Jay flew the F-14D Tomcat and F/A-18 C/D/Fs in the Navy. After leaving the service he has become an emerging figure in the rarified world of unlimited air racing. We take a few moments today to get to know Jay, his new ride Czech Mate, and the fascinating spectacle of the National Championship Air Races. This year’s races take place September 14-18. For more information and tickets, visit here.
Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for the Fighter Sweep community. I’d like to hear about how you ended up flying Czech Mate and how you became interested in the Reno Air Races.
Hey Paco. Sure thing. I’m stoked to give the Reno Air Races some good press! Maybe some go-fast fighter folks will decide that air racing might be a new fix for their adrenaline addiction…
I’ve never been to the races, though I plan on attending this year. Can you give the readers a sense of the event? How many times will you be flying in the course of the week? How many races? What is the competition like in the unlimited category in terms of aircraft?
The Reno Air Races – my analogy to describe the races is that it’s just like NASCAR, but at 50′ above the ground and more than twice the speed! It’s a once a year event, and the only one of its kind in the world. The Reno faithful travel from all over the world to both race and spectate.
So the races have been around for a long time. Ever since airplanes started to fly, fiercely competitive people in the aviation community had to figure out how to make them go faster. Of course they did, right?!
Back in the 1960’s and 70’s, air racing wasn’t a once a year deal. They had races all over the country. Probably only 5 or 6 of them, but an air race every two months is more than most race teams can handle. Surplus WWII fighters were accessible at fair prices – one could pick up a Mustang and a few spare engines for $30k! Now a Mustang is $1.5 Million, and a motor is $150,000. The barriers to entry have a lot more zeros behind them. But I digress.
The races and the race week goes like this: we have 6 classes – biplanes, formula one, sport, T-6, jet and Unlimited. Lots of cool airplanes in the same place. Early in the race week pilots fly some practice laps, some testing laps, and then make a couple of laps on the clock to qualify. Qualification speeds are what determine your starting position in the first race.
The course size varies for each class, but the Unlimiteds fly an 8 mile oval. The oval is marked by pylons – 50′ tall telephone poles with large white barrels affixed to the top of them. A racer needs to fly the whole course no lower than eye-level with the top of the pylon, 50′, no higher than 250′ above the ground, and just outside the pylon itself. The races can have up to 10 airplanes on the course at the same time. Race start is accomplished via a line abreast formation dive onto the course led by a pace plane. All racers maintain their line until the start pylon, and then it’s a race.
8 laps around an 8 mile course for the Unlimited Gold race winner usually takes around 8 mins – averaging nearly 500 mph. Not for the faint of heart, weak of stomach, or sloppy of pilot.
As a Gold racer, the fastest group in the class, I’ll fly one heat race on Friday and one on Saturday, and the championship race will be the final event on Sunday. Silver and Bronze racers will fly that same schedule, as well as a race on Thursday.
Competition is always tough. In the Unlimiteds we have three basic kinds of racers – stockers, super stock, and full blown racer. The stock airplanes are unmodified prop fighters. They run in the Bronze or Silver depending on the type. The super stock airplanes have some speed mods and an engine that they can run a little harder. They usually run in the top of the Silver or back of the Gold.
The all out racers are super modified airplanes, with engines that run to the absolutely edge of their operating limitations. All they want to do is win, even at the risk of blowing an engine.
Can you tell us a little of how you entered this world? You started your life as a pilot in the navy flying F-14s and F-18s, once that chapter was completed, what was the path to racing war birds?
So getting into Strega, now in Czech Mate, and the air races in general, is actually kind of a long story. My short version is still pretty long, so hang on. I was flying warbirds in SoCal back in 2008-9 when I was instructing in Hornets at Miramar. I had been given the incredible opportunity to fly an F4U-4 Corsair by a gentleman named Doug Matthews. He was a Naval Aviator back in the F4 Phantom years and he must have taken pity on this young guy who was only flying fighter jets…so he let me get in a real fighter – the Corsair. I always joke that jets are for kids… A prop fighter is a pilot’s airplane.
