Twenty-five minutes outside the Strip, set in Nevada’s stark desert, the Las Vegas Motor Speedway lacks its city’s famed opulence — but today, not its verve. A fresh energy runs throughout the massive 131,000-seat complex, though no NASCAR racers throttle up around the 1.5-mile asphalt track. Instead of staring down, everyone in the grandstands looks to the sky. The loudspeaker booms: Number 9 Lamb. You’re cleared to enter the track. Smoke on. As the plane swoops down from the sky, the crowd descends into a provocative hush. “Smoke on” is the green flag of air racing.
The Red Bull Air Race is the fastest motorsport in the world. Aerial racers snarl down upon the course at 230 mph and weave their way through a set of gates and pylons — twice. It’s solo low-flying aerobatic maneuvers in the time trial format: the ultimate challenge in speed, precision, guile and fist-sized cojones. The elite air series encompasses eight races, staged in seven countries over three continents. No two tracks are the same; each has similar features, but the layout varies. Some are over land, some over water. And with such talented pilots, every race is unique.
The Master Class competition is Red Bull Air Race’s star attraction. For twelve pilots, a split second is usually the difference between winning and not even qualifying. “The top eight or nine pilots will be separated by a single second”, explains Nigel Lamb, the 2014 Red Bull Air Race champion. Pilots get paired against one opponent, according to their qualifying times, and go head to head in a high stakes face-off. The six winners, and two fastest losers, advance into another round: the Super 8s. Another bracket generates, new races commence and eight challengers fight for four finalist spots. These survivors fly it out for the podium.
Unlike NASCAR races, where winners often credit their “great cars”, air race pilots begin each run on even air. “The regulations have changed so that the engine is standardized. The propeller is standardized. The exhaust system is standardized”, says Lamb. Even though there are four different models of planes competing (Edge 540 V2, Edge 540 V3, Corvus Racer 540, MXR-S), they all are strictly regulated to have the same power output. “The weight regulations have [also] changed so that, depending on a heavy plane-light plane or heavy pilot-light pilot, generally everyone is on the same weight. So onto the track come twelve airplanes with pretty much the same pilot-weight ratio. It’s much more about the man than the machine, and what you’ll see is an incredibly tight race.”
Pilots cover an average distance of 3.73 miles in approximately 50 seconds.
As unbelievable as it sounds for millisecond-close races through a succession of pylons at 230 mph, safety here is paramount. Since its genesis in 2005, the Red Bull Air Races have never had a serious accident. Nevertheless, the sport still took a three-year hiatus midway through 2010 to “improve safety and reorganize”. When reinstated in 2014, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) evened the playing field, augmenting the pylons’ height and width and laying out a fresh, extensive decorum. “It’s much safer now”, says Breitling Pilot François Le Vot. “I would guess 200 percent safer than before.”
Topping the list of new regulations are speed and g’s. Race planes are capable of hitting 275 mph, which means the 230 mph starting speed limit reins them in. Exceeding the start speed results in a second penalty, or disqualification, if they exceed 232.5 mph. G-force, contingent on speed and roll rate, is similarly capped: racers cannot exceed 10 g’s. As they fly faster with more aggressive maneuvers, the pressure exerted on the body increases. Before the rule changes, pilots were pulling upwards of 12-14 g’s, which is a comparable to finding a Ford Focus parked on your chest. Now if a pilot exceeds 10 g’s, their flight is over.
Other rules add time penalties and are more common during races. Pilots must stay within the track’s parameters; more specifically, they must pass through the course’s pylon-marked “gates” correctly. These stand 82 feet tall, are made of a spinnaker fabric that’s 40 percent lighter than traditional printing paper, and are colored incrementally to mark the designated flight window. Planes must fly through, not above or below, this 33-foot tall gap that’s located just 49 feet above the ground. Designed to come apart at the slightest impact, the pylons pose no threat to oncoming planes. However, slicing through one with a wing results in a crippling two-second penalty. Hitting three in one round results in disqualification.
A simple toggle within the cockpit releases mute smoke, which helps judges keep tabs on the planes and shows fans just how absurd each aerobatic maneuver is. Each plane has “one special tank filled with a kind of liquid wax that gets injected in the exhaust pipe”, pilot François Le Vot explains. “When heated, it produces smoke. It’s a bio product, so no harm is done nature. If you wanted, you could actually drink the liquid from the smoke.” That’s not recommended, however.
Pilots must also be cognizant of their smoke. This is vital for two reasons: for the spectacle (to make the sport more provocative for the audience), and for judging purposes. Each flight goes by quickly, and the sky doesn’t leave tire marks. The race judges use a plane’s smoke trail to gauge the trajectory of each flight, and to make sure pilots aren’t climbing or erratically flying. In Las Vegas, “inefficient smoke” was a recurring infraction.
Beyond aiding in rules and spectacle, smoke plays a major role for pilots. Among these strict rules, the pilots still follow a basic principle for racers on the ground: they need to fly the fastest line. But this isn’t as straightforward as navigating 1.5-mile tri-oval NASCAR blacktop. Unlike road races, the sky adds a third dimension. “In wheel sports there’s a black line on the track after it’s been used a while, identifying the perfect race line”, explains Nigel Lamb. The Breitling pilot is keen to emphasize that flying the fastest line isn’t as black and white as “staying on the inside track”.
“So onto the track come twelve airplanes with pretty much the same pilot-weight ratio. It’s much more about the man than the machine, and what you’ll see is an incredibly tight race.”
Finding the fastest line is a calculated team effort. Pilots and their teams, aided by software that measures roll rate and g’s, plan the best line of attack and use qualifying races before the finals to test them out. The qualifiers also give pilots a chance to see their competition’s line; after all, it’s not like they can practice behind closed doors. “By [the end of] qualification, you’ll probably see [all the pilots] pretty much doing the same thing”, Lamb continues. “Because everybody’s thinking: ‘Whoa, that guy’s time is amazing. What was he doing?’”
This explanation doesn’t really strike home until you consider just how fast the racers and their planes are ripping through the course. Pilots cover an average distance of 3.73 miles in approximately 50 seconds. Which sounds amazing, and looks great on video. But to really get it, you have to be there, in the stands, feeling the air pulsate as planes roar by you. Add in jaw-dropping aerobatics, pylon-clipping turns, a few patriotic skydivers and maybe a few Bud heavies, and you’ve got one hell of an entertaining day.