle among impressive aircraft such as Voodoo, flown by Hinton Jr.; Rod Lewis’ Rare Bear, flown by Stewart Dawson; and Strega, flown by former astronaut Hoot Gibson. Each aircraft in the unlimited-class championship is a sight to behold and a power to be reckoned with.

Lend Your Support

Aviation owes more than can be calculated to the early air races, which brought out families and fanatics alike and spurred competitive innovators the world over to work at building better, ever-faster aircraft. Those old races had nothing on Reno. It’s faster and every bit as breathtaking. Go if you can. We owe it to the next generation to ensure the survival of this perfect mix of old-time hair-raising aero-competition and state-of-the-art inspiration.

The 52nd Annual National Championship Air Races will be held September 16-20, 2015 at Reno Stead Airport. For more information, visit

This column ran in the September 10 issue of BlueSky Business Aviation News.