Anyway, I started flying up to Bakersfield, CA, to check on the progress of his P-51 Mustang that was being refurbed by a guy named LD Hughes. LD also happened to be the crew chief for two triple-fast Unlimited air race airplanes – Strega, a super race prepped P-51 Mustang that is now the winningest airplane in Reno Air Race history, and Czech Mate, a beast of a highly modified Russian Yak-11. I played nice with the crew up in Bako and they let me hang out a bunch. I wiped up oil, cleaned canopies, serviced the race planes with fuel and oil, standard new-guy jobs.
In 2010, Doug let me take his Corsair to Pylon Racing School, PRS. Coincidentally, I’m sitting in the back of a United RJ flying up to Reno for PRS as we type. PRS is a kick in the pants. Incredibly cool training. Back in the Nav we did plenty of low levels at 200′ and 500 knots, but blasting around an 8 mile oval at 50′ and 300 knots, in a prop fighter, passing and being passed by other prop fighters – man that’s a whole different deal.
I didn’t end up racing in 2010, but I kept close with the Bakersfield crew. After getting back from an 8 month hardship tour in Germany in 2011, I began processing out of active duty. I spent a few months working on the race planes up in Bakersfield and I was hooked. All we did was wrench on airplanes and talk about air racing.
I focused on crewing Strega, and I learned so much about the sport, the course, the history of the races, but more importantly, the systems of the airplane, what its like to fly it, how to race it, and the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of a single-mission racer mustang. Steven Hinton was flying Strega at the time. He’s a young guy who has been around warbirds all of his life. He grew up at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, CA, and is a brilliant and motivated guy who has incredible hands in any airplane. Learning about air racing, and Strega in particular, from Steven was another incredible opportunity and such a special deal for me.
The guys wanted a back-up pilot for the airplane and I fit the bill in all the categories that mattered, except that I didn’t have any stock Mustang time. 2011 came and went without any air race flying for me for that reason, but I was still happy to be on the crew.
I left active duty at the end of ’11 and moved from CA to Midland, TX. I kept in touch with my buds in Bakersfield, visited every once in a while, and always saw them at the races each September. I spent a lot of time flying warbirds for fun, as well as doing some instructing in them. Via that route, I met a buddy in Texas who I flew with a ton and got a lot of stock Mustang time with.
Fast forward to October of 2015. Strega had just won again, piloted by a fellow Naval Aviator – Hoot Gibson. He had been racing at Reno for years and finally got the win. Such a cool deal. Anyway, LD called me up and asked me if I was ready to get in the seat and run the Red Rocket (Strega). They wanted to give a young guy a shot at the title and they felt like I was a good fit. Clearly my answer was “I was born ready!”
I understand that you were slated to pilot the world famous Strega at this year’s races, how did you come to be flying Czech Mate instead?
Yeah that’s right. I flew Strega a bunch after I got the call in October. What an incredible machine! Purpose built for racing – and that’s really the one thing it’s best at. Under race power, at race speed, that airplane is a laser beam around the race course. Every time I fly her I am reminded of that fact, and ever time I fly her I am honored to be sitting in that seat.
Strega isn’t racing this year due to a whole lot of reasons. The effort, time, money, luck, and equipment all have to fall into place on a set timeline, and that didn’t happen this year.
The owner of Czech Mate had seen me fly Strega a bunch over a handful of months and he liked the way I handled the airplane. He wanted to race, LD wanted to run the airplane, and LD supported me flying the airplane. LD and I are a good team. We communicate well, and we respect each other. Without a bro like LD pushing for me, I wouldn’t be in the seat.
LD and I spoke with Tiger, Strega’s owner, about the plans for this year. He let us know that the airplane wasn’t going to make it, and gave us a high five and told us to go run the guts out of the Yak, so that’s what we are doing.
Can you give us a sense of the history and technical aspects of Czech Mate?
