“Occasionally I like to have a date that wasn’t the airport,” Jackie Findlay laments, “but that doesn’t happen very frequently.” She’s lounging in a plush chair in the corner of a hanger at Suffolk Executive Airport outside of Virginia Beach, VA. Her husband, pilot Andy Findlay, is seated next to me on the couch.
“Why would you want to go anywhere else besides the airport?” he retorts.
“I know. Look how awesome it is,” she says, dismissively. Behind us sits Findlay’s plane, a Lancair Legacy L2K, a single-prop racing plane that Findlay bought in 2010 and has put endless hours into. Around the garage, a handful of engineers clean things, tinker with electronics, rope in the two kids that wander around the airplane. There’s a whiteboard with plane performance goals. A flatscreen TV. Skateboards. GoPros. A handful of laptops. A fridge with sports drinks, water, beer. “We have a lot of fun,” Jackie adds. “It’s a good group.”
The group is Team One Moment Racing, a collection of, primarily, engineers who work at nearby STIHL for their 9 to 5, then tinker with airplanes in the evenings and on the weekends. Team One Moment races in the Reno National Championship Air Races, at the Sport Class, Gold level. Sport Class planes can reach speeds up to 400 mph (Findlay’s current top speed is 368 mph), and complete a winding 6.37-mile course in about 90 seconds. They fly, when racing, about 50 feet above the ground. Many of the competitors in the class are enthusiasts with deep pockets, the likes of retired CEOs who have disposable income to support their racing habit. Sport class requires that the planes be “amateur-built aircraft,” per the Sport Class Air Racing Association eligibility requirements, so there are no major sponsorships, and race teams cannot influence the engineering of their planes. The engines must be “internal combustion engine or engines totaling no more than 1,000 cubic inches” and capable of 200 mph. Beyond that, the class is open to a team’s creativity and ingenuity.
The Reno race happens annually, in September, with four days of racing. It started in 1964, and attracts around 75,000 spectators. It’s the primary competition for these planes, and teams work year-round preparing for the event.
“It’s the last true motor sport,” Findlay tells me. “Aviation racing is the ultimate of everything. It’s the ultimate of engineering challenge; it’s the ultimate of human challenge; it’s the ultimate of racing challenge.” And, it can all occur, in a “purist’s” motorsport sense, with normal, everyday people who like to go fast.
“It’s the ultimate of engineering challenge; it’s the ultimate of human challenge; it’s the ultimate of racing challenge.”
Findlay grew up in Idaho, racing snowmobiles and motorcycles. At the age of 15, he attended the Reno races with his father (a fan and a recreational pilot, but not a racer). The world aviation racing resonated, and from that point onward, it lingered as Findlay’s life goal. While gathering a few engineering degrees, he flew backcountry planes in Idaho (essentially, bush piloting). Then he landed a job at Bombardier Recreational Products and began working with engine development and calibration. He also spent time working for DeltaHawk Engines, in the aviation industry, and set his sights on buying his own plane. When he switched jobs to STIHL, where he now works as a test cell supervisor, he made the final steps to buy a plane — “I rented my house out, lived with a friend, and saved money,” he says — and in 2010, he bought “One Moment”. Then the full-time, off-hours tinkering began, and in 2013, he joined the Reno race and earned Rookie of the Year in his class; in 2014, he won the Airmanship Award. This year, the goal is to hit 400 mph and move up from his fifth-place finish in 2014.
To win, Findlay needs more power. “In the Gold class it’s about horsepower. That’s what it comes down to — just having the most engine.” To do that, he relies on people like Andre Prager and Eric Schmeiser, both engineers and coworkers, who work to maximize the engine’s efficiency and output. “The top guy, I think he’s running about 800 horsepower. We’ve got a ways to go. We’re only around 600 horsepower right now. So we’re going to turn that up a little more this year, more RPM, more water, methanol, more boost.”
The team also works on clever adjustments, like speed brakes, which they added last year and can help leverage the plane’s speed at the crucial start of a race. The brakes (which flip up on the wing and slow the plane down) allow the engine to run closer to full speed, without pushing the plane past a limited speed at the “rolling” start of each race. “So as soon as they say, ‘Gentlemen, you have a race,’ and the pace plane pulls up, I just clip the speed brakes off with my pinkie, and instantly shoot forward because everything’s ready to go, and just swoosh.”
When I fly along with Findlay, I feel the swoosh. We climb above Suffolk and do barrel rolls, pull Gs and rev the twin-turbo Lancair north of the 300 mph mark. Before pulling a loop, Findlay comes over the radio to advise me how to not pass out. Strategy is: clench all the muscles in your body, so the blood is constrained and won’t run south, out of the brain. I do as told, but still get lightheaded, a touch nauseous. Findlay hands over the controls as we’re heading back toward Suffolk, letting me navigate the plane with the copilot flight stick between my legs. He shows how to hold it, with the gentle touch of a thumb and two forefingers. The plane responds to minute movements, and is instantaneously responsive. Between the Gs pulling on the body (what amounts to a feeling of a weight bag being placed over your body) and the acute nature of the flight stick, it’s clear that these guys are under real stress when racing. Remaining calm is mandatory.
Back in the hangar, Findlay had talked about achieving “flow” while racing. It seemed a touch esoteric on the ground, but in the air, it’s easily understandable. “I’ve been reading a lot of books by Steven Kotler lately. The Rise of Superman was one. Those experiences that put you in flow, it takes you there. Racing especially, in Reno, you have to be so focused and so in the zone, because if you’re not you can’t do it. You’re going to get behind the airplane, you’re not going to be paying attention to everybody. So it’s pushing yourself to that limit where you’re in flow and you’re at the ultimate of human performance.”
“We’re watching Top Gun with Top Gun, working on airplanes. Like, this isn’t even real.”
That draw is understandable. And it’s enough to bring his wife — who, when they met, at Reno, naturally, worked on her father’s team’s plane — to the airport every weekend. It’s enough to bring a handful of colleagues to spend thousands of hours tinkering with a plane. It’s enough to move out of a house, rent it, save money. It’s enough to draw the respect of fighter pilots — Findlay said that over the winter he had a couple friends who are pilots based at nearby Langley Air Force Base, helping out with the plane. “And I’m like, let’s watch Top Gun. So we’re watching Top Gun with Top Gun, working on airplanes. Like, this isn’t even real.”
And for a test cell supervisor at a power tool company, it’s a nearly unreal opportunity to race at the ultimate level of speed and engineering. Findlay is a normal guy with a normal job and an unbelievably exceptional hobby. And I think that’s the best support for his claim that this is the “last true motor sport” — a place where enthusiasts, not million-dollar-backed teams, can come out and compete in a half-century-old race, testing out some of the finest avionics engineering. It’s a special segment of racing.
“You’re going 400 miles an hour, 50 feet off the ground and it just seems like you’re in slow motion,” Findlay says. “You’re just drifting around the corner, you’re feeling the plane, you’re trying to keep it light on the corner. You’re spotting the pylon that’s two miles ahead just working the plane like airtight coming around, checking the engine, checking the other planes that are all around you. And you just — it’s just flow. That’s what’s cool.”