Road Tripping to the Reno Air Races

Cattle-Jams and Jelly Bellies

Think of it as a MotoGP at 500 feet—and three times the speed. At least that’s how I was selling the Reno National Championship Air Races to my riding buddies. We’d been looking for an interesting destination to implant in the middle of a long road trip, and the Reno Air Race seemed to fit the bill. It offered a collection of fabulous machines that traveled fast, all with the body-pounding sound only huge-piston engines can deliver. With everyone onboard to give it a try, we packed our gear and headed to Nevada.

The three of us took off on an Electra Glide, a Gold Wing, and a Valkyrie Interstate (that would be my rig). We’ve been riding the same bikes with the same gear for years, so for this ride, we wanted to try something new: bike to bike communication. I was admittedly skeptical of shattering my solitude with a lot of idle chatter, but we picked up several Scala Rider G4 Bluetooth headsets before the trip anyway, just to see what was what.

Interesting roads to and from the destination were equally important on our checklist, so we made sure to swing away from major highways as we left Portland, planning to eventually enter Reno from the east after riding down through remote southeastern Oregon and northern Nevada. Burns, Oregon was our objective for the first night. It would be a good jumping-off point for Highway 205, as it runs along the Steens Mountains. We’d chase 205 south all the way to the Nevada border and beyond to Winnemucca, Nev. From Winnemucca it would be all interstate into Reno, but the route from Burns down through Frenchglen and Fields, Ore., would provide over 200 miles of remote backcountry riding, something that was sure to promise adventure.

To my pleasant surprise, I found the Scala Rider communication units added to the group’s safety and efficiency along the way. The headsets sounded and worked well, and we all could stay in touch for up to a mile apart. Best of all, the G4s held their charge all day.

That night in Burns, we encountered an anxious moment—when we noticed that approximately half our map showed part of our route as a 100-mile stretch of gravel, while the other half showed it as paved. I was pretty sure I’d been on that stretch of road before without running through any gravel on my Valkyrie. Turns out my memory was correct; the road was well-paved, though narrow and with no markings. The paving seemed relatively new, so perhaps the change from gravel to pavement happened in the last few years (which would account for all the discrepancies on the maps). Bottom line: when traversing backcountry routes, make sure you carry the latest maps (or downloads).

You are rural with a capital R in this neck of the woods. 70-100 miles between gas stations is the norm, and vehicles are pretty much nonexistent, though we did encounter one traffic jam when a herd of cattle began moving up the road toward us. The situation was puzzling for us city boys, as no one was accompanying the cattle; they pretty much were on their own, and we weren’t sure how to proceed. Maybe this was a real cattle drive or maybe several hundred animals just took it upon themselves to relocate en masse, but we decided to play it safe and pull over while we contemplated our options. Soon enough, a local came up and advised us to not go through on the bikes—the noise would spook the cattle and send them off into adjacent counties. Instead he had us pull in slowly behind as he ran point through the herd. Like a Cowboy Moses, he and his Ford F-250 parted the sea of cattle and led us through to the other side.

After Winnemucca (and a good night’s rest), we rolled into Reno on the third day of our trip. Usually we prefer smaller motels, but for our stay in "The Biggest Little City in the World," we opted for a high-rise casino. At Circus Circus, we each got great rooms, and for $30 a night, it’s hard to beat the attractive prices and amenities, especially with the downtown area’s proximity to the air race site. All-you-can-eat became a running theme for us: all-you-can eat sushi one night, ribs the next, and on the third night the obligatory mega-buffet—all right in our hotel!

The National Championship Air Races and Air Show have been held just outside Reno every year since 1964. The Reno Air Racing Association, which organizes the event, is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of authentic air racing. At this air show you get in-your-face air racing; up-close access to racing aircraft, pilots, and crews in the pits (be sure to spring for the added cost of a pit pass—it’s worth it!); a large static aircraft display; and a chance to mingle with a lot of people who are into fast, competitive machines, many of which are vintage WWII-era piston-driven beauties. It’s basically a big Boys with their Toys’ event, but one where the decimal place is moved several places to the right. Back in the late 40s, post-war, you could pick up a surplus P-51 Mustang for about $1500. Today—if you can find one—you’d need to come up with several million dollars.

At Reno, they race seven classes of planes. Formula One: All the craft are powered by the same 10 hp Continental engine used in the Cessna 150, and can reach 250 mph. Sport Class: These are high-performance, kit-built aircraft with engines displacing 650 cubic inches or less, and reaching speeds of 350 mph. Super Sport: A more technologically-advanced variant of the sport class. T-6: This class features racing between the T-6 "Texan," the Canadian-built "Harvard," and the US Navy "SNJ." All the T-6 variants are powered by the Pratt & Whitney Wasp radial engine with 600 horsepower, and reach speeds of about 225mph. Jet: This class is open to any non-afterburning aircraft with less than 15 degrees of wing sweep. Biplane: In this group, small biplanes like the Pitts Special can hit speeds exceeding 200 mph. Unlimited: These are the Big Boys. The Unlimited Class is open to any piston-driven aircraft with an empty weight greater than 4500 pounds. The Unlimited Class is populated mostly by WWII fighters like the P-51 Mustang, F-8F Bearcat, and Hawker Sea Fury. Unlimited Class speeds reach 500 mph.

I am sure everyone has their favorite class and aircraft type, but to me there is no greater thrill than seeing the old WWII warbirds in flight. The pulses of the engines are indescribable. Nothing can duplicate the sound of a 27-liter, Rolls Royce Merlin V-12-powered Mustang as it roars by at 500 feet and almost 500 miles per hour. My personal favorite is "Sparky," the brightly colored, Jelly Belly P-51 Mustang that combines the heritage of a warbird with the pop-art colors of today (Although the Jelly Belly Arlen Ness Victory custom wasn’t too bad either).

So, why an article in Motorcycle Cruiser about an air race? Well, for one thing, the route we took to get there turned out to be pretty darn great. But more to the point, I was struck by the commonality of the cultures when you have a bunch of people working on, racing, and generally messing around with high performance machines that go really fast. The tool boxes open, ready to tweak the equipment; the endless buzz of theories of how to extract that last foot-pound of torque in the pits; the smell of fuel and oil, the deep thump of the engines; the graceful beauty of the machines, and the general camaraderie around the sport. It was the same as motorcycling; just the names of the machines were different.


The Reno National Championship Air Races

Southeast Oregon

Gear Exam

Cardo Systems Scala Rider G4 Bike communication System
On the tour, we tried a couple of Scala Rider G4 units from Cardo Systems. Each is rigged to provide intercom capability, bike-to-bike communication and connectivity to a mobile phone, GPS or MP3 player. You get an FM Radio too.

Mounting was easy: attach a mounting plate to your helmet (which is connected to the microphone and speakers) and snap the G4 radio onto the plate. We had the boom mic version which fit fine in our full-face helmets with the boom bent up under the chin bar (there’s also a corded version for full helmets).

The bike-to-bike communication feature worked well up to around 3/4 of a mile or so which was ample for general communications. The plus with the G4 is battery life; it easily handled a full day of riding. Sound quality and volume were also good, but don’t expect the performance of a dedicated wired intercom. The downside, as with all Bluetooth systems, is set-up complexity, but if you have the technical acumen to pair a Bluetooth headset with your cell phone, then with patience you can set up the G4. At about $315 for a pair of G4 systems, there are cheaper alternatives for an intercom, but if you also need connectivity to other Bluetooth devices, then the G4 fits the bill.