Czech Mate started her life in the 50’s as a Czech-built advanced fighter-trainer. She was fitted with an 800 horsepower Russian radial engine, had two seats, and was a stout trainer and impressive performer in her day.
Her new life as a racer started in the 80’s when a group got together and put a plan in place to make her a screamer around the race course. One seat was removed, the cockpit slid aft in the fuselage, the 800hp engine and prop combo was removed in favor of a nearly 2800hp Pratt & Whitney R2800, along with a giant prop to harness all of that power. Due to the size of the propellor and the stance of the airplane, she can only be taken off and landed in a three-point attitude lest you want to give the prop a fresh grind on the tips.
The airplane has been made to go faster and faster over the years, with very good reliability. She runs in the top of the Gold consistently, with a bunch of podium finishes to her name. The Yak has never won the whole deal, but she always goes fast, and the crew always has a good time.
What’s she like to fly? Can you compare her to anything else in your past?
So I can’t actually answer that question yet because I haven’t flown her. For my part, it has taken some time to get the appropriate paperwork in place, and for the airplane’s part, she has required a little bit of special care and feeding to get back to race shape.
From what I have learned from Sherman Smoot, another former Naval Aviator (there’s a trend here…), the airplane is a handful in the take off and landing phases of flight, but up and away she’s a great flyer with power for days and nice controls. Sherm has flown her exclusively for the past 15 years. I’m stoked to receive the instruction that he has/will give me. Priceless gouge right there.
Can you describe the practice regimen leading up to the races?
Sure. Timing has been a big part of the deal this year. And timing was great. I wonder how it would have all played out had I been given the shot a few years back…
This year, I am in a position with my business where I can take time off every month to dedicate myself to this race plane, this crew, and learning the fundamentals of air racing. I have done that and will continue to do so all the way through the races in September.
The training syllabus has been a pretty thorough one. LD and I talk about the machine all the time. He is a Warbird pilot himself and has given me an incredible amount of guidance in my training.
From a flyer’s perspective, the most important part of learning to race is learning muscle memory in the airplane. It’s like back in primary, blindfolded cockpit drills, fingers pointing to instruments and hands falling on levers and switches is number one. Basic Ops like start, taxi, runup and takeoff have to be dialed in. Airwork, engine and systems management, and just plain old coordinated flight has to be executed without hesitation – there isn’t a whole lot of time to do anything but fly at 50′. And every landing is a simulated MayDay. We have to plan on that motor going away every flight, so we train to that.
I fly down the runway at a high power setting and high speed. At the departure end numbers I start my climbing pull into the overhead and reduce power back to idle. The rest of the approach is flown utilizing drag devices and angles…and LD is my biggest critic. Truth be told, I’m more on edge waiting for my landing debrief from LD than I ever was waiting for Paddles (Navy carrier Landing Signals Officers who grade every carrier landing.)
What is the support crew like for an undertaking like the Reno races? Do you get to turn any wrenches yourself?
You gotta realize that hardcore Unlimited Air Racers live for air racing. When I am in Bakersfield, I crash at LDs house. We eat sleep and drink air racing. If we aren’t talking about how to get around the course in the future, we are talking about how it’s been done in the past – right/wrong/and even dead. Thing is, when I leave to go back to my business in Texas, the hardcore air racers keep working. Systems are tweaked, airframe is cleaned up, pumps, lines, tanks, all overhauled. The work never stops.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the race doesn’t happen without the crew, and especially the crew chief. I’m lucky to have the best one out there as far as I am concerned. Every time I climb up and into the seat, I know for a fact that the airplane is ready to fly. That confidence goes a long way when you are flying high performance and high demand airplanes like these.
Oh, and I do turn wrenches, but only the ones I’m told to.
Anything else you think the community would find interesting?
Yeah, lots! But I’ve gone on long enough for one day. I’m sure we’ll talk about it in future conversations. We gotta keep folks coming back for more!
We look forward to following your progress through the summer and during the races themselves.
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